Lost in Translation: An EU with Room for Minority Languages

The PDU discusses whether a federal Europe in which EU affairs are conducted in a single language will encourage or hinder linguistic diversity. By Roisin Berghaus.

This past weekend I represented the PDU at the Transeuropa Forum in Berlin and held a workshop on the EU’s linguistic diversity with participants from across Europe. We discussed the benefits and drawbacks of the way languages are represented in EU politics, and also commented on how to “fix” the system. As a former language teacher myself, this question is of particular interest to me. I have helped individuals who speak five languages learn their sixth. I have struggled through grammar lessons with CEOs, secretaries and kindergartners. All of them were enrolled in courses with the thought that speaking another language would help them to go further in life. I often wondered what happens to those who do not have the opportunity to learn another language. Furthermore, while living in Canada I became aware of how the legitimization of English and French as official languages has contributed to the destruction of First Nation cultural identity. I have wondered if such a fate could befall minority cultures in the EU as well.

Our current EU system deals with the question of linguistic diversity in a way that, on the surface, seems entirely reasonable. When a country joins the European Union, its official language becomes one of the EU’s official languages. This happened most recently when Croatia joined the Union this past summer, when the number of official EU languages increased from 23 to 24. As an “official” EU language, citizens have the right to forward their questions to the institutions and receive an answer in their official language. Documents are hypothetically to be translated into all official languages.

On the one hand, it appears that all countries are on equal linguistic footing. All Member State languages are considered official, and all EU citizens can access information on the Union government in the official language of their country. Yet great disparities exist in the way these languages are truly represented. Indeed, it is not in fact the case that all EU documents are translated into each official language. Great knowledge gaps exist at the EU level, with most publications being available in only a handful of languages. And, although citizens can in theory receive documents in their country’s official language, this will take substantially longer than it would if they wrote a question in one of the three working languages. In fact, most EU affairs are conducted in English. It seems, at least to some extent, that the representation of all Member State official languages is more symbolic than de facto.

Given that not all official languages are represented equally at the EU level, what does this categorization of twenty-four languages truly do for the Union? Fundamentally, the EU system of recognizing official Member State languages at the Union level does not in fact promote linguistic diversity at all. It hinders the linguistic diversity in the EU. The recognition of French, Polish, or Spanish as official EU languages, for example, undermines Breton, Lemko Rusyn or Basque as EU languages. And Roma dialects, arguably the most transnational of all European languages, have no place at all in the EU institutions.  It costs the EU 1.4 billion Euro per year to translate its documents into all official languages. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, disempowering a language in turn disempowers a culture, a history, and an identity. We are thus left to wonder whether the cost of this delegitimization is perhaps too steep both financially and culturally.

In our workshop, many voiced the idea that we need a common language to communicate with each other, but at the same time greater recognition of marginalized languages. We had different ideas of how to make this common language accessible to all. Some favoured better education, others linguistic exchanges, while still others were more supportive of greater access to bilingual or multilingual books, magazines and movies. More effective real-time translation devices were also cited as a solution to the EU’s language barriers, which would certainly be an exciting way to enable speakers of diverse languages to collaborate with each other.

In the PDU’s vision of a federal Europe, protection of all EU languages, not simply the most dominant ones, is of fundamental importance. We believe that EU affairs should be conducted in a single language – as is, whether we like it or not, effectively the case – while regional diversity is respected. The “Europe of the Regions” model that a federal Europe promotes enables diverse local cultures to flourish in a way that the current Member State model does not. We look forward to seeing a more collaborative and culturally rich Europe where unity in diversity is paramount.

It is clear that people want to discuss the implications of European integration on linguistic diversity. We are thankful to European Alternatives for making this event possible.

Image “Language Communities of Twitter” courtesy of Eric Fischer via Flickr released under creative commons 2.0 attribution.

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