Europe: Commission looks at language skills to boost EU 'prosperity'

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Sep 15 12:58:26 UTC 2008

Commission looks at language skills to boost EU 'prosperity'

Published: Monday 15 September 2008

The European Commission will present a new EU languages strategy on 18
September, emphasising the importance of language skills in addressing
challenges as diverse as globalisation and increased mobility and

Back in July, European business leaders released a report warning that
EU industry is at risk of losing competitiveness as other countries
start outperforming the bloc in terms of language skills (EurActiv

Their report complements an earlier one from the High Level Group on
Multilingualism chaired by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, which urged
EU citizens to learn a second, 'personal adoptive' foreign language
alongside one acquired for professional reasons (EurActiv 31/01/08).

The findings of both reports are expected to feed into the
Commission's communication on multilingualism, due out this week.

The Commission communication, details of which have been seen by
EurActiv, will be launched by Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard
Orban on Thursday. Entitled 'Multilingualism: an asset for Europe and
a shared commitment,' it will stress the importance of language skills
in helping to improve the Union's social cohesion and prosperity in
the context of the Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs. Moreover,
given that 2008 was designated European Year of Intercultural
Dialogue, it will highlight the role of languages in removing barriers
to interaction between cultures.

Speaking at a public debate on multilingualism policy on 10 September,
the EU commissioner responsible for the dossier, Leonard Orban,
described the upcoming communication as a "comprehensive package" to
promote the "social cohesion and prosperity" of the bloc. But as yet
it remains unclear whether any extra resources will be made available
to implement the Commission's proposals. Indeed, education remains a
national competence, leading some to question the effectiveness of
measures taken at EU level. Abram de Swaan, a professor of social
science at the University of Amsterdam, told the public debate that
much more than "high-faluting noble words" would be required to
realise the commissioner's goals.

According to Orban, the strategy will encourage EU citizens to learn
two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue, in
accordance with the goal endorsed by leaders at their Barcelona
meeting in 2002. It suggests that learning a second, 'personal
adoptive' foreign language alongside one acquired for professional
reasons as proposed by the Maalouf report could be one way of
achieving this.

Languages for employability

The role of language skills in increasing the Union's prosperity
stands at the forefront of Orban's proposals. Recognising the
increasing importance of emerging markets for EU companies, the
communication stresses the need for workforces to have knowledge of
the language of the regions in which they operate. The communication
also highlights the role language skills can play in improving the
employability of citizens. It calls on EU countries to do more to
promote study and work exchanges abroad, as well as and e-partnership

In France, Education Minister Xavier Darcos recently unveiled plans to
offer free English lessons to students during school holidays,
describing failure to speak the language fluently as a handicap in
today's world (EurActiv 04/09/08). Language learning is a lifelong
process, the communication stresses, calling on vocational and adult
education to do more to promote it. It also says more effort should be
made to offer a wider variety of languages, and calls for more teacher
exchanges to take place to enhance their own fluency.

The text will also highlight the potential to better exploit EU
languages abroad and non-EU languages within the bloc itself.

Asked during the public debate whether he envisaged adding new tongues
to the official working languages of the EU, which are currently
English, French and German, Orban said the next Commission would
decide on this in November 2009. An overall review of EU
multilingualism policy will take place in 2012.

Describing language diversity as "a source of wealth" for Europe, EU
Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban told a public hearing on 10
September that "languages are the most effective tool to promote
intercultural dialogue". Outlining the case for language learning, he
warned that mutual incomprehension can act as "a barrier to exchange
between cultures" and "lead to misunderstanding and conflict".

Explaining the reasoning behind the 'personal adoptive language'
concept, Sandra Pralong, a member of the High Level Group of
Intellectuals on Multilingualism, outlined her vision of "a patchwork
of bilateral relations stitching Europe together," whereby pockets of
citizens in each country would learn different languages until all the
bloc's tongues are covered, eliminating the need for a common third
one such as English or French.

According to British Socialist MEP Claude Moraes, who is actively
involved in racial equality issues, promoting multilingual Europe is
the key to maintaining the continent's cultural diversity while at the
same time giving citizens a sense of respect and common belonging in a
confident EU.

But "languages are a huge issue, going beyond Brussels village talk of
translation expenses" to encroach upon issues of integration and
identity. Thus the multilingualism debate "will always remain
emotional," he says, as languages are "impossible to disentangle from
history and culture".

Emeritus Research Professor for Social Sciences Abram de Swaan of the
University of Amsterdam is critical of the EU's tendency to promote
"noble aims" that are difficult to achieve in practice. Moreover, the
bloc's language diversity makes it difficult to create a common
European public space, he said. "The more languages we encourage, the
more English will prevail," he claimed, due to what he termed "the
interference of reality".

Instead, two or three cross-border languages should to be employed in
the EU rather than all 23, argues de Swaan. But all politicians should
have the right to speak their own language and all the bloc's tongues
should be spoken publicly by top EU officials to raise awareness of
Europe's linguistic diversity, he argues.

Next steps:
18 Sept. 2008: Commission to present communication on multilingualism.
2012: Commission to carry out global review of multilingualism policy.

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