Languages of the European Union
|This article's factual accuracy may be compromised due to out-of-date information. (March 2013)|
|Languages of the European Union|
|Main immigrant language(s)|
|Main foreign language(s)|
The languages of the European Union are languages used by people within the member states of the European Union. They include the twenty-three official languages of the European Union along with a range of others. The EU asserts that it is in favour of linguistic diversity and currently has a European Commissioner for Multilingualism, Androulla Vassiliou.
In the European Union, language policy is the responsibility of member states and EU does not have a common language policy; European Union institutions play a supporting role in this field, based on the principle of "subsidiarity", they promote a European dimension in the member states' language policies. The EU encourages all its citizens to be multilingual; specifically, it encourages them to be able to speak two languages in addition to their mother tongue. Though the EU has very limited influence in this area as the content of educational systems is the responsibility of individual member states, a number of EU funding programmes actively promote language learning and linguistic diversity.
The most widely spoken mother tongue in the EU is German, while 51% of adults can understand English. All 23 official languages of the EU are accepted as working languages, but in practice only three are used most often: English, French, and German. Of these, English is the most common. French is an official language common to the three cities that are political centres of the Union: Brussels (Belgium), Strasbourg (France) and Luxembourg city (Luxembourg). Catalan, Galician and Basque are regional languages that have an official status in the EU.
Official EU languages
As of 1 January 2007[update], the official languages of the European Union, as stipulated in the latest amendment of Regulation No 1 determining the languages to be used by the European Economic Community of 1958, are:
|Language||Official in (de jure or de facto)||Since|
|Czech|| Czech Republic
United Kingdom ( Gibraltar)
The number of member states exceeds the number of official languages, as several national languages are shared by two or more countries in the EU. Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, and Swedish are all official languages at the national level in multiple countries (see table above). In addition, Czech, Danish, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Slovak, and Slovene are official languages in multiple EU countries at the regional level.
Furthermore, not all national languages have been accorded the status of official EU languages. These include Luxembourgish, an official language of Luxembourg since 1984, and Turkish, an official language of Cyprus.
All languages of the EU are also working languages. Documents which a member state or a person subject to the jurisdiction of a member state sends to institutions of the Community may be drafted in any one of the official languages selected by the sender. The reply is drafted in the same language. Regulations and other documents of general application are drafted in the twenty-three official languages. The Official Journal of the European Union is published in the twenty-three official languages.
Legislation and documents of major public importance or interest are produced in all twenty-three official languages, but that accounts for a minority of the institutions′ work. Other documents—e.g., communications with the national authorities, decisions addressed to particular individuals or entities and correspondence—are translated only into the languages needed. For internal purposes the EU institutions are allowed by law to choose their own language arrangements. The European Commission, for example, conducts its internal business in three languages, English, French, and German (sometimes called "procedural languages"), and goes fully multilingual only for public information and communication purposes. The European Parliament, on the other hand, has members who need working documents in their own languages, so its document flow is fully multilingual from the outset.Non-institutional EU bodies are not legally obliged to make language arrangement for all the 23 languages (Kik v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market, Case C-361/01, 2003 ECJ I-8283).
The linguistic translations are expensive. According to the EU's English-language website, the cost of maintaining the institutions′ policy of multilingualism—i.e., the cost of translation and interpretation—was €1,123 million in 2005, which is 1% of the annual general budget of the EU, or €2.28 per person per year. In 2005 the Grin Report compared several linguistic policy options and concluded that the adoption of Esperanto as the common language would hypothetically allow savings (25 billion euros a year, over € 56 for every citizen) and have other benefits, however the report's recommendations are not applied.
Although Maltese is an official language, the Council set up a transitional period of three years from 1 May 2004, during which the institutions were not obliged to draft all acts in Maltese. It was agreed that the Council could extend this transitional period by an additional year, but decided not to. All new acts of the institutions were required to be adopted and published in Maltese from 30 April 2007.
When Ireland joined the EEC (now the EU) in 1973, Irish was accorded "Treaty Language" status. This meant that the founding EU Treaty was restated in Irish. Irish was also listed in that Treaty and all subsequent EU Treaties as one of the authentic languages of the Treaties. As a Treaty Language, Irish was an official procedural language of the European Court of Justice. It was also possible to correspond in written Irish with the EU Institutions.
