Written by Ivana Katsarova,
The diversity underpinning the European project is embodied in the harmonious co-existence of 24 official languages. Following the success of the European Year of Languages (2001), the Council of Europe designated 26 September as the European Day of Languages. The European Parliament has consistently acted to support endangered languages and linguistic diversity in the EU, calling on the EU and the Member States to commit resources to their protection and promotion. In May 2018, the European Commission put forward a proposal aimed at improving the teaching and learning of languages.
Global linguistic diversity
Between 6 000 and 7 000 languages are spoken in the world today. Giving a precise figure is impossible, since the borderline between a language and a dialect is not well defined. Strikingly, 97 % of the world’s population speak about 4 % of the world’s languages, while only about 3 % speak the roughly 96 % of languages remaining. Half of the world’s 7.6 billion inhabitants share just 13 native languages. Just over 3 % of the world’s languages – 255 – are indigenous to Europe. The highest number of living languages – 2 165 – is found in Asia.
According to forecasts, some 90 % of all languages may be replaced by dominant languages by the end of the 21st century. The Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger reveals that 40 % of languages spoken in the world are endangered (see Figures 1 and 2). Worryingly, at least 2 000 of the world’s endangered languages have fewer than 1 000 speakers, and 4 % have disappeared in the past 70 years.
Linguistic diversity in the EU
The EU has three alphabets and 24 official languages, which are listed in Article 55(1) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). Respect for linguistic diversity is rooted in Article 3(3) TEU and Article 22 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. Mirroring population figures, the most widely spoken mother tongue in the EU is German (16 %), followed by Italian and English (13 % each), French (12 %), then Spanish and Polish (8 % each). According to a 2013 study, regional languages are spoken by between 40 and 50 million people in the EU. Among them, Catalan is the most widely used, with over 10 million speakers, mainly in the Spanish region of Catalonia, but also in the French Pyrenees and the Italian region of Sardinia.
The critical threshold for the survival of a language is estimated at 300 000 speakers. According to Unesco, there are 221 endangered regional and minority languages in the EU (see Figure 3). While indigenous to Europe, these are not state languages within a particular state. They are protected and promoted by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (1992) adopted under the auspices of the Council of Europe, and signed and ratified by 17 EU Member States. The EU is committed to safeguarding linguistic diversity, and it promotes knowledge of languages through Erasmus+. However, it has limited influence, because educational and language policies are the responsibility of the individual EU countries.
Language learning in the EU
The results of a 2012 poll suggest that the majority of Europeans (54 %) are able to hold a conversation in at least one additional language, a quarter (25 %) can speak at least two and one in ten (10 %) are conversant in at least three. The five most widely spoken foreign languages remain English (38 %), French (12 %), and German (11 %), followed by Spanish (7 %) and Russian (5 %). Two-thirds of Europeans (67 %) find that English is the most useful foreign language, followed by German (17 %), French (16 %), Spanish (14 %) and Chinese (6 %). The majority of Europeans do not describe themselves as active learners of languages and around a quarter (23 %) have never learnt a second language. The most widespread method used to learn a foreign language is through lessons at school. Over two-thirds of Europeans (68 %) have learnt a foreign language in this way. Interestingly, a 2018 survey shows that while 80 % of respondents (with wide differences among countries) can read and write in more than one language, only 66 % say they would be able to follow a (higher education) course in more than one language (see Figure 4).
Multilingualism in the European Parliament
The European Parliament is committed to ensuring the highest possible degree of multilingualism. In the European assembly, all parliamentary documents are published in all of the EU’s official languages, which are considered equally important. The right of each Member of the Parliament to read and write parliamentary documents, follow debates and speak in his or her own official language is expressly recognised in the Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. Parliament also has an Intergroup focused on protecting traditional minorities and national communities and languages.
Read this ‘At a glance’ note on ‘Remaining ‘united in diversity’ thanks to multilingualism‘ on the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.