Multilingualism is essential for the Union´s 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 year’s 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 today’s conference will be as successful as the previous ones.

As I looked back over the subject of recent editions, I noticed that multilingual policy figures prominently in various titles, for instance in 2000 and in 2003. Now, another three years later we have “a new strategy for multilingualism”. I do not think it is coincidence.

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 as 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 citizens and culture. This is an important consideration in the age of globalisation.

With its population of almost 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.

I am very pleased to see that languages and language learning are attracting quite a lot of attention at the highest level these days.

The last Education Council meeting, on 23rd February, had three items on its agenda that had to do with this subject. One was the Communication on Multilingualism itself. Another was a policy debate on the Commission’s communication on ’The European Indicator of Language competence’, which is intended to become a reliable and accurate indicator to measure foreign language competencies among 15-year olds in the Member States. And last but not least, we have proposed a recommendation on key competencies for lifelong learning, where the first two competencies are about languages, i.e. mother tongue and foreign languages respectively.

And it’s not just in Europe that this is happening. In February I visited the United States for discussions with the Federal education authorities. You may have heard that President Bush in January launched the National Security Language Initiative, to boost the learning of so-called non-traditional foreign languages, but other languages too and he is seeking a budget of over $ 100 million annually for this.

But let us take a closer look at the communication now.The three sections in the Communication look at multilingualism in our societies, in the economy and in the Institutions respectively. The Commission undertakes to focus on following areas:

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 the Institutions.

In my intervention today 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 doesn’t 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 Union’s 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.

However, key part of the Communication deals with 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 month’s 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% don’t know any other language than their mother tongue.

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 still not enjoying the advantages of multilingualism. And they are not motivated to do anything about it due to 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.

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. This high number probably reflects the fact that Europeans learn languages mostly 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.

English emerges as the most widely used language in the EU. 51% speak it either as mother tongue or as a foreign language. From this point of view, our policy to promote mother tongue + TWO languages has its reasons 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.

Now, allow me to go back to our Communication and multilingualism in individuals and in the society,

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 Commission’s aim is having a common core of competencies and values for language teachers in Europe drawn up. 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 students 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.

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 languages.

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’t know if you’re all familiar with the fact that 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 shows the commitment of the Commission to support multilingualism and as the first Commissioner to be entrusted with this portfolio I intend to make a most of it. It is no coincidence of course that in my portfolio I also have, besides interpreting and translation, also education and culture. These are the areas 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.