European Language Policy? Let the people speak!

Is the European Language Policy offering an adequate answer?

Well, no. When does the European Union ever give an adequate answer? Generally speaking, from what I’ve assessed during these three years of European (Union) Studies, the EU rarely provides an appropriate solution. The complexity of their decision making system, their feeble enforcement system and their subsidiarity to Member States are some of the reasons why the EU has proven to be ineffective in its objectives. The Commission may have honourable and grand intentions, as can be read in the impressive and ambitious European Commission Communication (2008), but these are too far-reaching or abstract to be operationalized. This EC communication, for instance, expresses the necessity to value all languages and overcome language barriers in order to allow dialogue and social cohesion (2008); but provides no recommendation, measure or deadline for reaching such a utopian aspiration.

As shown by recent history, most top-down initiatives, such as these institutional objectives, are doomed to fail. When concerning Language Planning and Policy (LPP), this is ever truer. Speaking is the most voluntary action we do in our daily life; all citizens of the EU must, at least unconsciously, dedicate a lot of their thoughts to what they said or what they will say, as communication affects our social relations, which stand the closest to our heart. It seems, therefore, natural, that if we are imposed to speak a language that we do not care for, or to not communicate with the dialect we use in our daily life, we will do exactly the opposite. Notwithstanding the potential of authorities to control us online, in fact, ordinary citizens have, after years of historical struggles, obtained the right of free speech and expression, which also includes the right to speak in any language.

Spanish Minority Regional Languages (MRL) son habladas por las más orgullosas Aires-de-independencia-soplan-en-Catalunacomunidades lingüísticas en Europa, como consecuencia de su historia de represión. Philipe II hizo España artificialmente monolingüe y nacionalista, una condición llamada en España carpevetonico (Lasagabaster, 2011, p.113).  Además, la dictadura de Franco esforzó el Castellano como idioma nacional, sin tolerancia por dialectos y MRL. Todos hemos visto en TV las personas y banderas por las calles de Madrid, llamando por la independencia de un gobierno que los ha opresado de sus derechos de expresión!

Another interesting example of a failing language policy is the case of Gaelic education in Ireland. Here, a top-down process institutionalized Gaelic as a compulsory subject in schools, creating hatred among the students for this obsolete language nobody spoke.

So should governments just sit down and watch as RML disappear? Of course not, but they should make Language Policies in response to the public‘s requests, as outlined in the five-tier model, which was inspired by the relatively successful Welsh Language Policy case. The initiative should start from the roots of society, from the speakers, who should mobilize to share their vision for the future of their RML. As it acquires legitimacy and usage in the different domains, then the institutions come in to play, allowing representation in strategic areas; consequently triggering a normalization of the language speaking across the spheres of society (cit. Williams, 2000 in Laugharne, 2007). In the Welsh case, the latter two elements were thoroughly embodied: speaking Welsh, in the southern area, has in fact become a trend! The success of this language policy is also thanks to its encompassing nature, the fact that, contrarily to the Irish case, this policy took English into consideration.

With respect to the EU, an example that broadly followed the principle of the five-tier model is the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML, 1992). The ECRML has origins in a bottom-up initiative rooted in the desire to enhance peace across Europe, which was particularly felt during the period of terrorist attacks. It was institutionalized by the Council of Europe with the signing of the Charter by 25 Member States, committing towards positive rights and protection of RML across their respective countries (Grin, 2003). Therefore, it became a top-down approach of Member States checking boxes for audits’ assessments every three years .  The Charter has no enforcement measures to insure implementation, no clear definitions around the concept of RMLs and, being an EU instrument, it’s too bureaucratic to attract citizens’ attention.

In the EU itself, the linguistic landscape is heavily complex, causing increasing costs and incongruences, creating lack of transparency and accountability. The wide spreading of English is occurring across the European continent as well as across the European Union institutions; at the cost of subtracting from other languages and pidginizing communication with a “technocratic dumping-down” (Phillipson, 2003, p. 176). In his critique on the subject, Phillipson offers a broad series of recommendations, starting with the need to trigger discussions at all levels on the subject of LPP, from the public to the professionals, from the MEPs and policy-makers, to researchers and media stakeholders (2003). The EU, in fact, must base its LPP on citizen’s desires, requirements, feelings and attitudes, or these will be find no support and accountability. These discussions must allow RML communities to stand up for their interests and should be aimed at finding common grounds for the use of language as a cultural heritage and an embodiment of identity.

I started this course with the mainstream view that the EU should simply resign to the usage of English, if they desire to operate the most effectively as possible. However, seen the relative fail of the EU in ensuring that its policies are truly in the interest of its citizens, who in turn don’t have access to documents and decision-making; I now believe that the EU should take a more multilingual path.

For instance, the notion of intercomprehension (Doye, 2005), already existent in the business domain, represents, in lines with the 1+2 language proficiency European ambition dating back to the Barcelona Council (LETPP, 2011), an approach to contrast the Imperial dominance of English as lingua franca and as the EU de facto working language. This method involves the learning of strategies to understand any language; as Doye claims, it can be learned fast and easily. We already have a Common European Framework of References for Languages…!



Doye (2005). Intercomprehension. Guide for the Development of Linguistic Education Policies. Strasbourg: Council of Europe – Language Policy Division, p. 1-11 and 18-20.

European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Strasbourg 1992.

European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, Strasbourg 1992.

European Commission (2008). Multilingualism: An Asset for Europe and a Shared Commitment. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, The European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, Brussels.

Grin, F. (2003). Language Policy Evaluation and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. London: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 53-68.

Lasagabaster, D (2011). Language Policy in Spain: The Coexistence of Small and Big Languages, in: C. Norrby and J. Hajek (Eds.) Uniformiy and Diversity in Language Policy. Global Perspectives. Bristol-Buffalo-Toronto: Multilingual Matters. P. 109-125.

Laugharne, J. (2007). Language use and Language Attitudes in Wales. In D. Lasagabaster & Ángel Huguet (eds.), Multilingualism in European Bilingual Contexts. Language Use and Language Attitudes. Clevedon-Buffalo-Toronto: Multilingual Matters, pp. 208-233.

LETPP Consortium (2011) Languages in Europe. Towards 2020. Analysis and proposals. Council of Europe.

Phillipson, Robert (2003). English-Only Europe? Challenging language policy. London: Routledge. Chapter 6. Recommendations for action on language Policies, pp. 175-192

Williams, C.H. (2000). Restoring the language. In G.H. Jenkins and M. A. Williams (eds) “Let’s o the best for the ancient tongue”: The Welsh Language in the Twentieth Century. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

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