skip to content



All E.U. Citizens Should Learn at Least Two Foreign Languages

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The E.U. has stated that all of its citizens should learn at least two foreign languages, in support of linguistic diversity. Many residents of countries like Denmark, Finland, and Sweden boast near-native proficiency in English, but could their bilingual behavior be putting their mother tongues at risk? This week, we attended a seminar in Stockholm to learn what the E.U.’s Commissioner for Multilingualism, Leonard Orban, had to say about this topic.

In the E.U. publication, “Speaking for Europe,” Commissioner Orban noted, “The ability to communicate in several languages is a great benefit for individuals, organisations and companies alike.” At the event in Stockholm, the commissioner reiterated these views, reflected on the necessity of maintaining and using one’s native language, and engaged participants to discuss the role of translation and interpreting in the E.U.:

* Excellent English may entail linguistic disadvantages. Commissioner Orban pointed out that the commissioners from member states such as France, Italy, Spain, and Romania normally make speeches in their native languages. Meanwhile, commissioners from Nordic countries often use English – but as good as their English may be, they will never be able to negotiate as well in their second or third language as they can in their mother tongues. As the commissioner rightly observed, “If you speak your mother tongue, you say what you wish; if you speak another language, you say what you can”. Common Sense Advisory’s research supports the assertion that English is less effective for Nordic countries when compared to residents’ mother tongues. When we surveyed software buyers, we found that 80 percent of respondents based in Sweden preferred to buy products that were fully translated and localized into Swedish, even though they reported the highest levels of proficiency in English (“Localization Matters,” Nov08).

* Linguistic muscles, when not flexed, will atrophy. If the Nordic languages are not requested with enough frequency, interpreters will not be able to obtain the experience and practice they require to maintain their skills. Also, interpreters may find it difficult to render English spoken by a non-native speaker into the other official languages. If English is favored, terminology specific to the E.U. will no longer be developed in languages like Danish and Swedish, risking impoverished terminological domains for these languages compared to others.

* Equal participation means equal access to language services. Professor Sture Allén, member of the Swedish Academy, weighed in, “It is not until you speak your mother tongue – with professional simultaneous interpreters transferring the language into the 23 official languages – that all E.U. representatives can participate on the same conditions.”

* Language policy shows promise. Not all countries with high levels of English proficiency choose to use this language for official E.U. proceedings. While most of its officials speak English, Germany demands all official speeches in the E.U. to be made in German. Since 2005, speakers of Irish have made official addresses in this E.U. language in spite of their fluency in English. It remains to be seen if Nordic countries will follow suit, but the newly implemented language law in Sweden (in effect since July 1, 2009) should help the Swedes take further steps to preserve the Swedish language.

* For the E.U., translation is not merely an afterthought. As Karl-Johan Lönnroth, Director-General, Directorate-General for Translation at the European Commission, pointed out, the E.U. has the largest public translation service in the world, translating more than two million pages a year, or an average of three million words per day. As such, the E.U. is partly responsible for maintaining and developing the translation and interpretation profession.

But what about the money? Since 2004, each nation in the E.U. budgets and funds its own interpreting services. Prior to that time, the E.U. itself covered the costs. So, each nation decides whether it wishes to address the E.U. in its native language – and whether or not it wants to foot the bill. Speaking in English and foregoing interpreters might save nations some money in the short term, but what are the long-term costs to the language itself, and to those who speak it?

At the end of the day, every nation is responsible for preserving its languages. So, the choice that countries ultimately face regarding their mother tongue is this: Use it or lose it.

Pro Bono and legal aid attorney resources - Pro Bono Net