Multilingualism is in the genetic code of the Union by EuropeanUnion



Leonard Orban

Commissioner responsible for Multilingualism

"Multilingualism is in the genetic code
of the Union"

Meeting with the Culture Committee

Brussels, 27 February 2007
Chairman, honourable Members,
There is a Czech saying which says "You live a new life for every new language you
speak. If you know only one language, you only live once."
Language is about diversity, cultural heritage, communication and therefore
cooperation, all of these being values of the European Union. I said during my
hearing in this Parliament, when I was still Commissioner designate, that I wish for
a close cooperation with you and therefore favour a regular exchange of views. I
welcome the opportunity early in my mandate as Commissioner for multilingualism
to be able to give you a clearer idea about the political dimension of this new policy
Multilingualism has been, from the very beginning, part of the genetic code of the
Union, with the first regulation adopted, namely Regulation No 1 of 1958,
determining the languages to be used by the then European Economic Community.
And the decision was to put all the official languages on the same footing.
With the Commission under President Barroso, multilingualism has come of age.
Now it should make a real difference to the European Union, in economic, social
and cultural terms, and I am determined to put all my energy into bringing
multilingualism's contribution to the development of community policies.
But multilingualism is much more than pure language learning and providing legal
texts in all official languages. I want to take a kind of helicopter view of what
language knowledge means for the European Union, its citizens, business relations,
cultural identity and the much needed dialogue across communities. This policy,
besides its day-to-day important managerial aspects, of which you are well aware,
having yourself a well functioning interpretation and translation service, has a cross-
cutting function. Therefore it requires a positive uptake in all policy areas concerned
in preserving and promoting linguistic diversity throughout the European Union.
What is my ambition that I would like to see accomplished half way through my
mandate? I think, given the current circumstances and the not yet fully used
potential of our language diversity, we need a new strategy. Therefore I intend to
present in the second half of 2008 a Communication outlining a new strategy on
Before going into the details of how to assemble the necessary elements for a
strategic communication I would like to give you a short description of where we are.
We were able to more than double the language coverage over the past three years
from 11 to the present 23. We are probably the only part of the world that ensures
such diversity in unity. But we are already meeting those who have an interest in the
mechanisms that allow this complexity still to function. We have been contacted by
the South African government who is planning to implement a similar translation and
interpretation service for the 11 South African languages.
Looking at the challenges that had to be mastered, I should like to mention that the
Commission's interpretation service provides, on a daily basis, interpretation for 50
to 60 meetings. Figures for Parliament or Council are probably not much different.
Almost all language sections are meanwhile appropriately equipped.

The same accounts for translation, including the implementation of a new, the third
alphabet – Cyrillic – which has come with Bulgarian. A provisional edition of finalised
versions in Bulgarian and Romanian of European Union Regulations was already
made available by the Publications Office OPOCE both on paper and as a DVD on
22 December 2006.
Good examples that implementation of policies have effects can already be
demonstrated. I mention just two of them. "Truck Speak", financed through
Leonardo da Vinci, is a specialised vocational training system. It supports truck
drivers in acquiring sector specific language skills. The toolbox makes inter alia use
of the long driving hours and CDs allowing them to become accustomed to new
Another example is the "Learning while Travelling project" funded by the Socrates-
Lingua programme. It started in Lithuania, where buses travelling around the country
play useful phrases in Lithuanian, Polish and English. The project is so successful
that other capitals have picked this up. For example, a project in Hamburg is using
German, Turkish and English, trains in Milan are playing Spanish to commuters or
travellers can learn Italian whilst travelling on Maltese and Romanian buses.
Coming back to what, in my view, is a much needed new strategy on
multilingualism, I have identified three main strands of preparatory action:
- First, languages as an integral part of lifelong learning and enabling an effective
   intercultural dialogue;
- Second, nurturing a space for European political dialogue through multilingual
   communication with the citizens;
- And last but not least, multilingualism in fostering competitiveness and
The first pillar concerns first of all language learning in its proper meaning. Two
important reports are due to be presented during this year. The action plan 2004 to
2006 on the promotion of language learning and linguistic diversity and the first five-
yearly report on diversity of language teaching offered in the EU. Moreover we will
take stock of the work of the European Language Inspectors Network, called ELIN.
I want to make use of the results of the academic work in identifying best practices
that can help improve language teaching. That is not an attempt to disregard
subsidiarity but I think you can agree that the exchange of best practices has proven
to be a worthwhile exercise. Often it has contributed to endeavour new ways while
respecting traditions and perceptions.
Let me give you two concrete examples:
You know that in some countries films in cinema and television are subtitled, other
countries have the tradition that you listen just to your mother tongue. It is
suggested, and I personally can agree from experience, to the argument that
especially young people in countries where subtitling is used usually have better
abilities to learn languages. I wish to engage in a dialogue with all Member States
and obviously this Parliament about how increased subtitling could be encouraged.
Why should we leave out the chance for probably the cheapest language school
one could imagine?

