Long live language diversity

Whilst people all around the world gather around our streets to fight for working rights on May day, I thought it is time to say some words about why language diversity in Europe is so important today.

But what do I mean by language diversity? Does it mean that different languages should be spoken in our society? Does it mean that our children should learn more languages? Is it about protecting small, regional languages, which might be in danger to become extinct?

I would say that language diversity is a mix of all of it. Being able to communicate in different languages is not only about official languages or learning a language in school, it’s much more.

Generally, language diversity is strongly linked to language policy. What is language policy? Well, language policy is about discussing language issues on a political level. This includes one of the most important parts, legislation. A country can for example decide to impose an official language in a country. Most countries define one language as their official language, meaning that it should/must be used in administration, justice, politics, and so on.

Nevertheless, linguistic diversity is not a matter of course. Nationalistic movements have ever since fought for “their” national language. Many languages have been banished, not only since colonialism, but also recently, while building nation states. There is a strong movement on the right side of the political spectrum standing against linguistic diversity, we can see debates over all Europe where right-wing parties demand that “only the national language may be spoken during school recreation”, to give one example. Language is not only important when it comes to identity and culture, but also by forming a nation. In a multilingual and diverse society, it is even more important to fight for linguistic rights and diversity on all levels.

The European Union is one of the major players in this matter. The motto of the European Union “United in diversity” also reflects linguistic diversity. It is enshrined in Article 22 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights  (“The Union respects cultural, religious and linguistic diversity”), and in Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union  (“It shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.”).

One of the most important instruments in creating legislation of European languages on an international level is the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML). The charter seeks to protect regional and minority languages in Europe on an official basis, by giving them a special status within the signing member states. The charter only includes regional or minority languages already spoken in the nation state, not languages coming from immigrant movements. While a majority of the European Union countries have signed and ratified the Charter, there are still some major countries blocking the signature or ratification of the paper, for example France, Italy and Belgium, countries with a significant number of regional languages in need of protection.

Even though regional and minority languages are important in the discussion, language diversity is not only about this. It includes beside official and widely accepted languages also immigrant languages which are often forgotten or ignored in the debate. It might seem confusing or annoying when minority languages get special coverage, while largely accepted immigrant languages, in Europe for example Arabic or Turkish, don’t get the same attention. Language diversity is about accepting and promoting all languages spoking in the society, and in my opinion much more needs to be done in this matter.

Here are some basic arguments for promoting linguistic diversity:

  • Languages define personal identities, but are also part of a shared inheritance.
  • Language can serve as a bridge to other people and open access to other countries and cultures, promoting mutual understanding.
  • A successful multilingualism policy can strengthen the life chances of citizens: it may increase their employability, facilitate access to services and rights, and contribute to solidarity through enhanced intercultural dialogue and social cohesion.

What can we do to promote and increase linguistic diversity?

  • Be open for other languages, learn a new one, or try to remember some of your “Hallo, mein Name ist…”  / “Bonjour, je m’appelle… “from school, why not find a language course nearby or catch up with a language partner?
  • Speak and promote your own dialect and language variety! New research shows that speaking different varieties or dialects can have the same positive effect on your brain as different languages (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26774217)
  • Try to see the positive side of speaking different languages: Beside the fact that it’s fun, speaking different languages open new possibilities, both in private or in your potential new job. Recent surveys show that European companies are in demand of people being capable to speak more than one language, beside English!



One thought on “Long live language diversity

  1. Good thing, language diversity. One may argue that it could be more difficult for some people to access to jobs for example, if they do not speak the ‘right’ language. This has been a problem some decades ago for famers& their kids who were only speaking their regional language. That’s why grandparents, who learned ‘normal’ german for the first time in school, never tought me our regional language. I had to take a course at my university to learn it. Unfortunately, education (such as language skills) is often a matter of money, which is referred to our social background. So, while talking about language diversity we also have to talk about equal access to education.


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