Does Europe need one language?

An analysis of the challenging linguistic diversity in the European Union

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2008

24 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

Title page




1 Introduction

2 Linguistic and political overview of the EU 7
2.1 Languages in the EU
2.2 Officialese arrangements of the EU
2.3 Babylonian language confusion

3 Does the EU need one language?
3.1 The necessity of a lingua franca for the EU
3.2 Language Analysis
3.3 Conclusion on monolingualism

4 Linguistic diversity- A European heritage
4.1 The necessity of a multilingual EU
4.2 EU initiatives for linguistic diversity
4.3 Conclusion on multilingualism

5 Prosperous Babel
5.1 Conclusions
5.2 Critical appraisal


Appendix I Language allocation in the EU

Appendix II The tower of Babel

Appendix III Eurobarometer

Appendix IV Knowledge of foreign languages


The project of 27 diverse nations unified in the democratic idea of the European Union (EU), communicating, deliberating and deciding in 23 official languages, reached a point at which the integration process has to overcome cultural, social and language barriers. In the past the EU often had to prove its flexibility and ability to adjust its administration to new entering countries with every enlargement. However after the latest enlargement in 2007, the EU is facing an undeniable discrepancy. On one hand the diversity of every nation should be preserved but on the other hand the EU strives for a collective European Community. Consequently, it is no surprise that the EU was not able to agree on one official constitution until now. Along with the recent contentious discussions about one common European constitution, the question if Europe needs one language arose as well.

Although Europe speaks about 239 languages, about 47% of the EU citizens speak English, adding up the native speakers and those who speak it as their second langue. This development is also observable in the operating diplomacy of the EU. Almost 50% of the official documents are published in English and the conferences are mostly held in English additional to only two or three other official languages. However, the EU spends about 1 billion Euros for translation services and employs about 2800 interpreters, of which about 500 to 700 work on a daily basis. Considering the increasing expenses and human resources needed to maintain linguistic diversity, mainly on a public communication level and inconsistently on a ministerial and presidential level, a monolingual solution for the EU would be justified.

Of course such a European lingua franca would have to meet certain requirements, such as neutrality, historical background, flexibility and easy acquirement, in order to be suitable for European Community. The ancient lingua franca Latin, the artificial language Esperanto and the current international lingua franca English were considered as a potential lingua franca. However none of them is able to meet the requirements and foster the European integration at the same time. Not even English, which proved to be a commonly used working language in the EU, is able to create a European identity. In addition, choosing English as the European lingua franca would discriminate all other countries not having English as their national language. This hegemonic language allocation would likely end in an international conflict and eventually threaten the cultural diversity. So in the end a monolingual solution cannot be the future of the EU and its citizens.

All the different European languages hand down the common European heritage shared with every European and therefore form the essential basis for the EU and the European identity. Recognizing the importance of multilingualism for the EU, the EU Commission actively encourages the EU citizens to individually acquire at least two additional foreign languages.

In the end, it can be said, that Europeans do not need one European language in order to feel ‘European’ and committed to the idea of European Union. However the EU institutions might not be able to continue with the maintenance of their official language diversity and likely have to reduce them in order to reduce administrative costs and to ensure the proper functioning of the EU.


Within the main phase of the ‘Fontys Internationale Hogeschool Economie’ in Venlo, IBMS students have the chance to participate in the minor program, as an individual specialization. This report represents the result of a research project, conducted in the module MLA 5 “Individual Report” within the Minor “European Studies”. Writing the report allows students to develop competencies in a particular field within the setting of the minor program. The recipients are lecturers of the minor program, primarily my tutor Mr. Brimmen.

This report deals with the linguistic situation of the EU after the enlargement in 2007. It puts stress on the publicly discussed question, if Europe needs a common language. In the end a conclusion and therefore an answer is presented.

At this point I want to thank my tutor, Mr. Brimmen, for his assistance and guidance. The tutor meeting helped me especially in the challenging task of finding an appropriate structure for this report.

Ilinca Apolzan, Venlo, 9th May 2008


Minority language is a language spoken by a minority of the population of a country. In

Europe such languages would be Welsh, Catalan or Basque.

Lingua franca is a language used by people, whose mother tongues differ, in order to communicate. Any language could conceivably serve as a lingua franca between two groups, no matter what sort of language it is.

Europol is the European Union's criminal intelligence agency.

Eurobarometer is a series of surveys regularly performed on behalf of the European Commission. It produces reports of public opinion of certain issues relating to the European Union across the member states.

1 Introduction

On the occasion of the actual International Year of Languages, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly and the European Year of Intercultural Dialog, language diversity is a worldwide discussed issue this year. Both initiatives contribute to mutual understanding and a better living together, while exploring the benefits of cultural diversity and fostering a sense of European belonging. In summary, all objectives “relate to a contemporary European and global society faced with intercultural challenges.” <>.

Today the European Union (EU) is home to 497 million people from diverse ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. The Union is the only organization that unifies so many different countries, more precisely 23 official languages and 27 European nations (Zimmer 2007, p. 20). Driven by the common idea of creating a democratic community and a globally competitive market, the EU strongly corroborates equality of every nation’s culture, values and languages. Nevertheless the EU is currently struggling with the discrepancy between cultural and linguistic diversity and the equal integration of every member state. Additionally, the emerging English, as the international lingua franca, seems to put a strain on the peaceful cooperation of all 23 official languages. In view of this unfortunate development the question aroused if Europe needs one common language.

