Scope of Study

LINEE researchers interviewed 20 key players from inside the European language policy-planning institutions as well as from monitoring bodies. In addition to qualitative interviews, they also analysed questionnaires with open-ended questions filled in by 7 language policy officials from Latvia, 4 from Lithuania and 4 from Estonia.

The results were included in a first set of recommendations to the European Commission.

Focus group discussions are currently carried out with students from different academic disciplines (Political Sciences, Linguistics, Economics, Law) in three cities (Prague, Vienna and Bern) in order to gather data on citizens perceptions of multilingualism. In addition, text documents were included in the study such as speeches by the Commissioner for Multilingualism (between 2002 and 2008).

The hypothesis of the research is that the study of discourses on multilingualism may reveal fundamental contradictions which present challenges to stakeholders and policy makers trying to develop or implement new language policies. Thus, the study aims at highlighting areas of multilingualism policy that might require further attention and clarification in the future.

3rd Issue, March 2009

Multilingualism: a Challenge for Experts

"Multilingualism" is an asset for Europe, as a recent communication from the European Commission states. But what exactly is multilingualism? In their study "European Discourses on Multilingualism", LINEE researchers have found that multilingualism as a European concept presents a serious challenge to policy-makers as they strive towards an integrated, knowledge-based European society.

LINEE researchers interviewed twenty key players from inside European language policy-planning institutions as well as from related organisations and states in order to find out how multilingualism was perceived among those who make or deal with policies and which attitudes and opinions they expressed about the European multilingualism idea. The research team consolidated its findings with qualitative interviews and surveys conducted in Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states.


Multilingualism: a "potpourri" of discourses
The initial statement in the multilingualism framework strategy holds that the European Union is precisely not a "melting pot" but "a common home where we celebrate diversity, and where our many mother tongues are a source of wealth and a bridge to greater solidarity and mutual understanding."

While this statement stresses commonality between Europeans in that they share respect for linguistic diversity, multilingualism policy emerges in interviews as a "potpourri" of national and European discourses which do not simply coexist in harmonious equilibrium: they reflect asymmetries and the struggle for hegemony of groups. For example, human rights discourses and discourses on the protection of minorities do not seem to agree with economic pragmatism, that is, with discourses promoting the use of single languages or language combinations to increase economic success.

Multilingualism, therefore, is often conceptualized as a fashion term which is believed to advance the notion of an integrated Europe but which fails to address the fundamental tensions and issues the Union is confronted with.


Evident discrepancies in the Baltic states
The discrepancies in multilingualism policy are particularly evident in responses from the Baltic States: Latvian language planners generally stressed that multilingualism was a language diversity issue with a focus on minority languages; Estonian officials connected it with language learning in general, while for the Lithuanian policy makers multilingualism basically meant the learning of the "big" languages in Europe.

In the context of the Baltic states, multilingualism seemed likely to change meaning and to be liable to political, ideological and other interpretations serving various ethnic, social and political groups and interests. The respondents see the EU as having imposed unclear standards, being more orthodox in demands with the new accession states than with its existing member states. They perceive EU policies as uncoordinated and inconsistent, partly threatening language policies of member states, which could be and have been misunderstood and misapplied.


Human rights discourse vs. economic argumentation
The concept of multilingualism, as used by the EU, is rooted in a linguistic human rights discourse but has, in recent years, been increasingly intermingled with socio-economic argumentation.

The active promotion effort of the economic dimension in current multilingualism policy in many cases runs counter to the ideologies derived from linguistic human rights provisions. This is mainly seen in the contradiction between the asymmetrical distribution of languages in business (and also in EU institutional) contexts and the theoretically equal rights status of European languages, as well as the protection/promotion of minority languages.


Ambivalent attitudes towards English as a lingua franca
Interviewees welcome the use of English as a lingua franca from a practical point of view. English is seen to facilitate communication of the European Commission, often being the only common language among working groups, within unofficial meetings and between Commission employees in general.

However, from an ideological point of view, English as a lingua franca is perceived as a threat to linguistic diversity. In this context, multilingualism policy seems to be an instrument to avoid the worst case scenario of "English only" by encouraging the use of other languages of communication and promoting the formula "mother tongue plus two".


A new term for an established idea
Some interviewees regarded multilingualism as a new and positive term for the concept of linguistic diversity which has been used since before the EUs official multilingualism policy. For these respondents, multilingualism is seen to have a more positive ring to it than linguistic diversity. While linguistic diversity is connected with different languages that separate language users, multilingualism seems to denote togetherness and talking with each other, a "bridge" rather than a Babel-like situation. In this context, multilingualism is conceptualized as a way of preserving linguistic diversity.

Multilingualism is often seen as a policy which aims to do justice to the diversity of Europe and to unify Europe through its diversity the European motto "Unity in Diversity".


Researchers propose a transparent communication of the policy
Multilingualism policy, due to all these different aspects, is seen by the researchers to be prone to be interpreted differently by various groups of people and institutions. These various interpretations can even contradict the original aims of the policy.

This ambiguity in interpretation of multilingualism policy may produce scepticism with accession candidates and lead to feelings of neglect of experiences of the past (e.g. colonialism, changed power relations between different states or regions). To reduce such problems, the context in which "multilingualism" is used needs to be clearly defined, especially with regard to the resulting implications in real life.


>>> comment by Patrick Studer, University of Bern, Switzerland