However, despite being the first official language of the Republic of Ireland and having been accorded minority-language status in the UK region of Northern Ireland, Irish was not made an official working language of the EU until 1 January 2007. On that date an EU Council Regulation making Irish an official working language of the EU came into effect. This followed a unanimous decision on 13 June 2005, by EU foreign ministers that Irish would be made the 21st official language of the EU. However, a derogation stipulates that not all documents have to be translated into Irish as is the case with the other official languages.
The new regulation means that legislation approved by both the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers will now be translated into Irish, and interpretation from Irish will be available at European Parliament plenary sessions and some Council meetings. The cost of translation, interpretation, publication, and legal services involved in making Irish an official EU language is estimated at just under €3.5 million a year. The derogation will be reviewed after four years and every five years thereafter. Irish is the only official language of the Union that is not the most widely spoken language in any member state. According to the 2006 Irish census figures, there are 1.66 million people with some ability to speak Irish in Ireland out of a population of 4.24 million, though only 538,500 use Irish on a daily basis (counting those who use it mainly in the education system), and just over 72,000 use Irish as a daily language outside the education system.
The vast majority of the official languages of the European Union belong to the Indo-European family, the three dominant subfamilies being the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic. Germanic languages are spoken in central and northern Europe and include Danish, Dutch, English, German, and Swedish. Romance languages are spoken in western, southern European regions; they include French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish. The Slavic languages are to be found in the central Europe and the Balkans in southern Europe. They include Bulgarian, Czech, Polish, Slovak, and Slovene. The Baltic languages, Latvian and Lithuanian; the Celtic language, Irish; and Greek are also Indo-European.
Outside the Indo-European family, Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian are Uralic languages while Maltese is the only Afroasiatic language with official status in the EU. The Basque language, which roots are unknown, is the official language in northwestern Spain.
Nearly all official EU languages are written in the Latin alphabet. The exceptions are Greek, which is written with the Greek alphabet, and Bulgarian, which is written in Cyrillic. The current design of euro banknotes has the word euro written in both the Latin and Greek (Ευρώ) alphabets; the Cyrillic spelling (Eвро) will be added to the new issue of bank notes starting in 2013 (see Linguistic issues concerning the euro).
Due to the similarity between Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin – to the extent that they are mutually intelligible across the region – it was proposed that only one joint language be accepted as an official EU language as opposed to four separate ones (as in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) in order to reduce translation costs. In negotiations with Croatia, however, it was accepted that Croatian would become a separate official EU language.
No official recognition
According to the Euromosaic study, some regional or minority languages spoken within the EU do not have official recognition at EU level. Some of them may have some official status within the member state and count many more speakers than some of the lesser-used official languages. The official languages of EU are in bold.
In the list those idioms deemed by member states as mere dialects of an official language are not included. It should be noted that many of these alleged dialects are widely viewed by linguists as separate languages. These include Scots—the Germanic language descended from Old English, not the Celtic language known as Scots Gaelic—and several Romance languages spoken in Portugal and in Italy, such as Mirandese, Lombard, Ligurian, Piedmontese, Sardinian, Venetian, Corsican, Neapolitan, and Sicilian.
Languages of Spain's autonomous regions
The Spanish governments have sought to give some official status in the EU for the languages of the Autonomous communities of Spain, Catalan, Galician and Basque. The 667th Council Meeting of the Council of the European Union in Luxembourg on 13 June 2005, decided to authorise limited use at EU level of languages recognized by member states other than the official working languages. The Council granted recognition to "languages other than the languages referred to in Council Regulation No 1/1958 whose status is recognized by the Constitution of a Member State on all or part of its territory or the use of which as a national language is authorized by law." The official use of such languages will be authorized on the basis of an administrative arrangement concluded between the Council and the requesting member state.
Although Basque, Catalan, and Galician are not nation-wide official languages in Spain, as co-official languages in the respective regions – pursuant to Spanish constitution, among other documents – they are eligible to benefit from official use in EU institutions under the terms of the 13 June 2005 resolution of the Council of the European Union. The Spanish government has assented to the provisions in respect of these languages.
The status of Catalan, spoken by over 9 million EU citizens (1.8% of the total), has been the subject of particular debate. On 11 December 1990, the use of Catalan was the subject of a European Parliament Resolution (resolution A3-169/90 on languages in the [European] Community and the situation of Catalan.
On 16 November 2005, the President Peter Straub of the Committee of the Regions signed an agreement with the Spanish Ambassador to the EU, Carlos Sagües Bastarreche, approving the use of Spanish regional languages in an EU institution for the first time in a meeting on that day, with interpretation provided by European Commission interpreters.
