Multilingualism in the EU institutions

A way forward or an obstacle to efficiency?

, by Translated by Emmanuel Vallens, Benoît Courtin

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Multilingualism in the EU institutions

In the EU institutions, multilingualism is a distorted reflection of the life of “grassroots Europeans”! Institutions are therefore the primary target. It is up to us to make Europeans understand the benefits of this system of communication, heavy and cumbersome at first, but ultimately enriching and useful.

Multilingualism is the way through which Europeans will be able to talk to one another.

Multilingualism is the ability to speak several languages, to understand them and to master its nuances. Becoming multilingual is a long and tedious, but very useful process.

As a matter of fact, diplomatic, political and economical relations between States cannot happen without resorting to a common medium of communication.

Let’s just imagine a Greek olive trader, speaking only Greek, who would try to sell his products to a Danish supermarket, whose Danish employees only speak Danish ! Such a transaction would be either impossible or too expensive, for an interpreter would be required.

Instead of this type of difficulty, the EU, the melting pot of a rich and varied culture, can make it possible to overcome this language barrier thanks to the education system of each member State.

The Finnish language system is as developed as those of latin countries is riddled with failings.

The relations between EU members will have to use two channels: first, the dream of a common language and second, multilingualism, cornerstone of a successful European management of cultural differences.

An impossible common language

A language common to all Europeans has been discussed, and for that purpose, language experts invented Esperanto. This language, made of various grammatical roots, was to help Europeans agree with one another about rather contentious debate: which language should we use in our exchanges ? English ? German ? French ?

Those three languages come back to the forefront over and over again when the issue is discussed. But why should a language impose itself to other countries than those where it is spoken ? French, for the sake of diplomatic traditions ? English, for the sake of globalisation ? German, for the sake of the relative majority ?

And why not Italian ? It is an easy language to learn, it sounds nice, it is historically rich, close to Latin… And why not Spanish ? In a word, the question of a common language has been a long debate, which will always unleash passions, and that may stir up sleepy nationalisms. Let us thus avoid this solution which would bode ill for the future of the European Union.

Multilingualism : the most logical solution

Since, for the time being, a common language is impossible for the above reasons, we will have to satisfy ourselves with the second solution: multilingualism. This solution has already been chosen in EU Institutions. Everyone speaks in his/her own language, translators make sure the message addressee understands what has been said, and as a result everybody’s language is respected by the others.

An EU civil servant has to be fluent in three official languages. This statutory obligation is an evidence of the EU leaders’ political will not to favour a language at the expense of another. Therefore, a Polish who can speak Lithuanian and Hungarian can easily enter the EU institutions.

In fact, it does not matter which language is used, what counts is that the message between the sender and the receiver is fully understood. As far as the efficiency of multilingualism is concerned, it is actually a simple matter of time. By dint of language mixing, a day will come when the Community language will be one. Today, the EU wastes time and money by translating Treaties into some twenty official languages.

Today, when an MEP speaks out in the hemicycle and makes a joke, it takes some time for laughs to spread out to the backbenches. Tomorrow, this waste of time will bear its fruits and will probably end up to the creation of a new language. The world will have to speak it if they want to be able to trade with the world’s second largest economy after China. And it will not be a question of a Greek olive retailer selling to a Danish, but that of a Chinese seller of manufactured goods trading with a European.

One should acknowledge that learning a language can be tedious, but that it is very useful in today’s global world. Anyone who goes to university learns English. Why English? Because it is the language of the global economy. When, tomorrow, the language of economy will be Chinese, it is this language which will be taught in primary schools.

Imposing a new mode of communication

The European Union faces a challenge of the utmost importance by keeping on working with multilingualism. And it is JEF’s role to support this use. You, TNF reader, right now, you are reading English. But I am writing it in French. My dream would be that translation can be avoided as a necessary step for the understanding of my message. In other words, I would like you to understand my language when I speak and write, as I would like to understand yours when you speak and write.

This mode of communication is already there. The Franco-German cultural TV channel Arte already uses it. Editorial Board meetings take place in the two languages. Every one speaks in his/her native language and the other employees must understand what is being said without translation.

Provided that “European multilingualism” is taught in schools, this mode of communication would revolutionise language use. The snag is that the interlocutor should have followed the same class. It is therefore up to the European Union to set up in the schools of all the 25 Member States that type of system.

