Multilingualism essential for EU's democratic legitimacy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Mar 12 14:00:05 UTC 2006

Jan Figel
Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Training,
Culture and Multilingualism

Multilingualism is essential for the Unions democratic legitimacy

SCIC Universities Conference
Brussels, 10 March 2006

Multilingualism is essential for the Unions democratic legitimacy

SCIC Universities Conference Brussels, 10 March 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by welcoming you all once again to Brussels and to the
Commission. I had the pleasure of meeting you last year, but this years
conference is rather a special event, and I am very happy that I have been
invited to speak to you once more. Today is the tenth time the
SCIC-Universities conference is being held.  That is quite a striking
number. I hear also that each year more and more people from many parts of
the world want to attend. In my view this proves clearly that there is a
real need for this sort of forum for exchanges and networking. It suggests
to me also that this is a sector where things happen, where new
developments are taking place and where new challenges have to be met. And
people want to deal with those problems at an international level, which
seems only natural in what is by definition an international profession.

So hats off to DG Interpretation for taking the initiative at the time and
for keeping the fire burning. I hope todays conference will be as
successful as the previous ones. As I looked back over the subject of
recent editions, I noticed that multilingualism figures prominently in
various titles, for instance in 2000 and in 2003. Now, three years later
again, we have a new strategy for multilingualism.  Coincidence? I think
not. In fact I come to another reason why it gives me pleasure to be here
with you once more. The title of the conference is also the title of a
Communication that was adopted by the Commission on 22nd November of last
year. It is a very comprehensive document, the first ever Commission
communication on the subject and for the very first time multilingualism
is defined as a policy in its own right. I believe this makes perfectly
clear the importance we attach to this policy within the Institutions, not
least after enlargement.

You should see in this a recognition of the fact that multilingualism is
very central to our European values. Language identifies each of us, but
at the same time connects us with our own culture. This is an important
consideration in the age of globalisation. With its population of 500
million, 80 or so original European languages and the languages of the
many immigrants, Europe possesses this enormous capital, this fantastic
diversity that must be safeguarded. The three sections in the
communication look at multilingualism in our societies, in the economy and
in the Institutions respectively.

The Commission undertakes to do three

to encourage all citizens to learn and speak several languages, which
should promote better understanding and communication,
to highlight and promote the role of languages and of multilingualism in
the European economic area,
To preserve and protect multilingualism in the European Institutions. Our
interpreters and translators will go on contributing to helping the Union
and its citizens communicate with each other.
I want to concentrate on the first area, society, but let me briefly look
at the other two areas.

The economic aspects of language are impressive. We all know that good
language skills make for greater mobility and so for better employment
prospects. The size of the so-called language industry is considerable. It
doesnt only cover language classes, but a wide range of multilingual
services, e.g. tourism, translation, interpreting. On the institutional
front, there is our commitment to multilingualism that is essential for
the Unions democratic legitimacy and the transparency of its decisions
.Various practical initiatives by the Commission are announced in the
communication. Let me single out for your attention the commitment to go
on supporting interpreter training programmes, and translator training,
and to develop distance learning tools.

But let us come now to our multilingual society.

It is our belief that, and I quote the Communication, the ability to
communicate in more than one language ... is a desirable life-skill for
all European citizens. As you know, we have set ourselves the target of
mother tongue + two other languages. Where do we stand today? Last months
Eurobarometer Europeans and their languages makes interesting reading. The
interviews were carried out in November and December of last year.

Let me give you some facts that emerge. 56% of citizens in EU Member
States are able to hold a conversation in one language apart from their
mother tongue, and 28% state that they can manage this in two foreign
languages. There are of course wide variations from one country to another
and 44% dont know any other language than their mother tongue. In 6 Member
States a majority of citizens, up to 66 % in one case, belong to that last
group. English emerges clearly as the most widely used language in the EU.
51% speak it either as mother tongue or as a foreign language.

