Friday, November 18, 2011

The Tongues of Europe

On November 4, 2011, University of Illinois Professor Zsuzsanna Fagyal gave a talk about multilingual policy in Europe. This topic has caught my attention as of late, fascinated as I am with the extreme plurality of languages currently represented in the EU. Dr. Fagyal—herself multilingual with native or near-native proficiency in French, Hungarian, and English, and fluency or reading knowledge of Russian, German, Italian, Latin, and Romanian—covered the basics of European multilingualism well. 

Twenty-seven EU member states with twenty-three “official” languages, along with dozens of regional, minority and migrant languages: how does Europe do it? 

In the States, we tend to take for granted that we can travel 3,000 miles from New York to L.A. without any serious communication problems. Every road sign along the way is in English, every gas station sells food and drinks with English labels, and every restaurant has menus printed in English (or, if you’ve chosen a “high society” establishment, the waiters politely let you know in English why your 10-year old son may want to re-consider that escargot he ordered…). 

Now, I may be making some assumptions here, as I’ve never actually realized the cross-country road trip of my high school dreams. But the fact remains: in America, English is the lingua franca ad infinitum. However, in the summer of 2010, I took a comparable trip through Western Europe. The story across the pond was quite different. 

From London…
One Friday afternoon, after Portuguese classes at the Universidade de Lisboa, I boarded a Ryan Air flight and said “adeus” to Lisbon for the weekend. One suco and a bag of peanuts later, I touched down in [beautiful] London Heathrow. Once I figured out what “WC” meant, I passed through customs and headed to grab dinner with my friend for the evening. Early the next morning, we boarded the Chunnel train to Paris. Arriving that afternoon tired and hungry with only a few hours to spend in la Ville-Lumière, we decided to forego the traditional trip to la Tour Eiffel in favor of some local hors-d'œuvres and a fresh baguette. Our 6 pm train would reach Barcelona, the Català-speaking capital of the world, in the morning.

Finally feeling ready to dust off some of my rusty Castellano Spanish with the mostly bilingual natives, we spent the next morning on Las Ramblas watching the dressed-up callejeros perform for spare change. After a quick walk to the platja to smell the warm Mediterrànea, we were off to Madrid. By this point, my monolingual friend was happily lost in a sea of languages, his English almost completely useless for the last 48 hours. Our last stop would take us back to Lisbon in the morning, La Cidade de Sete Colinas—four days, four nations and five tongues later. Lisbon.
The trip from London to Lisbon was approximately 1,700 miles, the same distance from Chicago to Phoenix. With this in mind, I return to my question: How does Europe do it? In the face of so many languages, and the basic need to communicate in a globalizing continent with disappearing borders, how can Europeans address the very real challenge of linguistic diversity?

So far, efforts by the EU and the Council of Europe have been ambitious. Brussels’ “Barcelona objective” has as its goal every European speaking two other languages in addition to his or her mother tongue (“M+2”), to help reach economic, social and political objectives in an increasingly borderless EU. Both the EU and CoE believe not only in the inherent value of multilingualism, but its importance for cross-border administrative cooperation, as well as job opportunity and mobility in the Single Market. 

Thus, these supranational bodies have taken steps to protect and promote Europe’s rich linguistic heritage, built mostly on the ideas within the CoE’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Diversity is seen as both a challenge and an asset, and the growing dominance of English as the foreign language has led policymakers to encourage multilingualism in an intentional way. While decisions on language use in schools and public institutions still rest with the state, supranational bodies have done what they do best: provide frameworks, encourage dialogue, and develop resources to reach the goal of “M+2”. 

While Europe’s linguistic future remains unsure, one thing is certain: a borderless EU does not have to mean a monolingual EU. Indeed, those of us who appreciate the richness that language inherently adds to culture should hope not. 

Adam Heinz is a second year student in the Master of Arts in European Union Studies program at the University of Illinois. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Spanish from the University of Illinois in 2010. He has studied abroad in Granada, Spain and Lisbon, Portugal. In 2010-2011 Adam received a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship to study Portuguese. He also was a 2009-2010 Illinois General Assembly General Scholarship recipient. Currently, Adam is working as a Graduate Assistant for the European Union Center. His research interests include the linguistic-economic relationship at the border of Spain and Portugal as a result of EU initiatives. Besides an interest in travel and languages, Adam spends his free time reading, camping and writing music.


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