6th Issue, January 2010

Language Policies on the European Level

The concept of multilingualism is susceptible to contradictions which present difficulties to decision-makers and policy-makers likewise. An example of such a contradiction: theoretically, all official languages in the EU are equal; however, the European Court of Justice ruled that languages do not have to be treated equally under all circumstances.

The above-mentioned court case regarded a Council Regulation which defined five languages to be the official languages of the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market: English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.


Proportionate language preference
These official languages were defined as the possible languages of proceedings for opposition, revocation or invalidity proceedings. The prosecutor argued that this violated the fundamental principle of non-discrimination and the equal treatment of languages in the EU.

However, the European Court of Justice agreed that the regulation of the language use was appropriate and proportionate. This shows how economic and political power cannot be ignored in language policies and language planning, despite the principle that all languages have equal value in the European Union.


Bilingualism, not diglossia1
The German-speaking Switzerland is often referred to as a model case for diglossia. However, for the Swiss and foreigners alike, the situation seems to be more one of bilingualism: for the Swiss, German seems like a foreign language they try to avoid speaking; in the eyes of the foreigners, the dialect appears to be a completely different language. This fact is not taken into account by laws targeting the integration of foreigners: they only mention one language. This needs to change, because for social and economic integration, both the dialect and German are important.

Researchers also point out that European policy-makers promote multilingualism as valuable and positive; however, for reasons of political correctness, nobody is allowed to openly ask the question: which kind of multilingualism is good? No one will say that being multilingual in German, Kurdish and Turkish will be of less value on the European job market than being multilingual in German, French and English.


Little media coverage
In Austria and Switzerland, a search in newspaper databases showed that the press in these countries seems to rarely cover European language policy-making processes. Not very surprisingly then, when researchers discussed European language policies with Swiss students, they discovered that few of them knew that a EU multilingualism commissioner even existed; furthermore, nobody had heard about Leonard Orban and his functions as the first EU multilingualism commissioner.


Ideology as a key variable
Group discussions with university students in Vienna (Austria), Prague (Czech Republic) and Bern (Switzerland) revealed that conflicting ideologies play a critical role in the construction of informal language planning talk. Ideology comes into play immediately when social actors engage in negotiations and directly influences their outcomes.

Equality, as a part of European multilingualism policy, was found to be an ideologically charged concept which essentially contradicts other concepts, even within the same policy domain.


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1 Diglossia means that two divergent varieties of one and the same language are used in a society complementarily. One of the varieties might be preferred in formal contexts, the other in informal contexts; one might be preferred for speaking, the other for writing.