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Foreign tongues

September 21, 2009

The Goethe Institute, Germany's language and culture institute, continues to boost awareness of the importance of multilingualism. Experts say a lack of knowledge of foreign languages in Europe is hurting the economy.

Children reading from a book
Experts recommend starting early when it comes to learning foreign tonguesImage: dpa - Bildfunk

Harry Hoerler lives on an island in the South Seas, located thousands of kilometers from Germany's coast - and yet he speaks a language quite similar to German.

It's called "Unserdeutsch" and it is the only Creole language in the world based on German. It emerged during colonial times. Today there are fewer than 100 "Unserdeutsch" speakers - and all of them are multilingual, according to Craig Alan Volker, a language expert from Papua New Guinea.

"Since the first generation, we have all spoken at least three languages - and often four or five. This includes 'Unserdeutsch,'" he said. "The first generation spoke "Hochdeutsch" - or high-German. In later generations, came English; then there is the language spoken in school - Tok Pisin or pidgin-English - and then also regional and indigenous languages."

"Languages without borders"

A play based on Harry Hoerler's mother tongue was performed at an event called "Languages without Borders" and premiered in Berlin. It is one of around 30 projects around the world that the Goethe Institute has financed in the past two years in an effort to promote multilingualism.

A Goethe Institut poster
"Language Without Borders" launched in more than 30 places worldwide

"We believe that with such projects, we can put a spotlight on the issue of multilingualism, and then later we can pinpoint a strategy of how we're going to improve multilingualism next year or the year after that," said Matthias Makowski, head of the language department at the Goethe Institute.

"Languages without Borders" was established to raise awareness of the importance of multilingualism in modern times, according to Makowski.

Europe lags in language learning

Since 2007, the European Union has had a Commission for Multilingualism, to strengthen language diversity. In comparison to other continents - or even individual countries - Europe falls short. For example, India alone has 22 official languages. This makes it easy for people there to become multilingual, said Anil Bhatti, a German language professor in New Delhi.

"What you have in Europe is a situation where multilingualism is attained through the learning of foreign languages," Bhatti said. "In India, somebody from the north, who speaks Hindi, wouldn't consider Tamil a foreign language. This is just another Indian language. Learning a foreign language means learning a European language, for example. And for an Indian person, this could be their fourth or fifth language."

To speak four or five languages is now the exception in Europe. Today, as immigration to Europe grows, language plays a key role in the integration of new arrivals. In the EU, many countries require immigrants to submit to language testing.

However, Piet van Avermaet from the Association of Language Testing in Europe is skeptical about making such tests compulsory.

"When you take language as a condition for integration, it often does not work. It's often the other way around," van Avermaet said. "When you reduce the problems of discrimination when you improve the opportunities for people to find a job; when you improve your policy in relation to social integration then at the same time the process of language acquisition emerges."

Experts warn of economic fallout

A lack of knowledge of foreign languages can even affect the economy, according to a study led by the EU Commission.

In 2006, it found that at least 945,000 small and medium-sized companies may be losing business due to a lack of language competence.

Juergen Bolten, who oversees a sub-section of "Languages without Borders" called "Multilingualism in the Economy," proposed an incentive scheme for companies to encourage employees to learn another language.

"What I envision is a program whereby workers could receive rewards for participating in a foreign language initiative," Bolton said. "The companies could also receive 'bonus-points' when they prove that they have improved multilingualism in the workplace."

Author: Ricarda Otte (sp)

Editor: Sean Sinico