On 3 July 2006, the European Parliament's Bureau approved a proposal by the Spanish State to allow citizens to address the European Parliament in Basque, Catalan and Galician, two months after its initial rejection.
On 30 November 2006, the European Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, and the Spanish ambassador in the EU, Carlos Bastarreche, signed an agreement in Brussels to allow Spanish citizens to address complaints to the European Ombudsman in Basque, Catalan, and Galician, all three co-official languages in Spain. According to the agreement, a translation body, which will be set up and financed by the Spanish government, will be responsible for translating complaints submitted in these languages. In turn, it will translate the Ombudsman's decisions from Spanish into the language of the complainant. Until such a body is established the agreement will not become effective.
Luxembourgish and Turkish
Luxembourgish (Luxembourg) and Turkish (Cyprus) are the only two national languages that are not official languages of the EU. Neither Luxembourg nor Cyprus have yet used the provision from the 13 June 2005 resolution provision to benefit from use in official EU institutions.
United Kingdom minority languages
In response to a written parliamentary question tabled following the 13 June 2005 resolution on official use of regional languages, the UK Minister for Europe, Douglas Alexander, stated on 29 June 2005, that "The Government have no current plans to make similar provisions for UK languages."
The Romani people, numbering over two million in the EU, speak the Romani language, which is not official in any EU member state or polity. Moreover, Romani mass media and educational institution presences are near-negligible.
Though not an official language of the European Union, Russian is widely spoken in all member states that were part of the Soviet Union. Russian is the native language of about 1.6 million Baltic Russians residing in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, as well as a sizeable community of about 3.5 million in Germany. Russian is also understood by majority of the ethnic Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians, since, as official language of the Soviet Union, it was a compulsory subject in those countries during the Soviet era. However, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the ability to speak Russian has been declining among younger ethnic Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians. 7% of all EU citizens speak or understand Russian language.
In Finland, the Sami languages Northern Sami (ca. 2000 speakers), Skolt Sami (400) and Inari Sami (300) have limited local recognition in certain municipalities of Finnish Lapland. Furthermore, legislation specifically concerning the Sami must be translated to these languages. Bilingualism with Finnish is universal, though.
Three different Sami languages are spoken in Sweden, but "Sami language" (undifferentiated) is recognized as an official minority language in Sweden, and is co-official with Swedish in four municipalities in Norrbotten County (Swedish Lapland).
For several centuries, Latin was the lingua franca for administrative and scholarly purposes in a large part of what is now the European Union. Therefore, several institutions use Latin in their logos and domain names, instead of listing their names in all the official languages. For example, the Court of Justice has its website at http://curia.europa.eu/. The Court of Auditors uses Curia Rationum in its logo. The Council of the European Union has its website at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/ and its logo showing Consilium. The motto of the European Union has a Latin version at an early stage of conception: “In varietate concordia”. Under the European Company Regulation, companies can be incorporated as Societas Europaea (Latin for "European Company", often shortened to "SE" after the company's own proper name).
Esperanto is part of the educational system in several member states. In Hungary it is officially recognized by the Ministry of Education as a foreign language; and examinations in Esperanto may be used to meet the requirements of knowledge of foreign languages needed to complete university or high school. Every year, since 2002, about 2000 people have passed examinations in Esperanto and it is recognized by the state.
Esperanto is not mentioned by the EU Commission as an EU language; the Commission mentions only official, indigenous regional and minority languages as well as languages of immigrants. Following estimates there are approximately 100,000 Europeans sometimes using Esperanto (and several millions having learned Esperanto); the language has several thousand native speakers.
The European party Europe – Democracy – Esperanto seeks to establish the planned language as an official second language in the EU in order to make international communication more efficient and fair in economical and philosophical terms. They are based on the conclusions of the Grin Report, which concluded that it would hypothetically allow savings (25 billion euros a year for the UE, over € 56 for every citizen) and have other benefits.
A wide variety of languages from other parts of the world are spoken by immigrant communities in EU countries. Turkish is spoken as a first language by an estimated 1% of the population in Belgium and the western part of Germany, and by 1% in the Netherlands. Other widely-used migrant languages include Berber which is spoken by about 1% of the population of both the Netherlands and Belgium and by many Berber migrants in Spain and Germany. Maghreb Arabic is spoken by migrants in France and Italy. Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, and Punjabi are spoken by immigrants from the Indian sub-continent in the United Kingdom. Balkan languages are spoken in many parts of the EU by migrants and refugees who have left the region as a result of the recent wars and unrest there.
