THE TOPIC AND THE APPROACH
In Article 22 of the EU Charter of Fundamental rights, it is written that “The Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity”. The mention of linguistic as a distinct term should give away its fundamental importance and also its complicated, sometimes even controversial, nature. The name of our roundtable was “Speaking European”, and over the course of the European Youth Debate 2021, we discussed not just multilingualism but also EU Communication, identity and labour market integration. Our roundtable consisted of young people from across Europe with a diverse set of professional backgrounds: from anthropologists to economists to political scientists. These different perspectives helped us develop policy proposals that were both concrete and ambitious. Given the broad nature of our topic, we decided to split it into more digestible subtopics: namely multilingualism, labour market implications, and European Communication. In the following, we will discuss the arguments that emerged throughout the debate and finally highlight our policy proposal outcomes.
Whether you believe a common language would be more advantageous for the Union, or you are a promoter of a multilingual policy, analysing the pros of cons of each position is challenging. Trade-offs are everywhere: United in diversity or diverse in unity? The preservation of National European Identities, as secured by the Fundamental Charter of Fundamental rights, or a strong European Identity with the risk of neglecting minority languages and certain social groups? But most of all: economic efficiency or ideology and European values?
Multilingualism is, indeed, as ideologically auspicious as it is financially unsustainable. Ensuring that all the 24 official languages are equally represented both in official documents and institutional communications, is tantamount to employing approximately more than 6000 among translators, interpreters and support staff. In 2020 the cost of translation and interpretation in all the EU institutions was around 1 billion Euro per year. This reflects in a cost of around 2€ per citizen on a yearly basis. “An adequate price to ensure that linguistic diversity, a parcel of the European identity, is preserved and protected!” some of you might think. But the cost of multilingualism is not a purely monetary one. Translating numerous documents everyday also represents a significant burden on the administrative system, ultimately causing delays and inefficiencies in the publishing of institutional communications. Moreover, one does not want to neglect the possible expansion of the Union, which could in turn bring with it the risk multiplying the cost of this system. In light of these difficulties, some scholars claim that the multilingualism policy of the EU should be limited to 2-3 languages whilst others affirm the need for better management of translation and interpretation services.
Compromising proposals apart, the most immediate solution seems to be a European primary language. The key question though is: what language? English, for its commonness and employability? French, for being the most widely spoken in the continent? Or a constructed language such as Esperanto, to prevent any dispute? For each of these alternatives one cannot disregard the diverse set of roles languages play in our everyday life.
Languages, as pointed out by Gazzola (2006) fulfil two main functions: on the one hand, they are a determinant component for communication; on the other hand, they serve a symbolic function. As evidenced by a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre, surveyed majorities in all of 10 European nations say it is very important to be able to converse in the local tongue. Preserving national languages plays a key role in preserving national identities. Moving from a multilingual regime to a monolingual regime could disadvantage particular social and age groups in the Union. An English-only regime, for instance, would leave out 56% among residents aged 55-64, who would potentially be unable to understand EU documents because they don’t master the official language.
Source: Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey. Q85b, Pew Research Center. Available here.
An even more careful attention should be devoted to the fragile condition of regional minority languages, whose mere outliving could be put in severe jeopardy by a monolingual Europe. Finally, what if the preservation of linguistic, cultural and social diversity, through multilingualism, not only constituted an economic cost, but also a structural limit to the development of a strong unified Europe? Is there also a trade-off between national identity and European identity?
LABOUR MARKET AND EDUCATION
As it is evident by now, from an ideological and cultural perspective languages are much more than mere means of communication. They are unifying, symbolic, nation-building drivers. However, on the labour market, languages are mostly seen as tools, as means to an end. The value of languages, in this case, is proportional to their value on the market, their employability. English, for instance, is very valuable, increasingly being considered less of a foreign language and more of a basic skill, German and Russian are priceless for international trade and commerce with emerging markets. Furthermore, less diffused languages may serve as a door opener for smaller niche markets. A rich linguistic spectrum in education could be beneficial both for young Europeans trying to access the labour market, and for the labour market itself. Despite this, only 2.7% of all languages learnt by pupils in general secondary education in the EU are other than English, French, Spanish, German and Russian. In other words, there is a lack of variety in the kinds of languages young European are learning.
