EU Language Policy
The Conference on language learning and linguistic diversity was the final phase of a consultation process which had begun a few months before. The Heads of State and Government had, at the Barcelona European Council of 15 and 16 March 2002, asked the European Commission to pursue the action undertaken to improve basic language proficiency, particularly by teaching two foreign languages from an early age. The European Commission undertook a whole range of consultation on the ground – from end-November 2002 to end-February 2003 – with a view to gathering the opinions of all the players involved.
Mrs Reding reiterated how strongly she – as a Luxembourger – felt about the language issue and pointed out that language proficiency was most important in Europe, in terms of communication and economic competitiveness as well as in terms of culture and understanding others. She also stressed the objective of “mother tongue plus two” in a lifelong learning context, making the point that knowledge of English was not the miracle solution and that proficiency in the languages of the neighbouring countries was just as important.
Lastly, Mrs Reding repeated the three main themes proposed in the consultation started in November 2002:
- extending the advantages of language learning to everyone throughout life
- improving the quality of language teaching at all levels
- creating a language-friendly environment in Europe
Before concluding her address, Mrs Reding stressed her interest in the so-called minority and regional languages, stating that projects had been co-funded by the Commission in order to promote the existence and development of these languages, but that the ad hoc budget heading had ceased to exist in 2000.
The Conference continued with its plenary session and there were addresses by academics and experts in the area of languages. Profession Tore Janson, formerly of the University of Göteberg, focused on the matter of “languages in the European European”. There were, he said, some 6 000 languages in the world, so the more complex a society the greater the need for effective communication and therefore an increasing number of speakers and languages. He also stressed that language is one of the principal components of identity, which was why the European countries were seeking to keep up the use of their languages. Lastly, he stressed the importance of the role of the European Union with regard to languages and proposed the idea of "cultural unity in linguistic diversity".
The plenary session continued with an address by Professor Gérard Westhoff of the University of Utrecht. His theme centred on the "trends in foreign language teaching". Using a very informative Power Point presentation, he compared the three standard methods of language learning: rule-based learning, total immersion or a blend of the two. His conclusion was that the mixed method was the best.
Mrs Doris Flischikowski, Director of the University of Potsdam Language Centre, continued the debate by focusing on the matter of “training of language teachers for a multilingual Europe". She highlighted the importance of training for teachers who had to take account of technological innovation in their profession and make their lessons more attractive for their students, e.g. by laying greater emphasis on knowledge linked with their future occupational lives. She strongly encouraged teachers to travel in order to reap the benefits of experience of other countries. Lastly, John Walter Jones of the Welsh Language Board concluded the plenary session by highlighting the importance of regional languages which – in order to exist – depend on the number of actual speakers. As Mrs Reding had said, “linguistic diversity is the basis of cultural democracy in the European Union” and he sincerely hoped that the Commission would do its utmost to safeguard these languages.
Just before the break for lunch, a panel of speakers chaired by Mr Pär Stenbäck, former Finnish Minster, debated the question “Where to now? Towards a language policy for the future”.
Work resumed in the afternoon with a number of workshops. The participants, divided up into a number of small groups, debated several issues. The workshop “How to improve language learning at school” was chaired by Richard Johnstone who, by way of introduction, noted that the learning of a language substantially improves when people have to deal regularly with that language in a given country (in varying sets of circumstances). The people present reported on their experiences. Anna-Vari Chapalain, for instance, spoke about the running of certain schools in Brittany where the aim was for children to be bilingual Breton/French by the end of primary school. Another workshop focused on "How to create a language-friendly environment". The debates were chaired by Michel Lefranc.