Opening address at the "Language rich Europe: Multilingualism for stable and prosperous societies"

On behalf of the European Economic and Social Committee I would like to welcome you to the today's closing conference of the "Language Rich Europe Project".

I am particularly happy to welcome you here, as the Committee is a place where multilingualism is widely employed in day-to-day activities. 344 members coming from the twenty-seven Member States, from employers’, trade-unions’ and other civic organisations mirroring citizens’ interests and concerns across Europe. This is who we are and all of us represent what we call organised civil society. We are a EU Treaty based body which formulates opinions and recommendations and puts them forward in the EU policy-making machinery.

It is very important to stress that not only we list our suggestions on promoting multilingualism to others, but we are also a place which strives to become an example of how the variety of languages can be best used for practical purposes. The discussions of the Committee in its various settings are translated to all languages of the members attending a particular meeting. Furthermore, all opinions and other documents are translated to all 23 languages of the EU.

However, we have to acknowledge that the outcome of foreign language learning in Europe is insufficient: only four in ten pupils reach the "independent user level" in the first foreign language, indicating an ability to have a simple conversation. At the same time, almost half of Europeans report that they are unable to hold a conversation in any language other than their mother tongue.

Are the language competences of Europeans fit and sufficient for the challenges we face today?

Language competences are vital in order to foster mobility of workers and students and ultimately to improve the employability of the European workforce. Thus it is necessary to work in all possible ways on improving the language competences of Europeans.

We need good language policies and practices which can lead to successful language learning. In recent years, the EESC has drawn up three opinions for the European institutions on Europe's multilingualism strategy. Also, multilingualism policy has always been part of the EESC's political priorities.

In our opinions, we have distinguished two qualitative aims of promoting multilingualism in the European Union. The first aim is to preserve the vitality of the European languages. The second one is to diversify knowledge of languages that are useful for the cultural, social, political and economic relations that Europeans engage in.

How can we achieve these aims? The Committee has spelled out several important recommendations to the European institutions and the Member States.

We have noted the close link between European citizen's language needs, the European employment strategy, and the convergence objectives carried on by the EU Structural Funds and, in particular, the Cohesion Fund. These funds should be better used to help people to improve their command of their mother tongue, as well as two additional living languages.

The Committee has also encouraged the Commission and the Member States to promote the use of all languages, as well as the learning and use of European languages in extra-Community exchanges.

Moreover, support for language-based professions such as teachers, translators and interpreters should be provided, so that the official languages can be used more fully in public communication. The needs have not yet been sufficiently met, either in government or in the business field.

When designing policies related to multilingualism in Europe, the experts involved in this work should be drawn not just from the ranks of specialists in social and scientific disciplines but should also include linguists, interpreters, translators, teachers and other language professionals.

Currently, the Committee is preparing the opinion on the Commission's initiative called "Rethinking Education", an important part of which will be devoted to improving language competences of Europeans. The first ever EU benchmark on language competences will be created in this process. It will take into account two main elements: the outcomes of learning in the first foreign language and the quantity of pupils learning a second foreign language.

By 2020, at least half of 15 year old Europeans should be independent users of a first foreign language and at least two-thirds of pupils in lower secondary education should study at least two foreign languages – this is the aim of the Commission. We congratulate the Commission's initiative. The Committee will also ensure that the voice of civil society is heard in the preparation and implementation of the initiative.

I would like to congratulate the Language Rich Europe project, which has also done an important work in advocating a positive attitude towards multilingualism, especially among decision makers and practitioners in education, business, public services and the media. The project has also successfully engaged the beneficiaries of good language policies and practices – teachers and learners – to incorporate their views. I am sure that today you will have a perfect opportunity to discuss the results of the project and the lessons it brings for the future.

I wish you a very successful meeting today and further I wish we all see policy recommendations on language learning and linguistic diversity translated into action!


Language Rich Europe- Staffan Nilsson`s welcome address