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Multilingualism in Europe: The Importance of Education
Bernat Joan i Mari, MEP

One of the most striking developments of the past few decades has undoubtedly been the
unprecedented advance of multilingualism. In past centuries the norm was for an individual to be
born, live and die making use of no more than one language. Indeed in those times it was truly
exceptional to travel beyond one‟s native linguistic boundaries or to employ any foreign language at
all. Perhaps we could only encounter exceptions to this rule amongst the bilingual members of
certain linguistic minorities. Thus at a time when the vast majority of francophones were merely
unilingual, Bretons, Occitans, Corsicans, Basques and Catalans were able to operate with
respectable proficiency in two languages: their own native tongue and French. Likewise, in an
officially unilingual Spain, Galicians, Basques and Catalans developed competence in a langue other
than our own (I should mention, however, that my grandparents in Ibiza, regarded Spanish as more
foreign and incomprehensible than, let‟s say, Italian). In the same way it is also quite evident that,
throughout the twentieth century, the percentage of German-speaking South Tyroleans that learnt
Italian was overwhelmingly higher than that of Italians throughout the country that could speak


The capacity to communicate across distant regions, the improvement of inter-communication
systems, the advent of new information technologies and „globalization‟ in general have produced a
markedly multilingual world. In contrast with other periods in history, unilingual individuals will
become increasingly harder to find. In other words, to speak only one language, which is currently
the norm, is on the path to becoming an exception.

This holds even truer in the context of the European Union. In fact, Europe is founded on the premise
of “unity in diversity”.


The European Union often boasts about its internal plurality. By and large the respect for plurality
and diversity is considered one of the fundamental European values at a time when the EU strives
for a more solid unity. We should note, however, that Europe is not an essentially plural continent.
Within the EU‟s boundaries sixty languages are spoken; compare that to areas of a truly great
linguistic plurality, such as Papua New Guinia, in which more than seven hundred languages are
spoken in a territory the size of Sweden.

We don‟t live, therefore, in an excessively pluri-lingual continent. What is an undeniable fact,
however, is that Europeans are increasingly proficient in more than one language.

It is also true that we are gradually altering the model imposed by the French Revolution according to
which each State is reflected by a single language. At the present time we are witnessing growing
recognition that linguistic minorities do exist within the boundaries of most States. Furthermore, the
notion that all languages should be preserved is rapidly gaining ground, buttressed by the belief that
they are a fundamental part of a common European heritage. Thus, linguistic plurality represents an
element of our cultural and national legacy. Accordingly language preservation is the responsibility of
each country but also of the European Union as a whole.

Regretfully the official status of a language at the European level depends on the will of member
states. It is thus that we encounter paradoxes such as the distinct and peculiar case of the Catalan
language: it is spoken by around 10 million people and is official in 3 autonomous regions within
Spain, and yet is not an official EU language.


When we talk about values, about the basic rules for successfully „living together‟ within the EU, we
necessarily deal with the issue of education. It is undeniable that in order to promote multilingualism
it is absolutely necessary to get the realm of education involved in the matter. It is precisely through
our educational systems that most of us have become acquainted with our second, third, fourth or „x‟
language. Although it is possible to learn a foreign language in a so-called immersion process, by and
large our educational systems are an overarching driving force behind most foreign language

Multilingualism in itself possesses a wide range of positive virtues which are worth considering:

-First of all, a multilingual person has superior linguistic abilities than somebody that speaks just one
language. This gives the individual access to a wide range of new fields of knowledge previously
unknown to him/her, and also enhances his/her communicative capacity.

-Second, whoever is proficient in more than one language has an easier time learning new
languages. Learning your fifth language is not as hard as learning your second. In fact, psycho-
linguists and linguists in general know that the hardest language to learn is your native tongue.

-Along these lines, multilingualism awards a far broader outlook to its polyglot speakers than what is
the norm amongst those who can only express themselves in one language.

-And finally, languages, like all other forms of knowledge, facilitate the acquisition of new cognitive
and intellectual abilities in different fields.

The question is therefore not only about being able to express oneself more proficiently in different
languages. It is much more than that; it is about being able to acquire the mental, communicative
and cultural abilities that we deem essential in a European citizen.


What will constitute a “well-educated” European citizen in the future?

Certainly, he/she would have to be proficient in various languages. As it stands, the European
Commission‟s proposal is that each European individual know two languages other than his/her
own. Thus we assume that, in an ideal context in the future, Europe will be built on a trilingual
citizenry, at the very least.
In this sense we can already find educational projects that have this goal in mind. One example are
the Balearic Islands, where a trilingual model is in place with core subjects conducted in Catalan –
our native language in the Balearic Islands, Spanish – the official language of the State, and English
– the international lingua franca. In our case, however, the shortcoming is those professors who are
able to teach in English generally are able to do so in Catalan as well, whereas the Spanish-speaking
faculty tends to be by far the most unilingual. Therefore we find a situation where an increase in
subjects taught in English will be in detriment of those taught in Catalan, and vice versa. In this
scenario Spanish will maintain a dominant position, a situation which has been openly criticized by
the Watchdog Organization for the Implementation of the European Charter on Minority Languages.
This is all the more evident when comparing when comparing the situation in the Balearic Islands
and the Valencian Country with that of the autonomous region of Catalonia.

