Current Situation






Multilingualism in the European Union

Multilingualism is a fact of life in the European Union. Promoting language learning is central to the European Union language policy; and everyone is encouraged to learn and speak more languages, in the interests of mutual understanding and communication (1).

The European Commission is entrusted with promoting language learning and linguistic diversity across Europe as part of its aim to improve the mastery of basic language skills in the area. Within this context, the European Commission is working with Members States towards the objective of enabling citizens to communicate in at least two languages in addition to their mother tongue.

The over-arching activities of the Directorate General for Education and Culture in the field of languages is outlined in detail in the 2008 communication Multilingualism – an asset for Europe and a shared commitment (2).

Priorities in field of languages include several important objectives:

• To retool education systems in the Member States so that the students graduate with higher competences in foreign languages;

• To gather data in order to monitor progress towards indicators and benchmarks of language teaching and learning to encourage multilingualism as a pathway to improve employment prospects and free movement in the European Union;

• To reward innovative initiatives in the field of teaching and learning languages (3).

The harmonious co-existence of many languages in Europe is a powerful symbol of the aspiration to be united in diversity, one of the cornerstones of the European project. Languages can serve as a bridge to other people and open access to other countries and cultures, promoting mutual understanding.

The ability to speak foreign languages is increasingly important to enhance employability and mobility of young people and is a factor in competitiveness. Poor language skills cause many companies to lose contracts, and are a major obstacle to free movement of workers. 

Yet too many Europeans still leave school lacking a working knowledge of a second language. This is why the efficiency of language teaching and learning must be improved.

All pertinent policy documents stress the importance of promoting language learning and linguistic diversity. The Barcelona European Council of 2002 called for further action to improve the mastery of basic skills, in particular by teaching two foreign languages to all from a very early age(4). According to the European Parliament and the Council, communication in foreign languages is one of the key competences for life-long learning (5).

Finally, in 2008 the European Council considered that: the importance attached to multilingualism and other language policy issues in the context of common European Union policies imposes the need to pay these matters the attention they deserve, as well as the need for the European institutions to re-emphasise their long-standing commitment to the promotion of language learning and linguistic diversity. As well as contributing to personal and cultural enrichment, a knowledge of languages is one of the basic skills European citizens need to acquire in order to play an active part in the European knowledge society, and one that both promotes mobility and facilitates social integration and cohesion (6).

The Barcelona European Council of 2002 invited Member States to stimulate the application of innovative pedagogical methods, in particular also through teacher training (7). The European Union does not promote a particular teaching method with a clear defined set of activities, but rather a broad holistic approach to teaching in which emphasis is placed upon communicative ability and multilingual comprehension. Indeed, emphasis should be on effective communicative ability – active skills – rather than passive knowledge. Furthermore, the potential value of a multilingual comprehension approaches are emphasised (8). In this context, multilingual comprehension approaches can be of particular value because they encourage learners to become aware of similarities between languages, which is the basis for developing receptive multilingualism (9).

Recently, the European Council came to notable conclusions on multilingualism and the development of language competences (10). The conclusions are based on the considerations that:

• Linguistic diversity is a fundamental component of European culture and intercultural dialogue, and that the ability to communicate in a language other than one's mother

tongue is acknowledged to be one of the key competences which citizens should seek to acquire;

• Language competences contribute to the mobility, employability and personal development of European citizens, in particular young people, in line with the objectives of the Europe 2020 strategy for growth and jobs.

Thus, the European Europe invited Member States to:

• Adopt and improve measures aimed at promoting multilingualism and enhancing the quality and efficiency of language learning and teaching, including by teaching at least two languages in addition to the main language(s) of instruction from an early age and by exploring the potential of innovative approaches to the development of language competences.

• Make greater use of European transparency tools and initiatives designed to support and promote language learning, such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, Europass, the European Language Portfolio, and the European Language Label.

• Explore ways of increasing the attractiveness of, and ensuring greater commitment towards, language learning, including through the use of ICT and Open Educational Resources, with a view to reducing the number of learners who abandon language studies before attaining an adequate level of proficiency.