In the EU institutions, multilingualism may appear to be an obstacle to efficiency and a swift decision-making (or is it?), but it is inescapable. The exclusive use of a language at the expense of the others could foster the distrust towards the European Union. Already today, it isn’t much appreciated by the citizens, so let us not give them a stick to beat it with.

That is the reason why one should see this doggedness in using all languages and loosing time in translating as a step forward. One should thank the EU leaders for not pandering to the Anglo-American mermaids’ song who are pushing for the use of English.

Translated from the French by Emmanuel Vallens, Chief editor of the Jungstier, Magazin der Europabürger.

- Image :

The European Parliament (Strasbourg), photography from

Your comments
  • On 23 October 2006 at 14:14, by Rick Miller Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions :

    You’re essentially saying that to participate in the EU a person has to spend ten years learning languages which won’t even guarantee that he’ll be able to talk with any other participant. How many people can afford to waste that much time?

    And let’s not forget that in practice there are three languages in the EU which are “more equal” than the others; English, French, and German. Almost all translations go through one (or more) of those languages, so that anything going from Welsh to Italian for example is really translated at least twice.

    Esperanto, a planned language, can handle all the nuance of an ad-hoc language like English or French but it can be learned in only a fraction of the time. It’s much easier even than Italian. Ordinary people are learning and using it, and no country would have unfair advantage.

    Every document could be published in only two languages, its original language and its Esperanto translation. Then anyone, even ordinary people who take a few months to learn Esperanto, would be able to read it without further translation. Translation into other languages, when desired, would be even more reliable.

    Yes, learning the languages of other countries is a good idea but requiring that people dedicate years of study just to sound stupid in two other languages doesn’t seem like good economics.

  • On 23 October 2006 at 16:00, by Detlef Karthaus Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions :

    I’m amazed at how the subject of Esperanto can be introduced and dismissed in the same sentence. Besides that, your readers are led to believe that Esperanto was created solely for the EU, when it fact it is being learned around the world. The idea that we should all learn English until such time as we are all forced to learn Chinese deserves a prize for shortsightedness. As a speaker of English, German and French and a student of Spanish I am not impressed by your arguments for multilingualism because they don’t correspond to my experience. I’ll take Esperanto any day, thank-you. P.S. No native English speaker would use the word “hemicyle” to mean the floor of an assembly and even a Google search turns up only 78 hits.

  • On 23 October 2006 at 22:48, by mankso Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions :

    Well said, Rick Miller! Both he and I know that Benoît Courtin’s contentation that a “common [second!] language is impossible” is nonsense. BC is just not aware of the “universal bilingualism” proposed by Esperanto [YOUR language + Esperanto for everybody], nor the practical extent to which Esperanto is nowadays used. This is an adequately functioning reality, not a project.

    Some easily checkable examples: 1) the 91st World Congress of Esperanto, which met in August in Florence/Italy with 2209 participants from 62 different countries - all proceedings conducted entirely in Esperanto for a whole week. 2) daily broadcasts in Esperanto (available on-line) from Radio Polonia, Radio China International, and regular weekly ones from RAI/Italy and Radio Vaticana among others. 3) a calendar of daily events throughout the world using Esperanto: Eventoj 4) the acceptance of Esperanto, on a par with ethnic languages, in Hungary as one of the languages for fulfilling the FL requirement for a highschool diploma. Let’s have some research based on facts!

  • On 24 October 2006 at 08:29, by ? Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions :

    I agree with you both!

    Whenever anyone advocates multilingualism for Europe, i.e. two other languages beyond the mother tongue, those two languages usually include English. Thus, in practicle terms English becomes the de facto lingua franca.

    I speak several Western European languages and, believe it, it was very hard work!

    Esperanto is the obvious solution to the language problem in Europe (and dare I say - around the world).

    Lernu kaj parolu Esperante - la solvo de la internacia lingva komplikaĵo.

  • On 24 October 2006 at 11:21, by claude piron Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions :

    In democracies, no decision is taken before the subject has been researched and objectively studied. So is it in science, and in law. No accused is convicted without the case being objectively examined. Why not do so in the field of language communication? Maybe choosing Esperanto is absurd, but how can you know it before checking how it works? Comparing in practice, in the field, the various methods men apply to understand one another over the language barriers is necessary, under the penalty of appearing subjective, prejudiced and thus undemocratic. Establishing facts is more important than discussing in the abstract. I’ve researched the problem in such a manner. My report has been published in French in the journal _Language Problems and Language Planning_ . An English version (“Linguistic Communication – A Comparative Field Study”) can be read on the Internet. My conclusion is the following.

