DOC - Europa

Leonard Orban
Commissioner responsible for multilingualism
"Why and where do languages matter?
Towards a comprehensive strategy for
Ministerial Conference on "Promoting Multilingualism: a shared
Brussels, 15 February 2008
Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
Minister Zver, thank you, Mrs Batzeli, thank you for bringing us Parliament's views
on languages and helping us frame our work.
Before welcoming our other speakers, I want to reflect briefly on the question I
consider holds the key to the multi-layered issue of languages in today's Europe:
Why and where do languages matter for Europe?
The answer is written on the foundation stone of the Union: in our shared
determination to create a Europe where our citizens live peacefully and in prosperity
We can look at the entire process of European integration as a sequence of steps,
big and small, bringing citizens closer to each other: free movement of workers, of
students and families; the internal market; creating a European space for education,
research and innovation; enlargements to the west, the south, the north, the east
The result? European citizens are now more mobile than ever, able to plan their
lives and careers on a European scale.
If we add to this picture the migration flows from third countries and the effects of
globalisation, we easily grasp why our societies are becoming more multilingual, on
an everyday basis. Not only in smaller countries, in border regions, or where
minorities live: in every street in Europe, in cities and in villages, you can hear
several languages spoken; and this trend will continue.
50 years ago, Europe concentrated hard on rebuilding – physically, and politically.
We have still not finished. Today, we must build a Europe that can respond flexibly,
imaginatively and effectively to an era of knowledge. To a world of rapid
communication, of multiple communities, and – most challengingly, where we must
work hard to close the skills and innovation gap with our competitors.
Investment in skills and skills upgrading are crucial factors for growth and jobs, and
language skills are a crucial part of the deal.
Let me reformulate my question:
What can we do so that our citizens can take advantage of the European space we
have created? What can we do to make languages a bridge and not a barrier in our
immediate environment?
First, enabling our citizens to take advantage of the European space:
Surveys show that lack of adequate language skills is the main obstacle which
holds citizens back from planning a career abroad. It stands in the way of workers
and their families alike.
We share the task of equipping citizens with adequate language skills when they
come out of initial education and through their lives. Language teaching in initial
education has improved, but more remains to be done in a lifelong learning
Moreover, we cannot content ourselves any longer with the comfortable thought that
English is enough. It is not. As Heads of state and government acknowledged in
Barcelona 6 years ago, where they committed to teach 'mother tongue + 2' from an
early age.
That commitment has been met remarkably well for early language learning. Nearly
all Member States have introduced a second language in early primary education.
Unfortunately the other part of the commitment - teaching two languages - doesn't
look so promising. We will have the language indicator, to test the skills of our
teenagers. Nevertheless we should be aware that it relies first on the languages
made available in the curricula.
The richness of Europe's linguistic heritage is such that no language should be
recommended more than another: citizens should be able to choose according to
their interests, the place they live or their family background. These languages will
be different for each of you and will vary greatly for our citizens too. The real
challenge is to enable people to build a language path by offering a palette of
languages in our educational systems.
Tackling languages in initial education is the right place to start. But most people
are no longer in initial education. They need languages, and they need them now.
Some examples – we all know them:
- specialised workers – plumbers, masons, technicians, nurses, coming out of
vocational education where languages get little attention, but wanting to move
abroad for job opportunities (or who may need languages in their professional
- employees and professional people needing languages for their careers but
without access to learning opportunities;
- Older people who want to move abroad for holidays and longer periods, or to
communicate with their grand-children speaking other languages …
And now the hardest to reach: unemployed people, those with only basic
qualifications or coming from disadvantaged communities. Usually with poor school
records… how do we cater for them?
We are used to hearing about the "digital divide" - the new cleavage between those
with access to new technologies and those without. Now we should beware the
"languages divide": the cleavage between those who speak more languages and
can reap the benefits of the European space and globalization, and those who
Lifelong learning – lifelong language learning - is the magic formula. But it demands
a great deal of creativity, flexibility and commitment.
I come now to my second question: What can we do to make languages a bridge
and not a barrier in the immediate environment citizens live in?
In recent years, our neighbourhoods, our schools and workplaces have started to
buzz with more and more people from different backgrounds, often speaking
different languages.
Our societies are becoming multicultural. But sometimes diversity is seen as a
threat and communities live in isolation, triggering xenophobia. We must evolve into
an intercultural society, where citizens of different backgrounds share a dialogue.
And for dialogue, we need languages!
We have a responsibility. We must help unveil the potential of languages in our
communities – we must let down the drawbridge, turn the barrier into a bridge.
I am fully aware of the challenge this poses for us all: our societies should function
in such a way that we assume we will be living together with foreigners and
migrants. We should assume that there are people who speak other languages and
may need some help – and may have something to offer in return.
Small actions can fix large problems – and we have many examples in different
Member States: announcements and instructions in several languages in public
services, transport, hospitals, police, schools, courts, etc. A network of local
"interpreters" and cultural mediators to call on….
We should never stop repeating that learning the language of the host country is
the key to integration. At the same time, we should value the other languages that
are brought to our communities.
For instance, if only having a different mother tongue was seen, not as a problem,
but as a chance to grow up bilingual!
If citizens living side-by-side could interact around their different cultures and
languages, the social web would become stronger and more steeped in tolerance
and respect.
Colleagues, multilingualism goes far beyond education: it is enmeshed in the daily
lives of citizens and companies.
The next speakers will show us just how much languages affect the economy and
culture. Our discussions should cast their nets wide and seize the new challenges!
This afternoon, we will be firmly grounded in reality: our discussions will be
preceded by a presentation from multilingual Slovenia and an overview of the main
messages and recommendations from the consultation process – what citizens and
stakeholders want!
Then it will be time for us to put forward our suggestions and commitments for
promoting multilingualism.
Our exchange of views in November made clear that we share a number of
We heard expectations about action for multilingualism for jobs and
competitiveness; for citizenship and intercultural dialogue. Many of you raised key
issues of lifelong learning policies, such as improving teacher training, vocational
training and adult education.
I am sure that themes for common work and shared commitments will arise
naturally from our discussion; that we will join forces and work together towards