There are large Chinese communities in France, the U.K., Spain, Italy, and other countries. Some countries have Chinatowns. Old and recent Chinese migrants speak various Chinese dialects, notably Cantonese and other southern Chinese tongues. However, Mandarin is becoming increasingly more prevalent due to the opening of the People's Republic of China.
|Official languages||First language||Additional language||Total||Semi-Official (s) and other non-official languages||First language||Additional language||Total|
|Italian||13%||3%||16%||Scottish Gaelic (s)||<1%||0%||<1%|
At 16% of the total number of speakers, German is the most widely spoken mother tongue, while English is the most widely spoken language at 51%.
The knowledge of foreign languages varies considerably in the specific countries, as the table below shows. The five most spoken second or foreign languages in the EU are English, German, French, Spanish, and Russian, followed by Italian. In the table, boxes coloured light blue mean that the language is an official language of the country, while the main language spoken in the country is coloured dark blue.
|This article is outdated. (June 2012)|
* Candidate country Source:
1 40% of those who speak French are native speakers, for a total of 85%.
2 About 30 % native speakers, totalling more than 90%
3 More than 30 % native speakers, totalling close to 100%
56% of citizens in the EU member states are able to hold a conversation in one language apart from their mother tongue. This is nine points higher than reported in 2001 among the 15 member states at the time. 28% of the respondents state that they speak two foreign languages well enough to have a conversation. Almost half of the respondents—44%—do not know any other language than their mother tongue. Approximately 1 in 5 Europeans can be described as an active language learner (i.e., someone who has recently improved his/her language skills or intends to do so over the following 12 months).
English remains by far the most widely spoken foreign language throughout Europe. 95% of students in the EU study English at secondary level and 38% of EU citizens state that they have sufficient skills in English to have a conversation (excluding citizens of the United Kingdom and Ireland, the two English-speaking countries). 28% of Europeans indicate that they know either French (14%) or German (14%), along with their mother tongue. French is most commonly studied and used in southern Europe, especially in Mediterranean countries, in Germany, Portugal, Romania, the U.K., and Ireland. German, on the other hand, is commonly studied and used in the Benelux countries, in Scandinavia, and in the newer EU member states. Spanish is most commonly studied in France, Italy, Luxembourg, and Portugal. In 19 out of 29 countries polled, English is the most widely known language apart from the mother tongue, this being particularly the case in Sweden (89%), Malta (88%); the Netherlands (87%); and Denmark (86%). 77% of EU citizens believe that children should learn English. English was considered the number one language to learn in all countries where the research was conducted except for the United Kingdom, Ireland and Luxembourg. English, either as a mother tongue or as a second/foreign language, is spoken by 51% of EU citizens, followed by German with 32% and French with 26%.
With the enlargement of the European Union, the balance between French and German is slowly changing. More citizens in the new member states speak German (23% compared with 12% in the EU15) while fewer speak French or Spanish (3% and 1% respectively compared with 16% and 7% among the EU15 group). A notable exception is Romania, where 24% of the population speaks French as a foreign language compared to 6% who speak German as a foreign language. At the same time, the balance is being changed in the opposite direction by growth of the French-speaking population and decrease of the German-speaking population.
Language skills are unevenly distributed both over the geographical area of Europe and over sociodemographic groups. Reasonably good language competences are perceived in relatively small member states with several state languages, lesser used native languages or "language exchange" with neighbouring countries. This is the case in Luxembourg, where 92% speak at least two languages. Those who live in southern European countries or countries where one of the major European languages is a state language have a lower likelihood of speaking multiple foreign languages. Only 5% of Turkish, 13% of Irish, 16% of Italians, 17% of Spanish and 18% from the U.K. speak at least two languages apart from their mother tongue.
Free language lessons (26%), flexible language courses that suit one's schedule (18%), and opportunities to learn languages in a country where it is spoken natively (17%) are cited as the main incentives encouraging language learning. Group lessons with a teacher (20%), language lessons at school (18%), “one-to-one” lessons with a teacher, and long or frequent visits to a country where the language is spoken are considered to be the most suitable ways to learn languages.[by whom?]
