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Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Culture,
Multilingualism and Youth
Why languages still matter
Vice-President of the European Parliament,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to Cyprus!
I feel very honoured to see you all in my home country, and wish you a happy and
memorable stay on our island.
elcome also to this wonderful building in the heart of Limassol.
I can think of no better invitation to fruitful industry than to be gathered
here today in the town's old Carob Mill.
Our host, the Lanitis Foundation, continues a proud family tradition of
supporting education and the arts in the local community.
The late Evagoras Lanitis, a renowned personality in Cypriot public life, was
convinced that companies, as well as being profitable, should also contribute to
society as a whole.
His wife and sons maintain this ethos today.
I hope you will agree that the Lanitis Centre is a most fitting place for our
And allow me to thank my services, in particular our Multilingualism Unit, for
organising such an engaging programme, which promises lively debate, fresh
thinking and, I hope, new friendships.
I know how hard you all worked for this conference, and I salute your efforts.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This is an important moment for languages in Europe.
As we continue our celebration of the European Day of Languages, we have one eye
on the past and one on the future.
Ten years ago, in Barcelona, European Union leaders set out an ambitious vision
of language-learning and its contribution to every child's education.
The aim was clear: to improve the mastery of basic skills, in particular by
teaching at least two foreign languages from a very early age.
Today, it is only natural that we should try to take stock.
How useful was the Barcelona target?
How much progress have we made so far?
Where do we go next?
These are some of the questions we will be discussing today and tomorrow.
But before we talk about what needs to be done, I think we should pause to
reflect on where we all stand today.
To be more precise, I believe this is an opportune moment to consider the place
of languages within the European Union.
To put it bluntly, do languages still matter, and why?
I would offer a simple response:
the day when Europe ceases to speak its many languages is the day that Europe –
as an idea, as a project – ceases to exist.
In spite of a profound economic crisis, which has rocked the European Union to
its very foundations, our fundamental objective remains the same:
to work together for a better society while fully respecting our differences.
We continue to believe that freedom, equality, solidarity and diversity can be
reconciled in a common endeavour.
Language is essential to this mission.
If we no longer take the trouble to learn our neighbours' language, then we are
less likely to understand their concerns, and even less likely to lend a helping
Experience tells us that we are more willing to make sacrifices for those that
we know and trust.
Today as much as ever, culture and language remain potent factors of our sense
I believe the role of language goes even deeper than this: it is about our
relationship with our fellow human beings and how we empathise with them.
Today, science helps us to understand the workings of the human mind, and one
phenomenon is especially interesting for any discussion of language-learning:
the act of imitation.
I think many of us would recognise how imitation helps us to learn a new
Is it not both pleasurable and curious to see how we try, quite instinctively,
to imitate the sound of the other's voice – the accent, the intonation, the
Imitation is one of the most vital human skills, and the new sciences of the
brain are helping us to understand just how important it is.
The scientist and former teacher of English, Iain McGilchrist, has developed
this idea. McGilchrist says:
"Human imitation is not slavish.
It is not a mechanical process – dead, perfect, finished – but one that
introduces variety and uniqueness.
The enormous strength of the human capacity for imitation is that our brains let
us escape from the confines of our own experience and enter directly into the
experience of another being.
This is the way in which we bridge the gap, share in what another person feels
and does, and what it is like to be that person."
I believe that these ideas have major implications for the debate on
language-learning and its place in European society.
Science is beginning to tell us new things about our mind and how it manages
important social functions such as language and our relations with other people.
To put it very simply, if we begin to lose interest in learning other people's
languages – and if we no longer try to imitate our neighbours in this very
natural and healthy way – then we no longer enter into their world, and do not
empathise with their thoughts and feelings.
This, I believe, is the most profound and urgent reason why Europe, perhaps more
than ever before, must encourage its people to learn new languages.
It continues our historic mission to bring peace to our peoples.
Having briefly looked into the workings of the human mind, let us now return to
the global stage and the workings of international relations.
When we debate the importance of learning new languages, we are speaking about
the European Union's place in the world.
And it is here that I find much of my optimism.
I believe that if this twenty-first century is to be marked by further economic
and technological integration, the continued expansion of our communication
networks, and greater mobility among our peoples, then the European Union may be
better equipped to prosper in this new world than many people believe.
Europe has a long history of managing its own diversity, including its cultural
and linguistic variety.
Of course, this has not been one long success story.Far from it.
The European Union was, at its birth, the response to a catastrophic failure to
Still today we cannot ignore the spread of populist and sometimes xenophobic
sentiment in our national politics.
But I believe we can and will overcome these tensions precisely because our
diversity has become such a central part of who we are. It's part of our DNA.
So much of our political debate, both national and European, grapples with the
question of how we reconcile liberty, equality and solidarity in a multicultural
This is a permanent conversation across Europe, which has already existed for
many years and will continue for many more, and it defines who we are.
The European Union today is home to 23 official languages – Croatia will take it
to 24 next year – and around 60 minority and regional languages, not to mention
well over 100 migrant languages.
Some will always be spoken more widely than others, but we value all of them
Each and every language embodies a unique cultural identity, and none should be
sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.
At this point, I would like to pay tribute to the translation and interpreting
services of the European Commission and Parliament, whose Director Generals are
here with us today.
No other organisation in the world functions in as many languages as we do, and
we should be proud of the excellent service that we provide to our citizens day
in day out, often under the most trying circumstances.
Our commitment to cultural and linguistic diversity belongs to the unique
political model that the European Union has offered to the world over the last
Europe's openness both among its own nations and towards the rest of the world,
I believe, constitutes the core of our 'soft power' for the years to come.