In my opinion, we should be even more ambitious. The question shouldn‟t be just about achieving a
trilingual European generation. We should produce entire teams of polyglots that, as a whole, can
express themselves in the maximum number of languages possible.

A decent team of polyglots would be, for example, a group of ten to twelve people that would be
proficient, combined, in around fifteen languages. If we diversify the learning of third languages, this
wouldn‟t be too challenging an objective. Thus, we are not proposing a utopia, but several realistic
goals which would be incredibly useful for the EU in consolidating a truly European citizenry.

The consolidation of a common citizenry based on specific values and capacities should be a primary
objective if we want to consolidate not only a social Europe, but also a political one.

In an ideal situation – in the long run, as I see it - in order to guarantee linguistic diversity and to
foster a mindset favorable to maintaining the true plurality of language we should diversify foreign
language education. This should be done bearing in mind not only a language‟s usefulness, but also
attending /considering to other criteria. It is thus that, just I consider it essential for all Europeans to
be proficient in some of the most spoken languages (English, French, German), I also deem it
necessary that every European know a less spoken foreign language. In the case of the Catalans, we
would learn as a third language perhaps Danish, Swedish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Basque or Occitan. In
this way we would be ensuring, in a quasi-mathematical way, the continuity of all languages. I
concede however, that given the current political, social, and cultural context this proposal is virtually
a utopia.

In any case, it is a very realistic goal for each European citizen to be proficient in three languages,
and the tremendous positive effect that this would have cannot be overstated.


As mentioned earlier, in our part of the world education is absolutely essential in order to effectively
learn a foreign language. In fact, we can speak of three pillars in foreign language learning:

      1) A positive attitude towards the learning process - nobody learns a language if he/she
         doesn‟t want to.
      2) The existence of learning tools and of institutions that guarantee the learning process – in
         other words, that language be codified and that it be part of an educational network.
      3) The existence of certain social spaces or particular spheres of life where the individual
         can openly practice the language he is learning.
If any of these three pillars crumbles, the learning process of any language will be jeopardized.

The educational system plays a central role in the first and second pillars. The first pillar (the will to
learn, coming up with positive attitudes), is extremely crucial, particularly for young individuals in the
context of high immigration fluxes. To convey foreign language learning as attractive and to positively
present the opportunities it offers will provide for a smoother linguistic integration of our immigrant
communities, with the improvement of their opportunities that this entails.

The second pillar falls within the exclusive realm of the educational system (with the exception of
self-taught individuals). In this sense, a strong support is necessary in order for the individual to
learn a language. Likewise, learning of foreign languages should be a standard part of the
educational system.

Nowadays we find that our respective educational systems are still very far from being able to offer
the foreign language programs that would be desirable in an EU context. In many countries there still
are very high percentages of citizens that cannot express themselves fluently in another language,
and in many areas of the EU it is rare to find individuals that are proficient in more than two
languages. Although this is not only due to the educational system, there certainly is a problem
within the educational structures in the face of such poor results.

Yet, how should we guarantee the linguistic proficiency of individuals that are no longer within the
educational system?

We should understand education as a lifelong process. It is thus that programs such as Lifelong
Learning can ensure a deeper understanding of a foreign language beyond its initial learning stage.
Amongst its goals should be the improvement of foreign language knowledge of those who are no
longer within the bounds of the educational system and are now part of the labor market. What's
more, those who leave the labor market and retire should also have the chance to continue
developing their foreign language abilities.

Perhaps in places such as South Tyrol or the Catalan Countries we are more used to offering
language learning services. The fact that not all the population in South Tyrol is completely proficient
in German has prompted town councils, residents‟ associations, sport clubs, and other organizations
to offer language courses. The same is true for associations that promote Catalan in the Balearic
Islands or other Catalan-speaking lands, having. The purpose these of all these efforts is clear: that
the knowledge of these languages be as far-reaching as possible within our respective populations.

This is probably not as commonplace in areas where there are no endangered languages or in
unilingual countries.

Nevertheless, this vitality in teaching and learning languages should be extended to the rest of the
continent if we really want most EU citizens to be able to conduct their lives in different languages.


The teaching and learning of languages is responsibility of institutions and of very diverse
On one hand, it is certainly the responsibility of educational agencies (local, regional, or federal) that
have the appropriate jurisdiction. We should guarantee, from the onset, that the educational system
can address our most fundamental needs. One of these fundamental needs, as we have explained,
is proficiency in multiple languages.

On the other hand, on the highest level the EU is responsibility for the teaching and learning of
languages. In this sense, I felt compelled, as Member of the European Parliament, to advance this
matter as much as possible and to contribute new ideas and instruments so that pluri-linguism be a
reality throughout Europe. As I have already mentioned earlier, endowing our citizens with a broad
multilingual proficiency should be one of the fundamental purposes of the realm of Education within
the EU.

At a more individual level, it is every citizen‟s responsibility to educate him/herself linguistically. In
this sense, we should promote an awareness –through the necessary campaigns- of the importance
and value of knowing different languages. In this effort, we should underscore the benefits that it will
bring to us as individuals, and as humans collectively.

Bernat Joan i Mari, MEP

For more information:
Bernat Joan i Mari
Tel. STR: +33 (0) 3881 77299
Tel. BRU: +32 (0) 228 47299

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