Viva Europe and its languages!

, by Muusa Korhonen

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Viva Europe and its languages!

By now it is clear that learning one lingua franca is not enough in Europe. “All Europeans should know at least two languages in addition to their mother tongue”, according to the statement of the European Commission published on their webpage.

It is important to acknowledge the benefits of language learning when it comes to the common market. It seems that most of the Europeans have understood this very well, as the inquiries show that language proficiency is progressing in Europe.

Today, the population in Europe, 450 million people have divers backgrounds ethnically, culturally and linguistically. It means that the linguistic situation in European countries is very complex, due to the history, geographical facts and the mobility of people. In EU, we have 20 official languages.

The term “multilingual” means at the same time that many languages are spoken in some geographical area, but also that a person is capable of speaking a number of languages.

These both are true in Europe in many ways. This is an aspect that is strongly attached to the European values such as democracy, equality, and transparency for example. Only one European of ten doesn’t agree on advantages of this multilingual situation.

One or two foreign languages ?

The Eurobaromenter survey on the language skills of European citizens, studies also the attitudes of the European public towards language learning in different member countries. 56% of the citizens are capable of join a conversation in another language than their mother tongue.

Almost 50% of the citizens that know at least one language other than their mother tongue, use the foreign language almost every day. Comparing to the year 2001, the proportion of people knowing at least one foreign language has grown.

It is not enough as, in 2002 a new objective has been defined: Every citizen should speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue. At the moment, only 28% measures up to this demand.

In the smaller member countries the language proficiency is clearly better than elsewhere. In English-speaking countries - Ireland and United Kingdom respectively - the situation is exactly the opposite.

English isn’t always the best choice when it comes to the international cooperation and all its contexts, which is why we shouldn’t privilege only one language.

Variety of languages in Europe

Europeans find English the most useful language to know (68%). French (25%) and German (22%) come second and Spanish comes in the fourth place with 16%. These are the most spoken languages in Europe, together with Russian.

English is the most widely spread language in the world as first foreign language and it is also the most spoken in Europe. Thirty eight percent of EU citizens can have a conversation in English. If we compare with the results of year 2001, more people can today speak English but also French, German and Spanish.

In addition, Russian is gaining importance in Europe. Fourteen percent of Europeans say that they know some French and German in addition to their mother tongue. There is a more balance between these two languages due to the enlargement of the Union, because in new member states German is more commonly used than French.

The new member countries are motivated to learn languages. Sixty one percent of Europeans are happy with the situation of the variety of languages taught in schools. The happiest with the situation are the Maltese (98%), the Finnish (87%) and the Luxembourgian (82%). Of the European population, one third would like to have a bigger range of languages to choose.

Which languages should the children know and when should they start learning them?

The majority of Europeans learn languages in high school, even though the EU recommends 2 languages starting at the very low age. It would be ideal to start learning languages when you first start school, because at that moment the language attitudes start to develop. It is a good sign that according to most of the Europeans, a good age to start learning foreign languages would be between ages 6 and 12.

There is a lot of variation between the member states. The proportion of those who started their first foreign language in elementary school goes from 82% in Luxembourg to 2% in Sweden. Four percent of Europeans have started learning a foreign language in a kindergarten. This is most common in Luxembourg, in Malta and in Spain.

Thirty nine percent of the European citizens would accept language learning as early as possible; this means that language would be introduced before the child turns 5 years. In 13 countries out of 29, the citizens would choose German for their children as a second foreign language. In eight countries, French is the second popular.

It is by no means a surprise that this alternation is due to different historical contexts as well as different geographical situations. This combination affects strongly the attitudes towards languages. In the Baltic countries it is Russian that is the most popular language among parents, when they consider the languages that could be useful to their children. The Maltese are favourable to Italian and one third of the Finnish want their children to learn Swedish.

After all, there is something common to all of them: the predominance of English that is striking in every country, when it comes to the language that the children are to learn. This results in the deteriorated position of other languages that could be useful as well.

Image :

From « All our colours to the mast » : a poster by Reyn Dirksen (1949).

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