Preventing the Rebuilding of Babel: The Challenge of Minority Language Preservation in the European Union

Due to its widely publicized financial crises of late, it’s easy to forget the utterly revolutionary nature of the European Union.  Before the economic collapse of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, the organization was widely applauded for its unprecedented ability to unify a continent historically plagued by conflict.  Now, despite the disturbingly lopsided balance sheets of its member states, the EU continues to expand.  The future of the eurozone may be in question, but the reach of the EU shows no signs of diminishing.

As its political institutions play an increasingly large role in the lives of European citizens, however, issues of cultural identity have become more problematized. As a crucial mechanism for the transmission and preservation of culture, language lies at the forefront of these debates. The move toward increasing regionalism and accompanying fears of cultural homogenization among the European public have led both to considerable tension within the EU over the concept of linguistic diversity, as well as a revival of national and minority languages.

Following the latest round of expansion in 2007, the EU consists of twenty-seven member states (soon to be twenty-eight with the impending addition of Croatia), which together represent twenty-three official languages “which all enjoy formal equality” (Kraus, 2008, pg. 76). To put this in context, the United Nations maintains a mere six official languages and approximately one tenth the number of translators. Of course, the divergent roles of these two transnational institutions account for their vastly different approaches to linguistic representation. While the UN operates at the global level as the guiding force of international norms, it makes no claims to the cultural representation of the world’s citizens. The EU, in contrast, upholds the commitment to authentic representation of all its citizens as one of its primary goals. Furthermore, while the EU claims twenty three official languages, in practical terms, it primarily utilizes three: English, French, and German.

Numerous charters and documents, the most important among them the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, emphasis the organization’s unyielding commitment to linguistic diversity, though the gap between theory and practice seems to grow exponentially wider with the outward expansion of the Union.  To its credit, however, the EU has not shied away from the language question.  In fact, it has conducted two special Eurobarometer polls focusing exclusively on “Europeans and language,” in an effort to gauge public opinion on the matter.  According to data from the 2001 version, 63 percent believe that it is necessary to protect their own languages more as the EU expands.  Predictably, in smaller countries like Greece and Finland, a robust 90%of respondents agreed.  Still, respondents acknowledged the importance of linguistic diversity, with 71% believing that all EU citizens should speak at least one European language in addition to their mother tongue (Europeans and Languages, 2001). In the 2006 follow-up, 84% of respondents asserted that all EU citizens should speak at least two European languages, though an overwhelming 72% noted that all languages should be treated equally, including 85% of those in the new or candidate member states.

This data mirrors the dual, though often contradictory, goals of the EU: the protection of linguistic diversity, as well as the move toward widespread use of the three “key” languages of English, French, and German. The balance of languages is in constant flux in the EU as it expands into new linguistic territory, but the data clearly indicates a desire for multilingualism and linguistic protection at the supranational level, despite the economic and bureaucratic inefficiencies it may cause (Europeans and their Languages, 2006).

Jean Monnet, one of Europe’s so-called “founding fathers” recognized the fundamental importance of cultural unity to the regional organization, infamously noting that “if we were to do it all again we would start with culture” (qtd. in Shore, 1993, pg. 785).  As the EU moves from a strictly economic union to one aimed at the development of a pan-European identity–and its policies therefore carry a larger symbolic meaning for its citizens–the tension between the desire for efficiency and the genuine representation of the continent’s cultural and linguistic diversity will only increase.

Sources

Kraus, P. (2008). A Union of Diversity: Language, Identity, and Polity-building in Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Europeans and Languages. (2001 February 15). Special Eurobarometer. European Commission. Retrieved from: ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_147_en.pdf

Europeans and their Languages. (2006 February). Special Eurobarometer. European Commission. Retrieved from: ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_243_en.pdf

European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. (1992). Council of Europe. Retrieved from: http://conventions.coe.int/Treaty/en/Treaties/html/148.htm

Shore, C. (1993 December). Inventing the ‘People’s Europe': Critical Approaches to European Community ‘Cultural Policy.’ Man: New Series. 28 (4).  Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.  Retrieved from: http://0-www.jstor.org.library.lausys.georgetown.edu/stable/2803997