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Languages and EU democratisation: the need for an efficient strategy

by Franck Biancheri


Discussions, debates are the core of democracy. Language is the instrument for discussing. Languages are therefore at the very core of any EU democratisation process.

When you go around Europe and discuss with people on the future of Europe, as I did for instance during the Newropeans Democracy Marathon, and when you take time to get out of capital cities and well-educated elites, you find yourself facing a very simple fact : the very large majority of European citizens do not speak any other language than their own national language. Forget about the fantasies about young Europeans speaking English by flocks : in most cases the so-called ‘English speaking audiences’ you find in EU universities are seldom able to formulate an articulated question in Shakespeare’s mother tongue. Since I founded AEGEE-EUROPE in 1985, about 20 years ago, I do not see any significant improvement of language proficiency among European students, despite all claims of the contrary by governments and EU institutions, and despite in particular the huge amounts of money invested by both national and EU institutions in that field. Maybe more young people are able to say a few words in English, or in French or in Spanish, but it is far from meaning that they can understand a text, take active part into a discussion (or even take a passive part in it as they most likely will ignore the vocabulary used). Meanwhile the natural trend affecting the EU institution (not because of any strategy but because of the lack of it) is to move, by complacency, intellectual conformism and financial driven rationale, towards a one or two dominant languages system (English and French), with all the others being transformed into ‘second class European languages’. To summarize this evolution, one can say that the EU system moves towards speaking de facto less languages, while its own population tends to speak even less common languages (the enlargement is truly increasing EU languages diversity, not the contrary).

What does it say for EU democratisation in coming decades ?

It says ‘Danger !’, big danger indeed. The EU has currently no language strategy at all. The topic is ‘taboo’ and therefore, covering up, as anything ‘taboo’, a vast quantity of lies, ‘hidden agendas’ and manipulations. National political leaders refuse to explain to their own populations the complexity of the issue and the need to find solutions combining efficiency and democracy. Every of them says : ‘Our national language is sacred and will be used at European level’. Then they go to European meetings knowing that 100% of their collaborators will use English or French to communicate with other Europeans. They claim to defend their own language but by lack of political courage, they just speed up its marginalization. Business circles and American educated elites bet that with such lack of discussion, slowly but surely American language will eliminate all others as single EU institution language. They genuinely believe that the future of Europe belongs to a one language solution, American-English ; they just forget that democratisation of a 450 millions citizens strong multilingual political entity is not part of this future. French elites are acting very similarly to the rest of national leaders though they are a bit more pro-active and, have now entered a new crusade ‘multilingualism’ as a defense strategy to preserve French language positions within the EU system. But de facto they do nothing to develop a long term EU strategy concerning languages.

If we keep on going this way, European elites will not be able to discuss at all with European citizens in less than a decade ; while European citizens will find more and more difficult to understand the EU though it matters more and more for their every day’s life.

Therefore it is time for the EU to open a wide public debate on the future EU strategy regarding languages. In my opinion, such a topic is as important as the future EU constitution. If the Constitution is the bone, language is the flesh of any future EU political system.

Here are a few ideas which could help starting such a debate while already hinting at some directions :

1. Presentation the ‘EU linguistic equation’ : professors, teachers, Ngos, politicians could start presenting the equation describing the languages challenge : on the one side the democratic principle, ‘every EU citizen should be able to access EU information in his/her own language’ ; on the other side the practical constraint, ‘translation requires human and financial resources which are limited, requiring choices to be made’. Several solutions can be found depending how ones decides the balance should be made between those two terms : democratic imperatives and practical constraints. But one thing must be clear : there is not ‘one good answer’. There are many possible answers. They should be discussed and the choice should result from a democratic debate, not from a bureaucratic evolution.

2. Public Communication of EU institutions : EU institutions should systematically implement the multilingual availability of their decisions, policies, especially on the Internet. I take the occasion to congratulate the European Commission DG Youth and Education for their new Youth Portal opened yesterday. In these pages, two months ago, I strongly criticized the fact that it was only available in English. I am very happy to see that now it is a very rich multiple languages website. This is definitely the direction to follow. Institutions have to dedicate the necessary means to develop this multilingual strategy and resist the ‘easy’ way to focus on French and English when it comes to public communication.

3. Internal EU institution work : De facto today English and French are the two languages used within the EU institutions. One rule could usefully added : preventing any French or English speaking natives to use their own languages during those meetings. This is the only way to prevent them to speak in their own languages, contrary to all other Europeans. Languages policy should aim at equality of situation between all speakers.

4. Intermediary Languages : A large debate must start around the crucial question of intermediary languages, used in semi-public events/communications. Not only are they used to reduce translation needs by having a core group of languages used to make the links between all the other ones, but they also can become an enlarged version of ‘working languages’ for semi-public EU events. They will have to obey a certain logic following languages families in order to facilitate understanding without multiplying translation costs. They will also have to take in consideration the role of some European languages worldwide to enhance EU global influence. Europe 2020 and Newropeans-Networks came to the conclusion that we could have 5 such intermediary languages : French, English, German, Spanish and Polish. But the debate is of course open and must develop throughout the EU. My own experience of discussing that topic in 25 countries make me very confident that citizens can understand the challenges and the need for tough choices.

5. Education Institutions : Their role is indeed to educate Europeans in learning foreign languages, but also in understanding the fact that we will from now on live within a multilingual political entity. The first is an old objective though not very efficiently served. The second one is very new to most European education systems. On language education, most has already been said and is available. We could just put the emphasis on the necessity to illustrate the need to learn this languages. Exposure to situations where such a need is obvious may help increasing success in that field. In particular, it is very necessary from now on that education systems show future EU citizens that decisions affecting their own lives will be taken by people not speaking their own language. Such an information does easily open debates among young people and generate a very useful democracy/language awareness process.

6. Research Institutions : They have to me on the frontline in two directions. First, automatic translation should become a major priority for EU research programme. Not only is it a promising market, but it is for the EU one of the only way to escape the translation challenge (how to translate in more languages a growing quantity of documents ?). Second, in the field of social sciences, we need to have a strong increase in studies, research, .. concerning multilingual democracy and multilingual institutions, ….

7. NGOs, medias : Stimulating multilingual readers, not fully-translated European medias. Trans-European medias are emerging, especially on the Internet. There main added value is not to try to be as multilingual as possible (to take over ‘national languages’ markets by operating in as many languages as possible), but on the contrary to stimulate multilingual readers. This is the role of institutions to be accessible to all. The cost in terms of money and energy of translating everything everyday in more than 4/5 intermediary languages will transform those medias in mere annex of EU institutions, which means no media at all. And in particular they will not deliver the required message which is that one cannot think to understand Europe and its evolution if ones expect to get information about it delivered in his/her own language. At this stage of European constructions, EU Ngos or medias should be multilingual in order to generate a Trans-European elite able to have a good command of languages, not a illusion to citizens that they will be able to decrypt Europe without any effort. Such a job has to be done by national medias and public institutions, not trans-European ones.

I do not know if those ideas will help fuelling the debate, but I know that the debate is urgent. And action too.

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