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The European Multilingualism Challenge

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by Mauro Morabito In 2007, the European Commission created a new portfolio : Multilingualism. By creating this portfolio, attributed to the Romanian Commissioner Leonard Orban, the Commission wanted to bring its strategy of promoting multilingualism to the next level. One year on, where do we stand ? Multilingualism ? What is that all about ?

Multilingualism is understood as the ability of societies, institutions, groups and individuals to engage, on a regular basis, with more than one language in their day-to-day lives. Languages (including regional languages, dialects, and sign languages) are the basic and most important communication tools we use in our everyday lives. Trough languages we shape our thoughts, and the difficulties of the translation's art well attest to the specific uniqueness of each language, a full universe on its own, condensed extract of an historical experience, a memory and a literary world, made of all the daily utterances, the variations and mistakes its speakers do.

Why promote multilingualism ? The practice of multilingualism and learning languages is deemed important for a variety of reasons, including personal enrichment, intercultural awareness, career opportunities and cognitive development. Or as the European Commission puts it : "the more languages you know, the more of a person you are". That's right : speak more languages, and you'll be better equiped to take advantage of everything Europe's got to offer. Don't, and you may well end up stuck.

Eversince the launch of the LINGUA program in 1989, EU initiatives in that field have thus grown into a proper policy of its own, which culminated with the nomination of Orban as a dedicated commissioner. Concrete objectives have been set over time, and the focus has shifted on what practical solutions - beyond classical exchange programs - could be implemented to actually achieve a more massive access to multilingualism among Europeans.

Intellectuals for Intercultural Dialogue

In that respect, one of the latest documents commissioned by the EC contains some interesting concepts. Published in early 2008, the report entitled "A rewarding challenge : how the multiplicity of languages could strengthen Europe" , prepared by a group of "intellectuals for intercultural dialogue" consulted by EC on these matters, chaired by Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf (and including including Tahar Ben Jelloun, Eduardo Lourenço and Jan Sokol), proposed the very interesting concept of personal adoptive language. “The idea is that every European should be encouraged to freely choose a distinctive language, different from his or her language of identity, and also different from his or her language of international communication.

Why is this? According to the Study group proposals, relations between peoples should “hinge by way of priority on the languages of the two peoples involved rather than on another language.” What the EU tries to foster is in fact people to people exchanges. We shall not forget that 2008 is the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue.

Bolstering motivation is No.1 priority in language education

As stated in the High Level Group Final Report on Multilingualism - another important EU document published last year, “enhancing learners' motivation is the crucial element in achieving the desired breakthrough in language learning across Europe.”

Motivation is what shapes the very essence of language learning, and at the end, what makes the greatest difference in results. We all have experienced this both regarding language teaching/tutoring on one side, and our hobbies and passions on the other. We are keen to do -and proud to show off our skills for- things we are interested in. Memory works likewise: a car-lover would be able to recognize all sorts of cars, and tell all characteristics to the unlucky passer-by.

Even mind-breaking Russian verbs of motion, the scary world of Japanese polite language, Finnish’ 15 cases (ever heard of allative and adessive?) become fun-fun-fun, if an energetic professor shines them at us, or if we love J-pop, go to sauna and drink vodka. Possibly not all at the same time. But then again: real Finnish sauna have people shrouded in mind-relaxed, very reserved “hiljaisuus”, silence - not so many chances of language learning there.

Languages-friendly cultures

Decision makers and teachers have an infinite set of tools at their disposal for bolstering motivation and exposition to languages. What comes to mind is, obviously, the society choice of subtitling vs. dubbing movies and TV programs.

Dubbing is usually more expensive, more complex and time-consuming than subtitling. But let’s see a very concrete European example. Instead of comparing Swedish (subtitling country) and Italy (dubbing mecca), just think of Portugal and Spain, two neighbours sharing more than geographical vicinity.

Since 1920s and sound film arrival, countries with a large audience like Spain (with Germany, Italy and France) started to dub foreign movies, also making good use of the possibility to change dialogues completely. Censorship had promptly invaded the new medium of the time. In Spain dubbing was also used to boost the use of Castilian over the various regional languages such as Galician, Catalonian and Basque, forbidden during Franco's time. Portugal chose instead to adopt subtitling, with evident linguistic benefits for its population.

Nowadays in Europe the proportion of subtitling is slowly growing, also in the countries most attached to dubbing, also in favour of an alleged preservation of national identity. Especially among younger generations, with more exposure to foreign languages, travels and international communication, there is a growing fondness for subtitles, and appreciation for this tool that allows us to listen to the original dialogue and… improve our linguistic skills at the same time.

But of course, the bulk of the population in Europe’s dubbing countries still awaits to fully savour and benefit from subtitles and a more direct access to their beloved soap operas, action movies or the “Sex and the City” and “Heroes” of the moment. Greater exposure to international languages from an early age, and through our friend, Mr. Telly, is great no? European and member state leaders, make your choice!

An infinite set of tools

Beyond traditional TV and it’s lurking passiveness (however beneficial exposure can be), we have available more and more in Europe such language learning tools as the edutainment sector would offer.

In 2005, the TV-series “Una Casa in Italia” - "Talo Italiassa" was designed to encourage the learning of Italian in Finland. YLE, the Finnish state TV is far ahead of most national TV companies in the continent, providing a dedicated web page for lifelong learning, where languages are prominently featured.

But we Europeans are still surpassed by the superb Japanese TV language programs, running everyday for several hours on state channels. All major languages, including sign language, are presented in a structured, entertaining and easy-to-follow 20-minute format, making use of the latest findings in applied linguistic and second language acquisition.

Japanese teenager and ‘salarymen’ have also the possibility to improve their language skills easily on the metro or commuting everyday. ‘Dokodemo Gogaku!’ “language learning everywhere”, it's a language course entirely developed for mobile phones.

Some heart-warming European steps: the Lingua Brochure

And we Europeans? Well… all that’s left is to have a look at the brand-new Lingua Brochure, collecting some 30 outstanding projects made in EU for promoting language learning. We are on the good track, right?