European Day of Languages: Multilingual Europe becomes increasingly Anglophone

, by Jérôme Flury, Théo Boucart, translated by Abi Wyatt

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

European Day of Languages: Multilingual Europe becomes increasingly Anglophone
Today, English is spoken as a native or second language by only 33% of EU citizens, according to the GEM+, an association advocating for multilingualism. Photo: Pixabay / Free-Photos

In this month’s edition of the European Magnifying Glass, we explore the big cultural events which fill the European calendar. This article focuses on the European Day of Languages which takes place on 26th September. Whilst the European Council and the European Union clearly assert their multilingualism, it has to be said that European integration increasingly favours English.

Lingua, limbă, Sprache... Every year on 26th September, Europe celebrates its Day of Languages, established by the Council of Europe for the first time in 2001 during the European Year of Language. This occasion, dedicated to such a profound marker of regional and national identity, was conceived as a celebration of transcending one’s own national identity, making multilingualism a shared wealth and bridge between European cultures. A dedicated website offers activities and information in 37 different languages.

Europe regularly defines itself as the continent of radiant diversity which inspired the EU motto “united in diversity”. “Since Bulgaria’s accession in 2007, there are 3 official alphabets in the European Union: Cyrillic, Latin and Greek” writes Ouest-France. 3 alphabets, 24 official languages and thousands of dialects within EU territory. One of the Council of Europe’s stated objectives for this commemorative day on 26th September is “to raise awareness among the general public of the importance of language learning and preserving linguistic heritage.”

In France, France Education International , formerly known as the International Centre for Pedagogical Studies (CIEP), has taken the reins for this event. France also boasts another project with similar objectives, although its target audience is more academic: Modern Languages Week, which celebrated its 5th anniversary in May 2020.

Europe, the King of Multilingualism?

The matter of teaching and practising foreign languages is crucial, especially in the case of Europe. “Translation is the language of Europe” as Umberto Eco once said.

What is certain is that the continent is in a unique position with regard to linguistic diversity: on the one hand, it is the continent whose linguistic richness is by far the weakest. According to Laval University in Quebec, the Old Continent was home to 287 languages in 2016, compared to 2296 in Asia, 2139 in Africa, 1313 in Oceania and 1062 in America. By way of a particularly telling comparison, Papua New Guinea has three times as many languages as Europe with a population that is 100 times smaller.

On the other hand, the legislative arsenal protecting multilingualism in Europe is unrivalled with that of other continents. The European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages is the most important text. This treaty put forward by the Council of Europe in 1992 is not, however, legally binding and only 25 member states had signed and ratified it by 2017 (France signed it but did not ratify it, following the example of Italy and Russia, two other countries with remarkable linguistic diversity).On the European Union side, multilingualism is highlighted by the 24 official languages of the European institutions: every piece of legislation must, therefore, be translated in these languages, even if the three main working languages remain English, French and German, the former being the increasingly dominant in Brussels.

The EU is far from unanimous on Anglicisation

English dominates exchanges within the European institutions. Brexit, which has brought about the UK’s departure from the EU, has not overturned these linguistic practices. Serge Levenheck, a translator for European Parliament, had already predicted in April 2019 that “British English will lose its place but will remain an official language in Ireland and Malta. English will continue to be widely used as a technical language by interpreters but there will be no abrupt changes. I think the most likely evolution will be towards a more genuine multilingualism in the working languages.”

Almost a year and a half later, on 16th September 2020, Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the European Union address did not go unnoticed. Jean Quatremer, from the French newspaper Libération , spoke of the “triumph of English” and took offence at the speech conducted almost entirely in English contrary to “custom and common sense”, according to the journalist. “If we refer to the number of words spoken by von der Leyen, 81% of her speech was in English, 12% in German and only 7% in French” reported Politico.

Other countries have also reacted. Jean-Luc Laffineur, President of GEM+, an association promoting multilingualism , expressed his opinion in the columns of the Belgian newspaper, La Libre. The speech was “a very bad sign” in his view. So much so that the French section of the Association of European Journalists wished to write a letter to the President of the European Commission to warn her against the overly exclusive use of English too in certain tasks, for example, the recent communiqué on the Pact on Migration and Asylum. “It should be remembered that the use of several languages is not only a legal obligation under the Treaties, but also has a valuable and practical impact” the association stressed in its letter.

Beyond political considerations, modern languages give concrete and practical contributions. A survey carried out by the Council of Europe has shown that the top three answers given by Europeans in response to the question “Why did you decide to learn other languages?” were: for a professional career, to discover another culture or simply to make friends. There’s no right answer to the question but there are indeed many reasons for discovering other languages and thus, other cultures.

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