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Culture

Dealing With Europe's Multilingual Reality

As the European Day of Languages is celebrated Monday, a look around the EU shows that enlargement has increased the number of official languages in the bloc, but its citizens aren't motivated to learn them.

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The babble has created horrific translation problems for the EU

When European politicians speak about Europe's rich cultural legacy, they never fail to mention the myriad babble of tongues spoken across the continent. Indeed, this linguistic diversity is on show at the European Union's many institutions, in particular the European Parliament.

But as Brussels gets ready to celebrate the bloc's multi-tongued tradition on the European Day of Languages on Monday, it doesn't seem to have managed to spread the enthusiasm for newer foreign languages among its citizens.

A recent survey by bloc's Eurobarometer opinion pollsters showed that EU expansion into ex-communist eastern Europe has largely boosted the role of the global lingua franca, English.

Trying to make learning foreign tongues popular

It's not that EU politicians haven't tried.

Four years ago, celebrations on European Language Day featured an EU commercial showing a chameleon jumping from branch to branch, squeaking the word "hello" in several languages.

It was hoped the multilingual cartoon character would inspire EU citizens to learn foreign languages.

European Year of Languages 2001

The European Year of Languages 2001

A further initiative, called the Language Action Plan, aims for each citizen to learn two foreign languages. Meant to be implemented between 2004 and 2006, it includes a loan program called LINGUA to support the EU member states in offering instruction in at least one foreign language in elementary schools.

But despite being surrounded by different languages, Europeans have so far shown little desire to broaden their linguistic horizons.

According to statistics, English is easily the most common foreign language, ahead by a huge margin. English is spoken by 47 percent of EU citizens, including 34 percent who speak it as a foreign language -- two percentage points more than before enlargement.

German, which has now surpassed French, is spoken by 30 percent, with 12 percent percent using it as a foreign language.

Translations headaches

At the same time, Brussels is becoming increasingly multilingual. Enlargement added nine new languages -- each of the 10 new member states, with the exception of Cyprus, brought its own language.

Galerie EU Erweiterung Plakat

With its official languages now increased to from 11 to 20, Brussels is reeling under the burden of having to provide for translations to and fro between its old and new official tongues.

With 380 translation combinations possible between the 20 languages, the EU has now made translations and interpretations at conferences and summits mandatory via third languages. For example, official texts and declarations are first translated into English or French and then, in a second step, into further languages.

This saves the need for translators in less common combinations such as Greek-Latvian or Portuguese-Finnish, which also helps since there aren't translators for all languages, such as Maltese.

Sprachlabor bei der europäischen Kommission

A language laboratory at the European Commission

"We had a test for translators from Malta in 2003. There were 16 candidates. Four made it to the final round, but all of them failed," said chief translator in Brussels, Jan Andersen.

Now the EU is educating Maltese translator-trainers in order to plug the loophole. There's also a dearth of translators for Slovenian and the Baltic languages. One ramification of that was seen at the beginning of this year when several members of the Estonian Parliament complained that the EU laws they were supposed to ratify were sloppily-translated and sent the texts back.

The medley of languages and the accompany hurdles have meant that documents needing translation are piling up in Brussels.

In order to get a grip on the paper-flood, the EU Commission decided to limit official documents to 15 pages just before the latest admission of new member states. Nonetheless, the stack of an estimated 60,000 pages in storage is just going to get bigger.

More to come

Respite isn't in sight. In June this year, the EU decided to raise the status of Irish-Gaelic to the 21st official language in January 2007. As opposed to that, Catalan and Basque haven't been given this status -- at least not yet -- despite pleas by the Spanish government and regional politicians from Catalonia and the Basque country.

EU Flaggen

And by 2007 or 2008 at the latest two more languages will also join the official ranks when Bulgaria and Romania join the EU. Croatian could follow later.

Having learned a lesson from the last expansion, the Directorate General for Translation has already begun the search for suitable translators.

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