"Towards a lingua franca of the Mediterranean? Multilingualism in Europe"

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Sep 15 12:40:37 UTC 2007

Leonard Orban European Commissioner responsible for Multilingualism

"Towards a lingua franca of the Mediterranean? Multilingualism in Europe"
Lectio Magistralis for the XIII International Summer School
Gorizia, 14 September 2007
Source : Commission Européenne (europa.eu.int) - Actualité publiée le
14/09/07 à 18:03

Lectio Magistralis for the XIII International Summer School
Gorizia, 14 September 2007

Ladies and Gentleman,

It is with great pleasure that I accepted your invitation to present
Europe's policy on multilingualism here in Gorizia.  Gorizia is a
special place in Europe. This is where the European Commission
President, Romano Prodi, chose to be, on the eve of Europe's
enlargement in 2004, to see the final dismantling of the iron curtain
that had sundered Europe for too long. That curtain has been
definitively torn away, to display a new Europe, where the old
external borders have fallen into insignificance. This is the new
Europe you have been turning your minds to these last ten days. You
have been engaging in debate on geopolitics, on the way Mediterranean
countries play a role in the European Union and vis-à-vis our
neighbours on the southern Mediterranean borders.

This last day is dedicated to languages and culture. I can only
congratulate the organisers for such programming: languages are part
of our innermost identity and pervade every aspect of our lives, from
the geopolitical to the cultural. As for the title the organizers
chose for my intervention – "towards a lingua franca of the
Mediterranean?" – it is so provocative that it allows me to go
straight to the core of European policy on multilingualism.

Without overlooking a series of remarks though. A first administrative
one, so to say. Promoting lingua franca is intrinsically against the
Commission mandate: promoting linguistic diversity.

Having said that, I can't help not giving it a thought, to this
fascinating question.

The history teaches us that peoples that live in the Mediterranean
basin have known and used – in different times – several communication
languages: the language of Phoenicians, Greek, Latin, Arabic, English,

I don't have an answer. I can only notice that some of the
communication languages in the past – brought up and promoted during
the centuries by one or the other political or economic power – could
not impose itself, but when adopted by the tradesmen, travellers,
scientists. So to say, a lingua franca is born when people find a
sense to it. It is the people who decide this. Whether the authorities
like this or not.

When it comes to the European Union, its task is not to favour or
combat the communication languages: its task is, as an institution
based on the defence of democracy, protection of the present
linguistic environment, to consolidate each citizen's right to
communicate and make oneself understood in his or her mother tongue.

The European Union is founded on the principle of unity in diversity:
embracing a wide variety of cultures, customs, beliefs – and
languages. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union
respects cultural, religious and linguistic diversity. The Berlin
Declaration itself confirms the enriching nature of a lively veriety
of languages, cultures and regions, underlining the undenyable
multilingual character of Europe. It is this diversity that makes the
European Union what it is. It is not a "melting pot" in which
differences are suppressed. It is a common home where we celebrate
diversity, and where our many mother tongues are a source of wealth
and a bridge to greater solidarity and mutual understanding.

Languages at the heart of Europe

Languages cut to the heart of the key debates in Europe today –
identity, inclusion and intercultural dialogue in Europe;
competitiveness and skills for the Europe of knowledge; citizen
confidence and European accountability.

And since languages are an inseparable element in what makes us who we
are, language policy intertwines with very many policy areas – not
just education, competitiveness, inclusion; but also justice;
migration; regional policy, for example.

If our policies are to stay the course, and meet the citizens' needs,
we must never overlook the language dimension, whether we are acting
on a local scale, regionally, nationally or Europe-wide.

As the first commissioner with a portfolio dedicated to
multilingualism, I want to weld together what Europe is doing in the
realm of languages, to build a fully comprehensive strategy for
multilingualism that I will implement, with Member States, throughout
my mandate.

Multilingualism in the European context

A key objective for education in Europe is improving language skills,
as part of the drive to ensure that Europe's citizens are equipped to
thrive in the knowledge society in which we live today. In 2002 in
Barcelona, European leaders set the ambitious target of teaching
"mother tongue plus two languages" at school.

Why should it not be enough to speak English instead of trying to
maintain this 'Babel' of 23 official languages? – I am often asked by
various lobbies and individuals. Let me answer with a simple
comparison. A common language is like a small suitcase, which will
keep you going for a two- or three-day trip to another country. But if
you want to stay longer in another country - study, work, make friends
and participate in daily life - you will need a more complete set of
luggage, which will have to include a command of the language of the

The role of the EU here is complementary to that of Member States.
English is studied by the vast majority of students in Europe, it is
considered by most countries as a basic skill, like digital literacy.
We need to go a step further and help Member States in making their
citizens multilingual. We should start by valuing people who master
several languages - they often come from migrant or minority groups;
we should build on this to show that multilingualism is a reality in
Europe, one which is both possible and desirable.

Let us remember, education and training are a matter for national
policy. But the challenges and issues facing each country are often
similar, especially in our globalised world, where no country is big
enough to go it alone. Exchanging ideas and good practices, and
setting common policy objectives at European level, pays off.

All European countries are tackling reforms in education and training,
to provide our citizens with the skills and competences they need in
the knowledge society. Last year, they identified language skills as
one of the basic skills everyone should have.

Later this month I will publish the results of an Action Plan for
languages that the Commission initiated in 2004. Three years on, we
are seeing results: European countries are reforming their language
policies, reviewing their educational systems so as to forge a
lifelong learning approach to languages; introducing language learning
from a much earlier stage; and putting more resources into languages.

However, language learning doesn't only occur at school and it is not
meant just for young people: it is a lifelong project, in which adults
must also have a chance to take part, with learning tailored to their
individual situations, making the most of informal ways of learning,
new technologies and work-place training. Our new strategy will
embrace all learners, at all stages.

