BRUSSELS — The European Union brings together 15 states with a total population of 380 million people. Thirteen other countries have applied to join. Europeans speak some 45 different languages, of which 11 are recognized as official languages for the purposes of EU business. But millions of European citizens routinely speak not only the official language of their country but also another European language: For example, 45 percent of EU citizens can hold a conversation in at least one foreign language.

The notion of choosing one of the European languages as a lingua franca for the EU is rejected because it would imply imposing one set of cultural values on everyone. In fact, the diversity of our languages is an essential part of Europe’s cultural heritage and of European identity.

One’s mother tongue is inseparable from one’s wider cultural identity; one shared communication language is not sufficient for the needs of a multilingual union; so the EU works to preserve its linguistic diversity. Each lesser-used language is an enrichment for Europe. Under no circumstances should a dominant culture be allowed to trample over the cultural beauty and wealth, which belongs to us.

Coming from a small country, Luxembourg, I am particularly sensitive to the issue of languages. When I talk about the linguistic situation in Luxembourg, people are always surprised, because we speak our Luxembourgish language, our children learn to read and write German, from the age of 7 they learn French and any problems are explained by the teacher in Luxembourgish. This is multiculturalism in action. Why should it not be done in other countries? Of course it can be done! Lessons can be learned from the regions that have their own language and are surrounded by major languages.

Whereas the global economy is gradually moving toward an innovation- and knowledge-based society, which has enormous growth and employment potential, we Europeans consider it of paramount importance to adapt our educational systems to this new economy. I note with satisfaction that developed countries are becoming aware of the problem. Japan, which is chairing the Group of Eight summit this summer, organized the first-ever meeting of G8 education Ministers at the beginning of April.

Language learning is among the most important items of this debate. The increasingly dynamic European labor market favors people who are able to update their skills; more and more employers see a knowledge of languages as a basic requirement for employees, so the worker who cannot speak foreign languages is increasingly seen as disadvantaged. The members of the EU are working to ensure that businesses have skills in major world languages, such as Japanese, Arabic and Russian, as well as the languages of the EU.

Since language skills are so important to the EU, it is not surprising that it invests considerable sums in encouraging cooperation between its members in the field of language teaching and learning.

For example: Each year, the EU pays for some 7,000 language teachers to take part in in-service training courses abroad, thereby improving the quality of foreign-language lessons for learners across Europe. Each year about 30,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 18 work together on school projects with counterparts abroad. They then travel abroad to work with them in person, and spend time in their families. This practical use of foreign languages enables pupils to improve their language skills and their motivation to learn languages. Other projects involve institutions from different countries working together to create innovative language learning or teacher-training materials.

Throughout the EU, the learning of languages in primary education is becoming widespread. More than 33 percent of primary-school students are learning a foreign language in Denmark, the Netherlands, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, Greece, Spain, Austria, Finland and Sweden. In secondary education, the learning of a foreign language is compulsory for a longer proportion of the school career than was the case 10 years ago. There are now seven members where pupils in upper secondary education learn on average two foreign languages.

As European commissioner responsible for education and culture, I have proposed to organize the European Year of Languages in 2001. The objective is to raise the awareness of the rich diversity of languages in the EU, to make the widest possible audience aware of the advantages of language competence and to encourage lifelong learning of languages. The aim will be to persuade people that it is in their interests to learn foreign languages.

In the Treaty on European Union a European citizenship was established, which is additional to the citizenship of member states. It conveys to citizens the right to travel freely across national boundaries within the EU, the right to set up home in any member state, the right to study and work in any member states, the right to take part in municipal and European elections and the right to petition the European Parliament.

This is an exciting step for the EU, but for people to be able to exercise these rights, they must have foreign-language skills. In fact, the EU still faces some challenges in this area: For many citizens, the theoretical freedom to travel freely across national borders is not yet a practical reality, and there is some evidence that a lack of language abilities is impeding the free movement of citizens.

For all of these reasons, the EU has a policy of actively encouraging citizens to learn foreign languages, not only at school and university, but as a lifelong activity. This is why the commission proposed recently that in the medium term, all EU citizens should be able to speak their mother tongue, plus two other EU languages. This is not an unattainable dream. It is, after all, already the case in several member states or regions.

Multilingualism is a fact of life in Europe. The commission’s active policy of encouraging more citizens to become even more multilingual is stimulated not only by a desire to improve communication and to overcome linguistic barriers to trade and the free movement of people, important though they are.

It is based upon a respect for the cultural heritage of each citizen and on the belief that with the learning of language skills come many other abilities and qualities that are of crucial importance to the European citizen of the future. The more Europe builds upon its multilingual nature, the more mutual understanding and solidarity between all its peoples will be strengthened.

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