Of course, I am not naïve.
I recognise that today's economic crisis has raised serious questions about the
future of European integration.
I accept that our sense of solidarity is being stretched to its limits, and that
many people question the benefits of a globalising economy.
But in spite of these worries, I am convinced that Europe's unique historic
response to the question of diversity prepares us well for the knowledge-based
society that has arrived.
At this point, I would challenge the idea, as others have done recently, that
the rise of English as the global lingua franca is inevitable and without
Certainly, for many years to come, the dominance of English in global affairs
seems set to continue.
But history tells us something about the uncertainty that accompanies such
In the words of the eminent linguist, Nicholas Ostler:
"None of us live long enough to see the course of development of a global
language, although we may witness some of the salient events in one, such as the
revival of Hebrew in Israel, the abolition of Russian from schools in the
Baltic, or the growth of competence in English in Japanese students.
This inevitably gives the impression that these relatively sudden changes are
where the action lies.
By contrast, we are led to believe that a development that has taken centuries,
such as the rise of English, is ultimate and unstoppable.
These impressions are deceptive."
Next to the question of Europe's place in the world comes that of our economic
Beyond today's urgent task of solving the eurozone crisis, we must also address
the deeper imbalances between our economies, and think carefully about the sort
of economy we want to build.
And this brings us to the question of education.
The European Commission estimates that, by 2020, around 15 million new jobs in
Europe will require high-level skills.
In 2020, about one third of all jobs will demand such skills.
This is how the knowledge-based society translates into real needs and political
The question facing the European Union is simple and stark:
will we invest sufficiently in the modernisation of our education systems so
that we can empower all our young people, irrespective of their social
background and financial means, to develop their full potential as human beings?
Education now occupies a central place in the European Union's economic
Many of you will be familiar with 'Europe 2020', our road-map out of the crisis
and onto the path of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.
Among its five headline targets, 'Europe 2020' calls on Member States to expand
tertiary education to 40 per cent of young people, and reduce the number of
early school leavers to below 10 per cent.
Now, every year, the European Commission recommends policies to all of the
Member States, advising them how to address the most urgent challenges to their
economy, including through education and training.
Let me be clear.
This new promotion of education within European policy-making is momentous.
it is precisely as a central pillar of education for the knowledge-based society
that we want to position the learning of new languages.
This explains why the European Union's future programme for education and
training, 'Erasmus for All', includes language-learning and linguistic diversity
as one of its six objectives.
And I am happy to announce that in their negotiations on 'Erasmus for All', both
the European Parliament and the Member States fully support this new, enhanced
status for languages.
Ladies and gentlemen,
You will have the opportunity over the next two days to discuss 'Erasmus for
All' in more detail, and I will only say a few words about the programme now.
Above all, we plan to finance three types of activity, and each of these will
promote language-learning and linguistic diversity.
Since its creation 25 years ago, the 'Erasmus' programme has allowed more than
two million young Europeans to study abroad.
With a new budget that Member States are negotiating this autumn, we hope to
expand this opportunity so that a much wider group of people can study, train or
'Erasmus for All' therefore creates an historic opportunity to boost
language-learning across the European Union.
By 2020, as many as 900,000 people every year could be enjoying an EU-funded
exchange, as pupils, teachers, students, trainees, youth workers or volunteers.
Our ambition is to integrate language-learning into every mobility experience
for all sectors of education.
If we can achieve this, then we would dramatically increase the number of people
of all ages who are exposed to new languages.
The second pillar of 'Erasmus for All' will support cooperation and partnerships
Our goal is innovation.
Transnational projects encourage openness and excellence, and facilitate the
exchange of good practice between institutions.
We will continue to support pan-European networks for language-learning and
It is here that we must explore how languages interact with numerous other
policy objectives in education.
From early childhood education and care to ICT, language-learning should play a
The third pillar of 'Erasmus for All' will support policy reform.
One of the great strengths of European policy-making is our ability to learn
from one another.
The EU cannot interfere in national education and language policies – the Treaty
forbids it – but we can help to identify policies that work.
We can guide Member States and propose new ideas to them.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I have concluded with a more practical vision of languages within the European
Our new approach to education and training, embodied in 'Erasmus for All',
responds to the urgent needs of European society and the desperate situation of
But let me be clear about one thing.
Our attention to the economic role of languages in no way undermines our
commitment to linguistic diversity as an objective in its own right.
On the contrary.
Today, the European Union's duty to protect and promote diversity is enshrined
more securely than ever before.
Our Charter of Fundamental Rights forbids any discrimination based on language,
and declares that the Union must respect linguistic diversity.
It is our responsibility to ensure that our pride in these values is matched by
an equal commitment to their realisation in daily life.
I can assure you that the European Commission stands ready to do precisely that,
and, in 'Erasmus for All', we will have a powerful tool.
Ten years after Barcelona, this is a moment to measure progress and draw
lessons, and at the same time look to the future and imagine new opportunities.
I believe we can do so with a sense of purpose and optimism.
This year saw the first-ever European Survey of Language Competences as well as
a major poll of public opinion – the Eurobarometer.
These two surveys have created a vast and comprehensive body of research, which
will help us to design a new European benchmark on language-learning.
The Commission plans to launch the benchmark in the near future.
The Eurobarometer and the Survey of Language Competences tell a fascinating
story, and you will have the chance to explore them in more detail tomorrow.
The most important message that I took away from the research is that we all
have a lot of work to do if Europe is to become more multilingual, but the
general public recognises the importance of the task.
At the start of my presentation, I asked the question of whether language`s
In the eyes of our citizens, languages have never been as important as they are
The European Commission could not agree more.