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Language policy and linguistic justice in the European Union

Final Report Summary - LAPO (Language policy and linguistic justice in the European Union)

Reducing the number of the official languages of the European Union (EU) is a bad idea. At its inception in the 1950s, European leaders decided to give to the official languages of the Member States the status of official and working language of European institutions. The current language policy allows EU citizens, among other things, to understand in their mother tongue or primary language of education legally binding documents such as EU regulations and the public discussions at the European Parliament transmitted via the Internet. Costs are relatively modest; the EU spends roughly € 1.1 billion per year on language services, that is, 0.0085% of the GDP of the EU, 1% of the budget of the EU bodies and a yearly expenditure of about € 2.2 per resident, or € 2.7 if we focus on citizens who are at least 15 years old. Of course, there are also costs related to breakdowns or side effects of multilingual communication, like misunderstandings, delays, errors, reduced productivity due to lack of proficiency in second languages. Nevertheless, such costs are difficult to quantify.

Yet, in recent years the EU language regime has been overtly criticised by some observers; using only one language, they claim, would contribute to the effectiveness of the EU and it would be a first step towards the creation of a genuine European demos that could eventually encourage the cohesion of the EU as a whole. Usually the candidate language is English and occasionally Esperanto. Other authors propose intermediate solutions based on a restricted number of official languages, for example, English, French and German.

The goal of the LAPO project (Language Policy and Linguistic Justice in the European Union) is to test the validity of such claim using an interdisciplinary approach that combines economics, policy analysis, sociolinguistics and language policy and planning. It addresses the question of the likely effects of a change of the current EU language regime on the effectiveness and the fairness of EU external communication. How would a reduction in the number of official language impact on the access to EU communication of European residents? Which differences can be observed across countries in this respect? If a correlation between income and skills in foreign languages can be established, how would a decrease in the number of official EU languages affect the poor relatively to the rich? How would it impact on the most educated individuals as opposed to the least educated ones? In order to find an answer to these questions, we used data published in 2011 by Eurostat in the Adult Education Survey; this survey provides reliable data on language skills of a large sample of EU residents in the 28 Member States of the EU, except for Malta, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Ireland.

Results reveal that a multilingual language policy is by far much more effective in conveying information from the EU to European residents than an English-only or a trilingual policy, and much more inclusive. If English were the only official language of the EU, almost 50% of residents in the 24 countries analysed would have no access to legal documents or to the debates at the European Parliament – they would be linguistically ‘disenfranchised’. This percentage decreases to 28% if French and German are added to English. Differences among countries are huge in this respect. An English-only language policy, for example, would not only create a gap among native speakers of this language and all other EU residents; it would also linguistically disenfranchise at least 75% of residents in five countries out of 24, and at least 50% of the population in 16 Member States out of 24.

It is unlikely, however, that a limited level of knowledge of a foreign language suffices to understand complex legal texts or discussions of political nature. When looking at EU residents who are not native speakers of English or who do not declare to have a very good level of proficiency in English as a foreign language, the proportion of residents excluded from political and legal discussions increases to 80%; this percentage is 55% if a language regime based on three languages were chosen. Moreover, the picture is not going to change substantially in the near future. While younger generations tend to have at least a basic knowledge of English, French or German more often than the older generation, they do not learn these languages much better. For example, 82% of EU residents aged 55 to 64 are not native speakers of English or declare not to be proficient in it as a foreign language. This percentage is 79% for those aged 25 to 34. Thus, contrary to what is commonly believed, fluency in English or in at least one language among English, French and German is not (and is not going to be in the foreseeable future) a basic skill in Europe. Therefore, the need for translation and interpreting services in the EU is not likely to decrease substantially in the years to come.

One could claim the ordinary EU citizens are not very much interested in what happens in Brussels, and that only managers and high-level civil servants, who usually are cosmopolitan polyglots, need to follow EU business. Empirical evidence show that this is not true. In fact, multilingual language policy is much more effective in conveying information from the EU to European residents than an English-only or a trilingual policy even if results are broken down by economic sector and by the professional status of EU residents. For example, in the 24 countries considered, 35% of managers, senior officials and legislators have no knowledge whatsoever of English, and 66% are neither native speakers of this language nor speak it fluently. These percentages are 21% and 44% respectively if French and German are added to the set of official languages.

A multilingual policy is not only much more effective than mono- or tri-lingualism; it is also much fairer. Reducing the number of official languages to one or three also widens the difference between rich and poor and between the most educated and those with a lower level of education. Putting it differently, downsizing the number of official languages would have regressive effects, that is, it would be particularly detrimental to members of the weakest groups in society, including the least educated citizens, those with the lowest income status, the unemployed, retired people, the permanently disabled and women fulfilling domestic tasks. For example, while almost half of EU residents in the 24 countries studied know no English whatsoever, this figure significantly rises among:
• EU residents with the lowest labour income, that is, those belonging to the 20% poorest part of the population (60% would be entirely excluded).
• People with low levels of education (e.g. 72% of those with a lower secondary level of education would be excluded).
• Permanently disabled people (63% would be excluded).
• The unemployed (62% would be excluded).
• Stay-at-home workers (particularly women, of whom 62% would be excluded).
We observe similar patterns if only three official languages were used.

To conclude, multilingualism through translation and interpretation is far a better way to build social cohesion in the EU by catering to the vast majority of residents, letting them take part in EU business without being left out. The financial costs for this are affordable. By contrast, a nineteenth century-style ‘one state, one language’ policy would exclude too many people, and would be disproportionate against the people who are the least advantaged. The results of this project could be useful to decision-makers dealing with language policy and planning at the national and EU level, and to associations and organisations interested in the linguistic aspects of democracy.

Dr. Mr. Michele Gazzola
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Wirtschaftswissenschaftliche Fakultät (School of Business and Economics)
Unter den Linden 6
10099 Berlin

Tel: +49-30-2093-99411