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Equality, not quantity

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September 26 marks the 5th European Day of Languages. But this celebration of Europe’s linguistic diversity cannot hide the fact that the EU needs to reassess its language policy.

Since enlargement, the EU has been operating in 20 official languages - with Irish to be added to the count in 2007. While most accept that Europe’s many languages enrich it, there are logistical problems faced by the institutions in dealing with so many working languages. Meanwhile, the EU’s proclamation that “all European languages are equal” is sounding increasingly hollow as certain languages are being wiped out.

Cultural genocide

Earlier this month, Patrick le Lay, the Breton chief of the main French TV channel TF1, accused the French government of “cultural genocide” against the Breton people. Why? Because France has pursued language policies designed to eradicate Breton and all the other languages found within its territory for the reason of egalité, an equality where you only have language rights as a French speaker. And how, in these days of supposed linguistic diversity, can this be happening?

While some language communities, stateless nations and regions have a high level of language rights, others have virtually zero. This is reflected at the EU institution level, where there are huge discrepancies over language use. Basque, Catalan and Galician are now co-official within the Spanish state; Irish will be an EU official and working language in just over a year; and the UK has passed Language Acts designed to regenerate Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. However, other languages do not fare so well; Sorbian is having a constant battle in Germany against spending cuts, while the effect of government policies in France and Greece act to eliminate all other languages within their territories.

Lingua franca?

The EU, on the whole, has been admirable in its efforts to put into practice meaningful linguistic diversity and making multilingualism a cornerstone of policy. Critics complain that one language is needed to make work ‘easier’ but this is hardly fair for Europe’s citizens. Currently, English - which was labelled a “killer language” by Danish academic Tove Skutnabb Kangas in a recent interview with Eurolang – is the de facto lingua franca as it is the preferred second language of 85% of those in the EU institutions.

Change is needed to protect linguistic diversity and a proper language policy must be developed - that much is obvious. But how is this to be achieved in fairness to all the citizens of Europe? At the moment there is an unrefined approach, devised in 1958, where most documents are translated into all official languages. Fine for the original EU of 6, but not for one of 25 member states. For example, do we need to have all documentation applicable only to Malta translated into Danish and Hungarian?

Linguistic equality

One solution, conceived by Irish speakers in the 1990s and revived in Catalonia by academics in 2003, originates from the lesser-used language communities themselves. Simply, the idea is that all European languages are made official, but that this designation is distinguished from actual working languages, and that there are only 3-4 working languages - these being English, French, German and possibly Spanish. The thrust of the idea is that the savings made by having fewer working languages would offset by far the costs incurred of making all languages official.

This proposal allows for a fluid, flexible system where lesser-used languages can be used at the EU level, where the everyday internal business of the institutions is conducted in three or four languages, allowing for meetings to be in less widely used languages according to who is in attendance. Through the heart of the proposal run the themes of democratic representativeness and accessibility to the citizen, key to bringing Europe closer to its peoples.

Dr Davyth Hicks will be one of the guest speakers at a café babel debateheld in Brussels on September 26 to coincide with the European Day of Languages.