Secondly we are facing already today a serious lack in well trained interpreters and
translators. And I am not only speaking about the European Institutions. I am also
concerned about companies and public but also private organisations that are
dealing with integration of migrants, helping in litigation, or providing support in
emergency or crisis situation. Therefore programmes for training Interpreters and
Translators are needed. Also promoting the European Masters in Translation is a
priority task.
I will propose a Community training programme for Interpreters covering the period
2009 to 2013. This proposal will fall within the remit of co-decision. I am looking
forward to discussing this issue with you at that stage.
It is worthwhile to recall also that as of this year all Lifelong Learning Programmes
will provide financial means in supporting projects for all languages, including
regional and minority languages.
Let me conclude this part with a word on inter-cultural dialogue. You certainly share
the view that language learning is a crucial vector for intercultural awareness and
understanding. Therefore, a contribution of multilingualism to intercultural dialogue
must be guaranteed. Indeed, it is only by learning languages that one can move
from a multi-cultural society to a truly inter-cultural one.
2008 will be the European year of intercultural dialogue. A High Level Group of
intellectuals and practitioners of multilingualism will be set up in 2007. Its purpose is
to define the contribution of multilingualism to this Year and thereafter.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I mentioned as a second angle a space for European
political dialogue through multilingual communication with the citizens. Promoting
online access to online information will be a cross-cutting action in 2007 and 2008
making use of the tools at hand EUR-LEX for professionals in the legal field,
CORDIS for research cooperation and results, TED in tendering across Europe and
Europe's virtual bookstore, the EU bookshop.
More concretely I am looking forward to inaugurating, by the middle of this year,
together with Parliament and Council IATE, the inter-institutional terminology
database. It has been developed jointly by the three Institutions and it will support
business in providing precise terminology (e.g. lawyers, engineers) that can be used
in technical aspects of their activities.
Moreover, modern tools have been developed to facilitate communication. DG
Interpretation has developed the Advanced Technological Platform for Multilingual
Communication. This allows remote audiences to be connected through a video-
conference system, providing simultaneous interpretation. This system should be
extended at the level of the European Commission and ideally to other institutions.
In this way citizens from Member States will be able to be in contact with European
institutions and bodies.
Competitiveness and employability, ladies and gentlemen, as the two sides of one
coin are key words for the renewed Lisbon agenda. This Parliament adopted just a
few weeks ago its latest opinion mentioning again the need for appropriate skills.
And multilingualism makes a real contribution to the competitiveness of the
European economy, for reaching the targets of the Lisbon strategy. A study on the
Effects on the European Economy of Shortages of Foreign Language Skills in
Enterprise effectively suggests lost business opportunities due to the lack of
language skills in enterprises, especially for small and medium sized enterprises.

Having the results of the study at hand I will set up a Business Forum on
multilingualism in the second half of 2007. Participants will look into ways to
increase multilingual abilities of companies that can help to enter new markets. The
Forum will also address opportunities to support mobility and create effective
Beyond that I am convinced that we should make better use of modern
technologies. Especially the already existing experiences in the field of artificial
intelligence should be encouraged to find better tools in interpretation and
translation. Looking at the booths I would like to say that this is not with the aim to
replace people working in these fields. But if we want to keep up with the already
existing combination between 23 official languages, support tools are necessary and
Gathering ideas and suggestions from Member States and stakeholders in the field
is therefore essential in order to build new policies reflecting their needs. This will be
done in the framework of the High Level Group on multilingualism. The conclusions
will be presented 26 September. I am sure that we will find a possibility to discuss
these findings. Furthermore I intend to call for a Ministerial conference on
multilingualism, which will probably be organised at the beginning of next year. All
these ideas will provide the basis for the initially mentioned 2008 Communication for
a new strategy on multilingualism.
In conclusion, the multiple angles of effective multilingualism to the benefit of
citizens, business and the cooperation of Member States and the Institutions
demand action. What I am seeking are pragmatic solutions to real challenges.
Languages should not be seen as a hurdle but a fascinating tool for communication.
This policy touches upon culture, education, communication, social policy,
employment, justice, liberty and security, etc. Therefore, its contribution to the
development and shaping of EU policies – both internal and external - should be
further examined and the benefits promoted wherever possible.
Should we not analyse the effects of our language diversity on the functioning of the
internal market? Learning languages should not neglect that our companies are
facing new challenges in communicating with trading partners outside the EU.
Is it not worthwhile spreading best practices in integrating migrants in the country
where they are living? More and more countries are requiring knowledge of the host
country language.
Languages are an essential means to allow the European citizens to fully exert their
rights and participate in a democratic European society. Isn't the most obvious
example of this the role of languages with regard to the rights of defence and fair
hearing? In order to guarantee that defendants can effectively defend themselves,
court interpreters have the vital task of ensuring that they fully understand and
participate in the process.
Should we not make best use of structural funds in boosting the skills especially in
border regions? A Europe of regional cooperation is recognised by citizens and
language can contribute.
With reference to the initial quote I hope that many lives may be lived and count on
your constructive and, where necessary, critical support. Your suggestions of what
is needed to secure richness of the many European languages will be much
appreciated. I wish to come in 2008 with a large-scale communication that looks at
all angles and potential of multilingualism.
Thank you for your attention and I am at your disposal for questions.


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