One way of encouraging more language-learning could be study-abroad programs, which at the same time provide young people with opportunities for personal development.
In the EU, moreover, studying abroad in another Member State has been found to help foster European identity. These benefits should, in theory, trickle down especially to young people from less advantaged backgrounds, giving them the chance to develop skills they would otherwise not have been exposed to. Nevertheless, there are some practical barriers that make it difficult for exactly those students to access opportunities abroad, thus making these programs formally progressive but factually regressive.
Most obviously, there is a cost factor: whilst scholarships are available for many programmes, they seldomly cover the entire cost. Besides that, studying abroad is seen as a status symbol, thus making feel less privileged people excluded ex ante and discouraged to participate.
What is the EU doing about it? Needless to say, the EU’s flagship programme is the Erasmus programme, a milestone in the race towards free and accessible mobility of students. Recently, the Erasmus Plus initiative has been introduced with the aim to further widen the scope of its forerunner, enlarging its scope to apprentices, teachers, volunteers, and people working in sports. We are on the right direction, but there is still a long road ahead. High economic barriers continue to exist, the focus is on university students, thereby leaving out a significant portion of the population, and, as stressed during the debate table, the information about these programs is often hard to access and unclear.
MEDIA AND COMMUNICATION
The final point we deemed necessary to touch upon was the presence of Europe in the traditional media. Everywhere, on the European territory, citizens have access to an increasingly high number of top-class news channels, local journals and reliable sources of information. Unfortunately, the boundaries of those media outlets, for the existence of language barriers, tend to end within their national frontiers, creating a highly fragmented European media scenario. Imagine a system of Europe-wide news broadcasters, and what this would entail: a proper coverage of the functioning of the EU’s institutional bodies, a wider interest towards other nations’ issues, thus less misinformation and ultimately less scepticism about the EU. Needless to say, the challenge for such a gigantic project would be proportional to its size and boldness. The cost of running an international information company would be massive, and a consideration of the most appropriate source of news to target, would be necessary. A study of the Pew Research Center suggests young people lean forward to online sources of news, while older individuals tend to be faithful to the good, old-fashioned television.
A number of concrete questions regarding a potential European Media Company emerged. What language would be used, how many channels would there be, how would the funding occur, what kind of inputs could be used for translation services? The challenge is daunting, but we decided not to be frightened anyways, drafting an initial proposal for such a European Media Company. This brave policy suggestion is accompanied by a number of small-scale, affordable and easy-to-implement social media strategies that could improve European communication in the short term. Most notably, we proposed enhancements to the already-existing citizens’ app as well as a more unified Instagram strategy.
Moving on to the labour market, the focus was on the accessibility of the ERASMUS programme. Our key idea was the creation of an online platform that streamlines the information-finding process on a Union-wide basis, providing a separate section for working opportunities. To further lower the barriers to labour mobility across the union, we also came up with improvements to the Common European Framework of References for Languages (CEFR) and highlighted possibilities for peer-to-peer learning experiences the Union should consider promoting.
Lastly, we drafted two proposals to address the issue of multilingualism. Firstly, with the aim of both making workflows within the Parliament more efficient and sending a signal regarding the need for language-learning, we drafted a recommendation for MEPs and other elected officials to attend courses whilst in office. Secondly, to call attention to the issue of Minority Languages, something close to the hearts of many participants of our table, we developed a series of suggestions to protect this essential linguistic part of European heritage.
THE CHAIRS’ OPINION
Overall, the EYD Speaking European Roundtable was shaped by spirited, and sometimes even heated, debates. The participants managed to channel their energy and passion into drafting a series of highly relevant policy proposals. As chairs, we would like to thank all participants for their contributions and we hope to see you at next year’s EYD!