Not only are language skills distributed unevenly in geographical terms,
there are differences between socio-demographic groups. The typical
multilingual European is likely to be young, well-educated or still
studying, born in a country other than the country of residence, who uses
foreign languages for professional reasons and is motivated to learn. All
this suggests that a large part of European society is not enjoying the
advantages of multilingualism. And theyre not terribly motivated to do
anything about it, it would seem, through lack of time, or of motivation,
or because of the cost. And when people do decide to learn a language,
they do so for the expected practical benefits. 35% learn a language to
use on holiday abroad, 32% for work.

You could argue of course that the motive isnt that important and that
language knowledge will inevitably be used for other purposes too. On the
other hand, 83% of citizens agree that knowing several languages is an
advantage. More than two thirds even think that language teaching should
be a political priority. Finally, Europeans learn languages at school,
particularly secondary school. Many of us seem only to learn foreign
languages at school in fact.  And three quarters of us are convinced that
young people really do need to learn foreign languages, and that they
should start as early as possible.

Our option for mother tongue + TWO languages wasnt such a bad idea as we
see that foreign language learning in the minds of many equals learning
English. That is fine in itself but not enough and too one-sided. I would
very much welcome your views on a number of points we make in the text
regarding some key areas where we feel more progress is needed and indeed
on any other aspects where you think the universities , and in particular
linguists and linguistics could make a contribution.

Apart from motivation and cost, what determines the attractiveness and the
success of language teaching is the quality of the teaching. The curricula
and the structures for training the teachers need to be in line with the
new demands about essential language skills. I mentioned the language
industry which needs people who can produce those multilingual services,
often on-line services. The Commissions aim is having a common core of
competencies and values for language teachers in Europe drawn up. We
welcome debate on this as our aim is to issue a Recommendation. And we are
inviting member states to review university training programmes to make
sure graduates acquire the right skills.

Some universities already offer specialisations in the language industries
that aim to prepare them for jobs in the evolving language professions and
language technologies.

In the specific fields of interpreting and translation, technological
developments and new demand for new services will no doubt also lead to
new methods and disciplines being taught. I believe this afternoon you
will get a small illustration of novelties in interpreting.

If we want people to be really multilingual we must start teaching them
languages from an early age. You need specially trained teachers for that.
That again may be an area where universities can provide the training and
the research into the most appropriate training methods and materials. The
first Council resolution on early language teaching dates back to December

And then there is content and language integrated learning which is seen
in many cases as a very suitable method for providing exposure to foreign
languages. Here too we want to exchange scientific know-how and
information on practice and teacher training.

But as you could imagine, the Commission is looking beyond language
teaching. We feel that higher education institutions should be encouraged
to play a more active role in promoting multilingualism.

Shortly we will also be taking a look at the growing trend in non-English
speaking countries to give lectures in English rather the in the local
languages. We fear this may have an impact on the vitality of those

Another idea we have is the setting up of networks of chairs in studies
related to multilingualism and inter-culturalism, somewhat like the Jean
Monnet chairs.

I don know if youre all familiar with this but the EU research programmes
also address multilingualism , to the tune of some 20 million per year, in
the field of technological research, particularly translation technology,
and in the social sciences through research into language issues in
relation with for instance social exclusion , identity, cross-cultural
understanding etc. I have a feeling that these are domains where there are
very topical issues to be addressed these days. I can only encourage
universities to come forward with interesting projects for the 7th
Framework research programme as we are keen to develop this work.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I believe that all this makes it abundantly clear that in the Commission
we take multilingualism seriously and as the first Commissioner to be
entrusted with this portfolio I intend to make a go of this. It is no
coincidence of course that in my portfolio I also have interpreting,
translation and education and culture because those are the sectors where
initiatives have to be taken first and foremost and developments fostered
to ensure that multilingualism may flourish.

I have briefly outlined a number of areas where we believe progress can
and needs to be made. But not just by officials in offices in Brussels. We
need the input from the academics, the researchers, and the people in the
field. In other words, you all.

This communication is intended to start a debate and consultation process
that will result in a second communication later on.

Now is as good a time as any to start that debate. I look forward to
hearing your questions and comments.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.

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