While documents for and communication with citizens are in every official EU language as a right, day-to-day work in the European Commission is based around its three working languages: English, French, and German. Of these English is used most often. The use of English vs. French depends a lot on the unit or directorate. German is rarely used as a true working language in the Commission. Only a few of the Commissioners use a non-English tongue as their working language. This disappoints many in France, and Kristalina Georgieva, who is from Bulgaria, gained a round of applause when she told Parliament she would learn French while in the Commission. Parliament itself translates its proceedings into all official languages, although the actual spoken language of MEPs is sometimes English, so that fellow MEPs can understand them better than if they had the delayed translation. Committee meetings also often default to the language most understood by those attending instead of listening to the translation.
The European Union ability for legislative acts and other initiatives on language policy is based legally in the provisions in the Treaties of the European Union. In the EU, language policy is the responsibility of member states and the European Union does not have a common "language policy." Based on the principle of "subsidiarity," European Union institutions play a supporting role in this field, promoting cooperation between the member states and promoting the European dimension in the member states language policies, particularly through the teaching and dissemination of the languages of the member states (Article 149.2). The rules governing the languages of the institutions of the Community shall, without prejudice to the provisions contained in the Statute of the Court of Justice, be determined by the Council, acting unanimously (Article 290). All languages, in which was originally drawn up or was translated due to enlargement, are legally equally authentic. Every citizen of the Union may write to any of the EU institutions or bodies in one of the these languages and have an answer in the same language (Article 314).
In the Charter of Fundamental Rights, legally binding since its inclusion in the Lisbon Treaty, the EU declares that it respects linguistic diversity (Article 22) and prohibits discrimination on grounds of language (Article 21). Respect for linguistic diversity is a fundamental value of the European Union, in the same way as respect for the person, openness towards other cultures, and tolerance and acceptance of other people.
Beginning with the Lingua programme in 1990, the European Union invests more than €30 million a year (out of a €120 billion EU budget) promoting language learning through the Socrates and Leonardo da Vinci programmes in bursaries to enable language teachers to be trained abroad, placing foreign language assistants in schools, funding class exchanges to motivate pupils to learn languages, creating new language courses on CDs and the Internet, and projects that raise awareness of the benefits of language learning.
Through strategic studies, the Commission promotes debate, innovation, and the exchange of good practice. In addition, the mainstream actions of Community programmes which encourage mobility and transnational partnerships motivate participants to learn languages.
Youth exchanges, town twinning projects, and the European Voluntary Service also promote multilingualism. Since 1997, the Culture 2000 programme has financed the translation of around 2,000 literary works from and into European languages.
In addition, the EU provides the main financial support to the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, a non-governmental organization which represents the interests of the over 40 million citizens who belong to a regional and minority language community, and for the Mercator networks of universities active in research on lesser-used languages in Europe. Following a request from the European Parliament, the Commission in 2004 launched a feasibility study on the possible creation of a new EU agency, the "European Agency for Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity." The study concludes that there are unmet needs in this field, and proposes two options: creating an agency or setting up a European network of "Language Diversity Centres." The Commission believes that a network would be the most appropriate next step and, where possible, should build on existing structures; it will examine the possibility of financing it on a multi-annual basis through the proposed Lifelong Learning programme. Another interesting step would be to translate important public websites, such as the one of the European Central Bank, or Frontex web site also, in at least one other language than English.
Although not an EU treaty, most EU member states have ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
To encourage the member states to cooperate and to disseminate best practice the Commission issued a Communication on 24 July 2003, on Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity: an Action Plan 2004 - 2006 and a Communication on 22 November 2005, on A New Framework Strategy for Multilingualism.
From 22 November 2004, the European Commissioner for Education and Culture portfolio included an explicit reference to languages and became European Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Multilingualism with Ján Figeľ at the post. From 2007 until 2010, the European Commission had a special portfolio on languages, European Commissioner for Multilingualism. The post was held by Leonard Orban. Since 2010, the portfolio was merged with education and culture, again.
EU devotes a specialised subsite of its "Europa" portal to languages, the EUROPA Languages portal.
- Languages of Europe
- European Commissioner for Multilingualism
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by Conseil de l’Europe "The Spanish authorities are also encouraged to clarify the status of Galician in Castile and León
Portuguese in the town of Olivenza
Berber in the Autonomous City of Melilla and Arabic in the Autonomous City of Ceuta
and take appropriate steps to protect these languages in co-operation with the speakers."
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- European Commission Directorate-General for Translation (DGT)
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- European Union interinstitutional style guide
- Translation tools and workflow
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