    For all criteria adopted – savings, rapidity of acquisition, precision, spontaneity, richness of vocabulary, equality, cost-effectiveness, etc. – Esperanto emerges as the best system. Moreover, Esperanto has been proved to be an excellent preparation to the acquisition of other languages and the discovery of foreign cultures. So why not try to see the facts before suggesting a solution which terribly lacks in realism? Mastering one foreign language (apart from Esperanto) is extremely difficult for the average citizen, mastering two is far above most people’s capabilities.

    Isn’t it amazing that being objective and non-masochistic seems to be so difficult in a society which claims to be civilized, scientific, and respectful of the citizens’ welfare?

  • On 24 October 2006 at 11:54, by Tim Morley Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions :

    Without wishing to add “just another ’Me too!’ message”, I too found it odd to see Esperanto mentioned, once, but then never referred back to.

    Whilst I agree with much of what the author says about the importance of our cultural and linguistic diversity, I don’t agree with his conclusion. Not everyone is an accomplished linguist, and while I certainly agree that everyone should receive at least some instruction in a foreign language or two at school, I fully expect and accept that most will never be proficient in a foreign language.

    I would urge the author to investigate the use of Esperanto. It’s going on in every EU country, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find. Attend a congress or two. Read up about it. If nothing else, at least skim read the article below, written by the former UN translator Claude Piron.

  • On 24 October 2006 at 11:56, by Georgios Dermatis Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions :

    Well, as a somehow multilingual Greek I would be able to sell my olives in Germany and Austria, maybe in the UK and as there is no need not in Italy and Spain. That means that speaking five or six languages doesn´t help enough to prosperity... It´s a need for the EU to have a common language. What about Greek, it´s rich, sounds nice and every Greek would be happy with! Everybody else, I think, wouldn´t! Because Greek seems to be difficult for all others. The same difficult as every national language more or less, as English, French or German for instance... That means a national language as a European one DISCRIMINATES millions who don´t have it as their own mother tongue. There exists a simple solution for this problem, it´s easy to learn, it´s neutral and makes nobody unhappy: ESPERANTO! All of us can use our own language AND Esperanto. For those among us who likes to learn other languages, Esperanto with it´s propaedeutical value would help a lot to do so much more easier.

  • On 24 October 2006 at 16:51, by Phil Dorcas Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions :

    There are many obvious reasons why Esperanto would be suitable as the common language for the EU, such as - (1) it is easier to learn, (2) it has fewer ambiguities, and (3) it is religiously and politically neutral. However there is another reason for choosing Esperanto, and that is it would be more accurate than other languages that are national languages. This is difficult for experts to accept, because the unknown can threaten us, even though the threat is without merit. Because of the very structure and genius of the language, Esperanto is expressive and rich. Translations are more accurate. There are fewer mis-translations with Esperanto. The biggest problem with Esperanto is awareness and acceptance. There are no forseen drawbacks based on the language itself. - - filipo

  • On 24 October 2006 at 20:24, by ? Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions :

    Dear Sir,

    your discussion of the problem of international communication in the section “An impossible common language” was not clear to me.

    You mentioned Esperanto as a possible solution in terms that seemed very sensible to me. However, you then dropped the topic without any further explanation, and got back to discussing the issue of linguistic nationalism, which is exactly the problem that Esperanto aims at side-stepping.

    So, in the end, I didn’t quite understand why a common language is impossible. It would be great if you had the opportunity to further clear up this issue in a further article.

    Many thanks,

    Davide T.

  • On 29 October 2006 at 23:06, by Jérémie Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions :

    What you have written is wrong : Esperanto hasn’t been created by “EU language experts” at all ! Its grammatical foundations were laid and published in 1887 by a single Polish man, who was a Doctor !

  • On 11 November 2006 at 22:55, by Brian Barker Replying to: Multilingualism in the EU institutions:

    When I first learnt Esperanto, its suggested use as an international language implied ridicule.

    Not any more. However a recent report by a Swiss Professor (Grin) financed by the French Government has clearly proven that its use in the European Parliament would save money. I stand corrected - taxpayers’ money.

    The conclusion was that, only bigotry and prejudice, according to the French Government report, is holding Esperanto back. At a personal level I have observed that there is bigotry against this language.

    It is encouraging though to see that Esperanto is subjected less, and less, to ridicule. Serious action, as well as discussion is now essential

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