European languages – All you need to know

Ever wondered about European languages and their impact, cost and future in the EU? Here are the FAQs from the European Commission’s bulletin.

What are the official languages of the EU?
The 24 official languages of the EU institutions are Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish.

Who decides the EU’s official languages?
The Council of the EU, where all EU Member States are represented, decides on this unanimously. Before joining the EU, each future Member State stipulates which language it wants to use as an official language for EU purposes. Any subsequent change — adding a new official language or removing an existing one — must be approved unanimously by all Member States in the Council.

What about the regional languages spoken in Member States?
The Council of the EU, i.e. all Member States, has decided that EU institutions can also use languages that are recognised by the Constitution of a Member State, even if they are not official EU languages. The EU institutions have an agreement with the Spanish government on the use of Basque, Catalan and Galician in documents. There is a similar agreement on the use of Welsh and Scottish Gaelic with the UK government. In both cases, translations are provided by the government of the Member State concerned, as and when needed and at its own expense. Interpretation from (but not into) Basque, Catalan/Valencian/Balearic and Galician is provided upon request for certain Council formations with regional representatives, as well as in the plenaries of the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee. No regional Spanish languages are foreseen for Commission meetings. The cost of all such interpretation is met by the Member State in question. The Welsh and Scottish authorities have entered into a similar arrangement.

Why does the European Commission promote multilingualism?
Because it wants to 1) promote intercultural dialogue and a more inclusive society; 2) help the citizens of the 28 Member States develop a sense of EU citizenship; 3) open up opportunities for young people to study and work abroad and 4) open up new markets for EU businesses competing at the global level.

In short, what is the aim of the EU’s language policies?
EU language policies aim to protect linguistic diversity and to promote knowledge of languages for reasons of cultural identity, social integration and because multilingual citizens are better placed to take advantage of education and job opportunities in the Single Market. The goal is a Europe where everyone is taught at least two languages in addition to their own mother tongue from a very early age. The ‘mother-tongue +2’ objective was set by EU heads of state and government at the Barcelona Summit in March 2002.

What is the cost of multilingualism in the European institutions?
The total cost of translation and interpretation in all the EU institutions (including the European Commission, European Parliament, the Council, Court of Justice of the European Union, European Court of Auditors, European Economic and Social Committee, Committee of Regions) is around €1 billion per year. This represents less than 1% of the EU budget or just over €2 per citizen. The European Commission employs around 3000 staff translators and interpreters.

Does EU law protect the use of languages?
EU rights and obligations regarding languages are safeguarded by European law. For example, the EU Treaty (Article 3) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (Articles 21 & 22) prohibit discrimination on grounds of language and state that the Union shall respect linguistic diversity.
The first Community Regulation, passed in 1958, requires the Community institutions to translate legislation into all official EU languages, as well as to reply to inquiries from citizens in the same language as the inquiry (Article 2, also Articles 20 & 24 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).

Does the EU plan to reduce the number of official languages?
No, because the current system is in place in the interest of democracy and transparency. No Member State is willing to relinquish its own language and candidate countries want to have theirs added to the list of official languages.

Would one language for all be a solution?
Latin or Esperanto is sometimes suggested as the single, pan-European language that the EU should adopt. However, since almost everybody would have to learn either of these from scratch, this solution would be equally hard and not terribly useful in relations with the rest of the world. Training teachers and teaching nearly 500 million Europeans a new language would take a lot of time and resources. The idea that a single language could be the solution to all linguistic needs is too simplistic. This is why the European Commission’s commitment to multilingualism promotes diversity rather than uniformity.

What role do translation and interpretation play?
The role of the European Union’s translation and interpreting services is to support and strengthen multilingualism in the European Union and to help bring the Union’s policies closer to its citizens. Informing citizens, particularly about their rights and obligations under EU law, and communicating with them in their own languages, is essential for the transparency, legitimacy and efficiency of the EU.

Is every EU-document translated into all official languages?
No. Documents are translated according to established priorities: these depend on the target audience and the purpose. Legislation and documents of major public importance or interest are produced in all 24 official languages. Other documents (e.g. correspondence with national authorities and decisions addressed to particular individuals or entities) are translated only into the languages needed. The European Commission conducts its internal business in three ‘procedural’ languages — English, French and German.

What about websites?
Using the internet to tell people what the EU is doing and how it benefits them is increasingly important. Regarding the Commission’s websites, there is no legal obligation to translate every page into all official languages. However, the Commission provides as much information as possible on its websites, in as many languages as possible.

Which language is the most important one?
All languages are considered as equally important. The EU language with the largest number of native speakers within the EU is German. But it is not widely used outside of Germany and Austria. The EU languages with the largest number of native speakers in the world are English and Spanish — but most of those speakers are not in Europe. French is the official language, or one of the official languages, of three Member States (Belgium, France and Luxembourg). It is spoken in many parts of the world and taught in many schools in the EU — but it is much more widely known in southern and western Europe than in the north or east of the continent. English is the most widely known second language in the EU. However, recent surveys show that, even now, fewer than half the EU population knows it well about to be able to communicate.

If I learn languages, what is in it for me?
In times of rising unemployment, the ability to use and understand foreign languages is an asset for personal development, employability and business competitiveness. Understanding a foreign language also helps people to open up to different cultures and enhances mutual understanding.

Why are languages important for business?
Because it is useful to know the language of your customer. In 2006, a study was carried out for the European Commission to estimate the cost to EU businesses of not having foreign language skills. The findings suggest that thousands of European companies lose business and miss out on contracts every year because they lack language skills. The study estimated that 11% of exporting European SMEs (945 000 companies) could be losing business because of communication barriers.

What do Europeans think about language learning?
According to a Eurobarometer survey conducted in 2012, almost nine out of ten EU citizens believe that the ability to speak foreign languages is very useful, and 98% say that mastering languages will be good for their children’s future. Europeans are broadly aware of the benefits of multilingualism: 72% agree with this objective and 77 % believe it should be a priority; 53% use languages at work and 45% think they got a better job in their own country thanks to their foreign language skills.

How good are Europeans at using languages?
The most multilingual EU country is Luxembourg where 99% of citizens master at least one foreign language. The number of Europeans who say they can communicate in a foreign language has fallen slightly, from 56% to 54 %. Tests carried out among teenage pupils in 14 European countries show that only 42% are competent in their first foreign language and just 25% in their second. A significant number, 14% in the case of the first foreign language and 20% in the second, fail to achieve even the level of ‘basic user’.
The proportion of pupils who are competent in their first foreign language ranges from 82% in Malta and Sweden (where English is the first foreign language) to only 14% in France (learning English) and 9% in the UK (learning French). The internet has encouraged people to broaden their ‘passive’ reading and listening skills in foreign languages. The number of Europeans who regularly use foreign languages on the internet, e.g. through the social media, has increased by 10 percentage points, from 26% to 36%.