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Europe as a Multicultural Area

The European Union (EU) would not have become what it is if it had allowed the principle of one State's domination over another. Neither empire nor nation-state, the Union makes no attempt to hide the diversity of its members while taking as its motto “unity in diversity”. Initially launched by six States, the EU now counts fifteen members and is about to increase to twenty-five. The Union must now rethink the way in which its institutions function and reflect on how to engender a sense of supranational belonging among citizens from so many countries and cultures, speaking so many different languages.

Linguistic diversity in Europe
The most prominent symbol of European diversity is that of languages and their role as cultural badge. Even with the inroads English has made in European affairs, there is no language that dominates Europe. Linguistic diversity particularly applies to European public space, even more than to private space.

Until now the Union has recognized 11 languages officially: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish, to which must be added Irish when it is a matter of the translation of treaties. The EU policy of official languages represents a compromise between the principle of recognition of all national languages and the principle of facilitating and streamlining communication within the Union. In 2004 at least nine new languages join the list: Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Slovak, Slovene, Estonian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Malte.

Living and working together in several languages
European multilingualism can be found in three types of situations:
The first type of situation involves European institutions and their pivotal role among national societies and the Union, institutions such as the European Parliament*, the Council of Europe*, and the European Court of Justice*, all of which are equipped to work in all official languages. Their functioning depends on a growing army of translators and interpreters to negotiate the 380 linguistic pairs produced by the recognition of 19 official languages. In the absence of a direct link these institutions accept that a intermediary language be used between two others - for example if no Hungarian/Swedish capacity is available, each language is first translated into English and then into the other. The risk of such a procedure is the loss of nuance of each language and the increased possibility of misunderstanding.

The second type concerns the most integrated European Authorities like the European Commission* and the Court of Auditors* which work in three languages (German, French and English) with the result that two languages emerge as dominant: English since it is the leading language in the non-Hispanic world for economic and scientific exchange; and the European community jargon born of daily interactions among speakers of more than twenty nationalities. This “sociolect”, often referred to as Eurospeak, Franglais, or Frenglish, is a relatively unstable language which has developed outside of any national linguistic habits, leading thus to an incomprehensibility of European concepts. This is the result of Europe's insistence on respect for its languages, and if member States are having difficulty accepting this situation as the way of the future, it should be seen as the price to pay for a democratically-functioning Europe.

The third type of situation concerns the daily routine of speakers and listeners where diversity is the rule, a diversity similar to the rich ground out of which national linguistic constructions arise. Member States are encouraged to reinforce their citizen's linguistic capacities, just as the white paper report by the European Commission on a “knowledge-based society” insists that a knowledge of languages contributes to “the reinforcement of the sense of belonging to Europe in its cultural richness and diversity, as well as to better understanding among citizens of Europe. Multilingualism is as much a structuring element of European identity and citizenship as it is of a knowledge-based society.”

A Eurobaromètre poll taken in 2000 showed a clear progress being made by Europeans towards multilingualism. 45% of Europeans are able to take part in a conversation in a language other than their native tongue.1 English is spoken as either native language or first foreign language by 47% of European citizens, followed by German (32%), French (28%) and Italian (18%). English is considered by 69% of the population as the most useful language to know, and French by 37%.  Reinforcing language learning at an early age is the best way to give individuals the chance to communicate in a larger arena than their national one while connecting them to several points in Europe instead of just one. This is turn makes Europe more intelligible to citizens, as a cultural and political space that is wider than their habitual social setting.



à lire

• Bellier I. & Wilson (eds), 2000. An Anthropology of the European Union: Building, Imagining, Experiencing Europe. Oxford, New York, Berg.
• Irène Bellier. 2001. "Pluralisme linguistique et intégration européenne : les tensions identitaires de l'Union". Horizons philosophiques, vol 12, n°1 : pp. 53-86
• Irène Bellier. 2002. "European identity institutions and languages in the context of enlargement". Journal of Language and Politics, vol 1, 1.


Irène Bellier
Researcher at the CNRS
Laboratoire d'anthropologie des institutions et des organisations sociales (LAIOS)
Tel: +33 (0)1 49 54 21 98

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