Written by Ivana Katsarova.
Updated on 08.04.2022.
Some 7 000 languages are spoken globally today. However, half of the world’s population shares just six native languages, and some 90 % of all languages may be replaced by dominant ones by the end of the century.
The harmonious co-existence of 24 official languages is one of the most distinctive features of the European project. Multilingualism is not only an expression of the EU countries’ cultural identities, it also helps preserve democracy, transparency and accountability. No legislation can enter into force until it has been translated into all official languages and published in the Official Journal of the EU. Crucially, the provisions relating to the EU language regime can only be changed by a unanimous vote in the Council of the EU.
The EU is committed to promoting language learning but has limited influence over educational and language policies, as these are the responsibility of the individual EU countries. In 2016, over one third (35.4 %) of adults in the EU-28 did not know any foreign languages. A similar proportion (35.2 %) declared that they knew one foreign language, while just over one fifth (21 %) said they knew two foreign languages.
The European Parliament is committed to ensuring the highest possible degree of multilingualism in its work. Based on the 24 official languages that constitute the public face of the EU, the total number of linguistic combinations rises to 552, since each language can be translated into the 23 others. Currently, over 600 staff employed in translation and over 270 in interpreting take care of the translation and interpretation needs of the 705 Members of the European Parliament. Internally, the EU institutions mostly use just three working languages: English, French and German.
The overall cost for delivering translation and interpreting services in the EU institutions is around €1 billion per year, which represents less than 1 % of the EU budget or just over €2 per citizen.
Following the success of the European Year of Languages (2001), the Council of Europe designated 26 September as the European Day of Languages. This is an update of a briefing published in 2019.
Read the complete briefing on ‘Multilingualism: The language of the European Union‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.