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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds For sociologists of language, the current European context is a fascinating case. Cultural linguistic residues of historical nation state formation co-exist with emerging linguistic phenomena that characterise the globalised, transnational world in which Europe partakes. The development of Euro-English, the safeguarding of small and fragile minority languages, and the addition of various language communities to European cities and towns as a result of current immigration yield a colourful and fascinating linguistic situation. Given the important role of standardised and official languages in the construction of modern nation states, it makes sense to consider what is happening with language and language policy in the current context of Europe.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 seconds The idea that the sharing of language, culture, and heritage implies the existence of a political community where people should govern themselves in the form of a state was fundamental to the emergence of European nationalism at the start of the 19th century. Where people within a state’s boundary lacked a common language, centralist policies ensured that communities soon enough started communicating, at least with the state, in the central language, while in other cases, communities speaking the same language were often brought together as members of one state.

Skip to 1 minute and 32 seconds A hundred years later, the political identification with one’s country through shared language and culture took horrific forms in the shape of fascism and anti-Semitism, exposing both the power and danger of thinking in terms of homogeneous social entities. Although the European Union consists of 28 member states, covering a linguistic terrain of hundreds of different languages and dialects, it has a surprisingly simple language policy. This policy, based on regulation number one of 1958, simply states that the official languages of the European Union will be the official languages of the member states.

Skip to 2 minutes and 13 seconds Because some member states share official languages, the Union currently recognises 24 languages as official, which means that all citizens of the European Union should be able to communicate in any of these 24 languages with the EU. Of course, the situation in reality is slightly more complex, and within its own institutions, such a linguistic situation would be untenable. Therefore, we find a number of privileged working languages within the EU institutions– English, French, and German. Translation and interpretation units make written and oral communication understandable across the 24 official languages. In the European Parliament, a relay system of interpretation is used. Speech in smaller EU languages are first interpreted into English, German, or French, and then to the other languages.

Skip to 3 minutes and 7 seconds Despite the fact that English is increasingly becoming the lingua franca for transcultural interaction– our course is a good case in point, not only in Europe, but also within the EU institutions itself– the Union promotes multilingualism through educational programmes such as the policy that supports the learning of at least two foreign languages through the schooling system. Usually, this is English and another language. Inside European countries, official languages are mostly robust, in the sense that they are used for a wide range of communicative activities in daily public life. Next to these robust languages, many other languages circulate as well, being used in smaller or larger degrees in public and or private contexts.

Skip to 3 minutes and 55 seconds The Council of Europe has drawn a charter for regional or minority languages, which is also recognised by the EU, and which accords a certain degree of recognition to a number of European regional and minority languages. This recognition gives speakers of these languages the possibility of access to more funding to support the development of media and education possibilities in these languages and to organise cultural events associated with these languages. Migrant languages such as Arabic, Hindi, or Turkish are usually excluded from special protective linguistic measures, as ensured through the charter, for example. This diversity of languages within the state context pose challenges to the imagined community notion of Benedict Anderson.

Skip to 4 minutes and 45 seconds Even though states expect those who arrive from elsewhere to integrate into their new context by learning the state’s official language, the reality is that different languages are used on the streets of bigger towns and cities, ensuring a heteroglot and polyphonic Europe.

EU language policy

The EU currently has 28 member states and 24 official languages. Its working language is known as ‘Euro-English’. Is that all there is to the EU’s language policy?

It is important to remember that language is important for our sense of identity. We are who we are partially because of which language we speak. Speak in a different language and you can’t always express yourself properly. Sometimes your voice and your tone change when speaking a different language.

It is no surprise, then, that this also goes for Europe. The EU has civil servants from 28 countries, speaking 24 official languages - and dozens of unoffical languages and dialects! Moreover, every EU citizen has to be able to communicatie with EU institutions in their own language. In this video, Dr Margriet van der Waal shows how the EU deals with this.

While watching the video, you might want to think about the following questions:

  • What is/are the official language(s) of your country or region?
  • Which languages are (widely) spoken in your country or region?
  • Which languages do you speak on a daily or regular basis?
  • Are there other important languages?

Please share with your fellow learners below and be amazed by the diversity of languages people speak, regardless of where they live.

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European Culture and Politics

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