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New challenges for multilingualism in Europe, results of international conference held in Dubrovnik

Opportunities and problems regarding multilingualism in Europe were the main topics discussed during an international conference which took place in Dubrovnik (Croatia) from 12 to 14 April. Many of the 300 participants criticized the way in which European decision makers handle language education and the integration of immigrants.

The conference “New Challenges for Multilingualism in Europe” attracted the two EU-officials Harald Hartung (Head of Unit Multilingualism Policy in the Directorate-General for Education and Culture) and Silva Kauko (Policy Officer in the unit Multilingualism and Translation Studies in the Directorate-General for Translation) as well as renowned researchers such as Susan Gal (Chicago), Adam Jaworski (Cardiff), Glyn Williams (Bangor), Rosemary Tracy (Mannheim) and Jan Blommaert (Tilburg). During the conference, organized by the European research network LINEE, the participants discussed a broad range of issues: language, identity and culture; language policy and planning; language and education; language and economy. The most emphasis was given to two issues: integration of immigrants and language education. More and more countries consider a high competence of immigrants in the national language to be a prerequisite for integration. Reality, however, is more complex, as researchers showed. Some migrants only want to stay for a few years and therefore do not see a need to learn more than some basic phrases in their host community’s language. Others have a job which does not require any knowledge of the host community’s language, for example because all colleagues speak English or because they do not need to communicate a lot at their workplace. It is also important for migrants to get to know how to behave in their new environment (e.g. whom to ask if one has problems with accomodation or employers). Knowing a language does not just include this kind of knowledge. Furthermore, no country in Europe can be considered to be a monolingual nation anymore. As a consequence, migrants have to deal with complex multilingual situations. For example, migrants in Barcelona might prefer to learn Spanish instead of Catalan because Spanish is more widely used in Spain than Catalan. Research projects have also shown that language is in some cases simply irrelevant or not enough for integration. Even if a migrant speaks the language of the host society perfectly well she or he might still be considered to be a foreigner. In other cases, migrants “just” need to find a job and a place to live in order to be considered well integrated by the locals. When language is seen as the prinicpal or only means for integration, all this complexity is ignored. Scientific observations of the language learning process of children contradict the beliefs of teachers: Research has shown that children can learn several languages at a time without being confused. On the contrary, they can transfers their knowledge of one language to another and are thereby learning faster than monolingual children. Teachers, however, believe that their pupils should learn one language at a time without making any connections to other languages they already know. This problem particularly concerns children of migrants. At school, their multilingualism is considered to be deficit rather than a resource. Few teachers in Europe seem to be trained to see and make use of the children’s multilingualism. During the conference, EU-official Harald Hartung pointed out that languages are not only a cultural but also an economic asset for Europe. He illustrated this by a statement he once heard from a businesswoman: “When I sell products, I speak all languages. When I buy, I only speak Italian.” Bearing this in mind, both integration policies and language teaching practices need to be improved in order to exploit the potential of multilingualism.