September 26 is European Day of Languages. But what should be a celebration of multi-lingualism in fact highlights a failure in language-learning across the bloc and a lack of attention on minority languages.
Not many in Europe learn a second language, let alone a third
When the Council of Europe and the European Commission designated September 26 European Day of Languages, it was hoped that the initiative would stress the importance of language learning and increase intercultural understanding.
But the reality is that in 2008, only a minority of the public actually learn a second language, let alone a third.
Slovakian member of the European Parliament Anna Zaborska believes that Europeans fail to appreciate the linguistic diversity of the continent.
"I strongly feel that multi-lingualism is one of the EU's hidden treasures," she said.
English, French and German are the main langauges spoken at EU headquarters
Other MEPs are angry at what they see as the Commission's failure to set out concrete initiatives to promote minority languages in its new, much-touted multilingualism strategy.
Among those criticizing a lack of funding for languages and specific new programs are Basque MEP Mikel Irujo, Jill Evans of Welsh party Plaid Cymru and Transylvanian independent László Tőkés.
Speaking at a press conference earlier this week, they complained that the Commission was not doing "more to promote minority languages at EU level" as well as "those languages that do not yet have official status," with Evans in particular repeating previous demands for Welsh to become a fully-fledged EU language
Expensive and time-consuming
MEPs are, in fact, actively encouraged to speak their mother tongue when parliament is in session. The EU recognizes 23 languages, and employs legions of translators and interpreters to help communication.
It's an expensive and time-consuming luxury, but according to German MEP Bernd Posselt, multi-lingualism is an essential element of the EU's democratic structure.
"The European parliament would never be accepted by voters if the electorate were unable to hear candidates talking in their own language," he points out.
In practice, however, not all languages are equal. Officially, the EU institutions' working languages are French, English and German. But German is used infrequently, while English has slowly but surely nudged out French as the most common language spoken in Brussels.
Language as culture
Few children these days learn another langauge
Minority languages, meanwhile, barely get a look in, says Anna Zaborska.
"My impression is that minority languages are not adequately protected;" she said. "They need to be cultivated. The EU needs to protect European cultures and culture is expressed in music, cuisine -- and languages."
But too many people are happy simply to resort to English. Why should a Pole bother wrestling with German, or a Spaniard tackle Finnish when everyone can get along nicely speaking the universal language, English? It's a mentality that Bernd Posselt resists. He says the result is a globalized Pidgin English -- a far cry from the language of Shakespeare.
"If the other nationalities don't join forces to prevent this development, this is all we will be left with," he predicts.