A new strategy: competitiveness and skills, intercultural dialogue and
inclusion, communication with citizens

Ladies and gentlemen, I want now to turn to my ambitions for this new
strategy which I will launch in the second half of 2008. I will also
point to some key events that will prepare the way for a conference
with ministers next February, where we will discuss and harmonise our
goals and actions with Member States.

This strategy will emphasise three key areas, rooted in active
language-learning for all:

Employability and economic competitiveness,
Intercultural dialogue,
Participation in European politics.
Languages and business

Languages are a key force in our economy. At first sight a single
language might seem easier for managing business, but there is a way
we can turn our linguistic diversity into a competitive advantage.

How? Economic activity in Europe has shifted from brawn to brains; we
need creative, innovative, flexible citizens. Being able to
communicate in several languages is like having several pairs of
glasses through which you can look at reality. Organisations and
individuals that have this capacity are more creative and tend to
break cultural stereotypes, to think "out of the box" and develop
innovative products and services.

As well as this spirit of creativity and innovation, companies that
can communicate in several languages have an edge in business for
other reasons.

I am reminded of a Japanese businessman who was asked, what is the
best language to do business in? His response, of course, was 'my
customer's language'. Languages mean you can do business around the
world, adapting your offer and making the most of the opportunities.
Languages give access to the widest range of information on market
conditions and customers' habits, whether in Europe or abroad.

But European companies are failing to make the most of our language
skills. I published a study earlier this year that showed that 11% of
Europe's small and medium-sized businesses reckoned they had lost
business because they didn't have the right language skills.

Our strategy will address this gap. We need to strengthen our language
competences, so that individuals have the language skills to succeed
on the labour market, and so that companies overcome linguistic
barriers and take full advantage of the single market and in trade
with the rest of the world.

Next week I'm holding a conference where the business sector and
language specialists will assess how education systems meet the
language needs of professional life and will exchange ideas and good
practice about targeted use of languages for boosting companies'
performance. I'm also setting up a Business Forum with several
renowned business leaders, who will make further recommendations about
good language strategies.

Languages in the dialogue of cultures

The languages we speak are an inseparable part of who we are. They are
how we construct our culture, our thoughts, our world-view. They
define us as individuals, but also as part of a community. Learning
languages, understanding other languages, builds bridges between
people, between communities and cultures. Of course, speaking
someone's languages doesn't mean we solve all our problems. But it is
a window, a way of appreciating that another point of view, another
perspective, exists. And that's an essential starting point to
understanding each other better.

Today's Europe of 27 is truly intercultural, truly diverse. This
diversity is not a threat: it's an opportunity to be curious, to
learn, to confront, to appreciate. But it is not necessarily a
comfortable experience for everyone. We need to develop our
intercultural skills, to promote dialogue between cultures and
individuals. Next year we are going to celebrate the European Year of
Intercultural Dialogue. I consider it essential to place languages at
the heart of social cohesion policy, which the Year should help to

I have called together a group of well-known European cultural
personalities –writers, linguists, philosophers, sociologists- to
reflect on how languages can promote intercultural dialogue and mutual
understanding within the EU.

Our long-term strategy will consider the many ways that languages can
make for inclusive societies, for an inclusive Europe. We will spread
best practices in using languages to integrate migrants in the country
where they are living. We will promote the use of the structural funds
to boost language skills, for example in border regions such as where
we are today.

Dialogue with citizens

Languages are also crucial in how the European Union relates to its
citizens. The European Union was not created as a superpower, but as
an additional layer of governance whose legitimacy, democracy and
efficiency depends on its ability to communicate with European
citizens in their own languages. Therefore we translate legislation
and key documents into all official languages designated by Member

The European project needs its citizens' support in order to thrive.
To be able to commit their support, citizens need to be able to
understand the laws that apply to them, but also to take an active
part in the policy making process.

This means that EU websites and publications must be made available in
a growing number of languages. Also, that citizens should be able to
reply to consultations in their own language.

This has become an even tougher challenge after the enlargements of
2004 and 2007, bringing the number of official European languages to

Nonetheless, this linguistic regime means citizens can address the
European Commission and access relevant information in their national
languages. The cost of this from the EU budget? It works out at about
2 euros per citizen – about two cups of coffee per year.

This is money well spent: a European space of political debate, where
citizens can make their voices heard, needs to be built on a firm
framework of multilingualism. This is the third pillar of my strategy:
reinforcing a credible dialogue with citizens.


Ladies and gentlemen,

According to a recent European survey, for six out of ten citizens,
languages are among the first reasons why they would not communicate
with the EU and thus not take part in EU-level politics. I want to see
the language-learning habit spreading across Europe, lifting this
barrier, and leading us towards a society truly united in diversity. A
society that seizes the opportunities languages bring in creating a
Europe of knowledge. Your participation in this seminar makes me
believe that you share this commitment and that I may count on you for
helping the Union achieve its fundamental goals.

But it is not only ministers and high-level stakeholders whose ideas I
wish to consider. As of tomorrow, I invite every citizen interested in
the roles and future of languages in Europe to share their
expectations and views with us through a public internet consultation
open till mid-November this year.

I warmly encourage you to participate: it is a capital way to shape
together the policies governing our society. The Consultation will be
published on the multingualism website of the Commission.

The European Union was called into being to unite peoples, not just
economies. Its success is inconceivable without the support of its
citizens for its values and objectives, and its commitment to peace
and prosperity in the wider world. Respect for the individual,
openness towards other cultures, tolerance and acceptance of others
and respect for linguistic diversity - these are the core values of
the European Union. Multilingualism is at the heart of these values,
and at the heart of the European project.

Thank you.

Source : Commission Européenne (europa.eu.int)

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