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A guide to languages in the European Union

11 September 2008
by eub2 -- last modified 11 September 2008

The European Union has 27 Member States and 23 official languages. Each Member State, when it joins the Union, stipulates which language or languages it wants to have declared official languages of the EU.


Linguistic Diversity

The EU is founded on the principle of diversity of cultures, customs and beliefs. This includes languages.

The official languages of EU countries alone represent three language families: Indo-European, Finno-Ugric and Semitic. And compared to other continents, this is relatively few. Linguistic diversity has become more visible than ever because people now have much more contact with foreigners than ever before. They increasingly face situations where they have to speak languages other than their own, whether through student exchanges, migration and business in Europe's increasingly integrated market, tourism or even general globalisation.

Article 22 of the EU's charter of fundamental rights, adopted in 2000, requires the EU to respect linguistic diversity and Article 21 prohibits discrimination based on language. Together with respect for individuals, openness towards other cultures, tolerance for others, respect for linguistic diversity is a core EU value. This principle applies not only to the 23 official EU languages but also to the many regional and minority languages spoken by segments of its population. It is this that makes the EU what it is - not a 'melting pot' that reduces difference, but a place where diversity can be celebrated as an asset.

According to the Treaty of Lisbon, signed by the Heads of State or Government of all EU Member States in December 2007, the EU shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe's cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.


Language Learning

The European Union actively encourages its citizens to learn other European languages, both for reasons of professional and personal mobility within its single market, and as a force for cross-cultural contacts and mutual understanding. The Union also promotes the use of regional or minority languages, which are not official EU languages but which are spoken by up to 50 million people in the Member States, and as such form part of Europe's cultural heritage.

The ability to understand and communicate in more than one language is seen as a desirable life-skill for all European citizens, enabling them in particular to take advantage of the freedom to work or study in another EU Member State.

A recent Eurobarometer survey of public opinion shows that half of the citizens of the European Union say they can hold a conversation in at least one language other than their mother tongue. The percentages vary between countries and social groups: 99% of Luxemburgers, 93% of Latvians and Maltese and 90% of Lithuanians know at least one language other than their mother tongue, whereas a considerable majority in Hungary (71%), the UK (70%), Spain, Italy and Portugal (64% each) master only their mother tongue. Men, young people and city dwellers are more likely to speak a foreign language than women, senior citizens and rural inhabitants, respectively.

The European Union's programmes for co-operation in the field of education and vocational training include specific measures to promote language teaching and learning.

EU Funding for Languages

Language Teaching

Language teachers have a crucial role to play in building a multilingual Europe and can awaken in the learner an enthusiasm for languages that will last a lifetime.

Schools need to prepare children to take part in a society that is open to other cultures and in which they can come into contact with people from many different countries and traditions.

Schools also have a wide remit to help children develop the full range of their communicative abilities, including their mother tongue, the language of instruction (where different) and languages other than their mother tongue, together with intercultural skills.

Every school therefore should have a coherent, unified policy, which takes as its starting point the linguistic and cultural mix of the local community and in which knowledge about language(s), practical skills in using languages and skills in how to learn languages are given due weight.



Translation in the European institutions concerns legislative, policy and administrative documents, which are complex and highly formal in form and content. In such translation, repetition and strict adherence to layout and stylistic rules are signs of good practice. Electronic translation support tools are very useful for this purpose.

A multilingual system like the EU relies on professional linguists to keep it running smoothly. The role of the language services in the various EU institutions and bodies is to support and strengthen multilingual communication in Europe and to help Europeans understand EU policies. In particular, the work of written translators enables the EU to meet its legal obligations in terms of communicating with the public.

The EU passes laws that are directly binding on individuals and companies, and as a matter of simple natural justice, they and their national courts must be able to read these laws in a language they can understand. More broadly, every citizen in the EU is entitled and encouraged to make a contribution to the cause of European integration, and they must be able to do this in their own language.

The work of the EU's institutional translation enhances the EU's openness, legitimacy and efficiency. Their precise tasks and working methods vary depending on the role of each institution.



The EU, with its 27 Member States and 23 official languages, is unique in the world in its mulitlingualism. This means much extra work, which might, at first glance, seem to outweigh the advantages. But there are special reasons for it. The EU passes laws that are directly binding on its citizens and companies, and as a matter of simple natural justice, they and their national courts must be able to read these laws in a language they can understand. More broadly, every citizen in the EU is entitled and encouraged to make a contribution to the cause of European integration, and they must be able to do this in their own language.

This is especially true in the European Parliament, where MEPs elected by the public discuss proposed laws, as well as in the many expert groups helping the Commission in its work. This is why the EU institutions employ many conference interpreters. As opposed to translation, interpreting deals exclusively with verbal communication - rendering a message from one language into another, naturally and fluently, adopting the delivery, tone and convictions of the speaker and speaking in the first person.

Language Technology

Europe, unsurprisingly, is a world leader in language technology, with the European Commission bringing together language experts and ICT specialists from across Europe to focus their resources on the problem:

* the development of language technologies has been a policy priority for some time, and has recently been reaffirmed as part of the i2010 initiative for a European Information Society. See 'Policies' for more;
* most of the language technologies used by professional translators and everyday Web users have originated in Europe's research programmes - see Activities for an overview of how.

More and more Europeans are working together across national boundaries to pool their resources, share experiences and compete in today's increasingly globalised world. This usually means either working in multiple languages ... or working in one.

The tendency towards monolinguality can be seen on-line - while the World Wide Web allows anyone to address a global audience, few do so in all languages.

But the World Wide Web is just one application. More are on the way as Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) increasingly integrate themselves into our daily lives. If these technologies do not understand us in all our cultural and linguistic diversity, that diversity will be threatened.

Promoting Cultural Diversity and Economic Growth

ICTs, however, also promise to help enrich Europe's cultural diversity - in fact, they are already doing so. While it will be still some time before your mobile phone translates whatever you say into any language you like, 'machine-assisted' translation technologies are already helping professional translators work more efficiently.

By reducing the cost of working in multiple languages, such technologies do not just help preserve linguistic diversity - they reduce the costs for European businesses and other organisations in working together in Europe's single market.

As new language technologies develop, moreover, they will make Europe's cultural heritage available to all, irrespective of language or location. This will be a boom to Europe's cultural industries, helping 'unlock' the vast resource that is European culture, art and history.

Language technologies, in short, are essential to ensuring that all European languages - and the culture, art and history with which they are inextricably entwined - maintain their place in tomorrow's globalised, interconnected world.


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