The first two segments of chapter 2 are to give an overview of the linguistic situation and the official language arrangements of the EU. The following segment describes the contentious situation of the EU, caused by superior number of languages, high costs and the actual inequality of some official languages.

In the first subsection of chapter 3 several reason for adopting only one official language are determined. Thereupon the languages Latin, Esperanto and English are analyzed to examine if one of them is able to function as the European lingua franca. In the last part of chapter 3 a short conclusion on monolingualism is drawn and the effects on the functioning of the EU explained. Based on the previous formulated conclusion, the first segment of chapter 4 for will sum up main reasons for maintaining the European language diversity. In addition the positive attitude of the EU towards multilingualism and its main objectives for a multilingual EU are presented. A final result on multilingualism and the answer of the core question of the report ends this chapter. A final conclusion aims to point out the necessity of lingual diversity for the future progress of the EU.

2 Linguistic and political overview of the EU

The following chapter gives a broad overview of the languages spoken in the European Union. It shall describe in short the roots and the linguistic allocation of the modern languages in the EU. Furthermore it presents the official arrangements of the EU institutions regarding the current official languages. In the end the disadvantages of a multilingual organization, such as the EU, are examined.

2.1 Languages in the EU

Since the entry of Romania and Bulgaria in the EU in 2007, the EU counts 23 official languages.

The 23 official EU languages are Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Irish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish <>. Including minority languages and dialects, the language variety is much wider. Nevertheless compared to other continents, Europe, with 239 languages, has comparatively few languages (Fischer 2007, p.150).[1]

The EU has fewer official languages than member countries due to the fact, that a lot of European countries share the same languages. For instance Germany and Austria share German, the United Kingdom and Ireland use the same language, Greece and Cyprus share Greek, and Belgium and Luxembourg have common languages with their French, Dutch and German neighbors. This results in 23 official languages for 27 countries. The languages of the EU come from a wide variety of roots. Most are member of the vast Indo-European group, like all Germanic, Romance, Slav and Celtic languages. Another group is the Finno-Ugrian group, which includes Hungarian or Finnish. Most of the minority languages in the EU also belong to one of the above mentioned groups (European Commission, Directorate General Press and Communication 2004, p.5).

As seen in the statistic in Appendix I, Language allocation in the EU on page 20, German is the most widely spoken mother tongue in the EU with about 90 million speakers (18% of the EU population). Moreover, French, English and Italian are each spoken by around 60 million Europeans as their mother tongue. However, English is spoken by 37% of the EU citizens as their first foreign language and is by far the most widely used language of the EU. Compared to the large number of English speakers, only about 10% of the EU citizens speak German or French as their first foreign language. The figures are taken from a survey published by the European Commission (2006, p.16).

2.2 Officialese arrangements of the EU

As said above, the EU as an organization operates in 23 official languages. Each country decides, when joining the EU, which of its national languages will be used as an official EU language. The complete list of the EU’s official languages is then agreed by all the EU governments. In 1958 the EU Council declared in the treaty of Maastricht, that all official languages of the European member states are equally used, without any discrimination, as the official languages of all EU institutions. To this day the EU directive has not been changed and is adopted in Article 21 and 22 of the EU Charta of Fundamental Rights (The EU, 2000, p.13).[2] Nevertheless, this democratic approach entails, that with every entering country, several new official languages have to be accepted by the EU. Furthermore every EU citizen is entitled to address all EU institutions in his or her official language and can expect an answer in his or her language as well. Moreover, all legislation adopted by the EU is directly accessible in all EU official languages, since the EU law is directly binding on each EU citizen <>.

2.3 Babylonian language confusion in the EU

The EU and its multilingualism have often been compared to the construction of the Tower of Babel.[3] Currently the EU has to deal with the Babylonian alike language diversity of 23 official languages. No other supranational organization unites that many official languages <>. Similar to the outstanding constructions of Nimrod, the EU, as a unifying European project, is build on several constructions, such as the common currency, the European Central Bank, common law, common Foreign and Safety Policy and an anticipated European Constitution. EU skeptics question the implementation of the European project and forecast a failure, due to the tension caused by linguistic, cultural, ethical and religious diversity <>.

Multilingualism puts a notable strain on the functioning of the European institutions, by causing misunderstandings and immense costs of about 1 billion Euros (Bormann 2002, p. 93). The promotion of multilingualism entails an immense translation effort. For example about 2800 interpreters work for the EU and translate about 2.4 Million pages and attend about 11.000 conferences a year (Lönnroth 2004, p.3). Despite the immense amount of money consumed for the maintenance of the linguistic diversity and equality in all EU institutions, there are several linguistic restrictions. For example the European Court of Justice operates monolingual in French, similar to Europol in English. Moreover the common Foreign and Safety Policy function only in English and French and finally the European Commission has English, French and German as its internal working language. Only at conferences of the Council of Ministers or in the European Parliament, if required, all languages are provided (Bormann 2002, p.93f.). In conclusion, the EU is facing a paradox, in which the diversity of each Nation shall be preserved, but at the same time a European Community has to be formed. This discrepancy provided a thought-provoking impulse for European linguistic initiatives.

3 Does Europe need one language?

This chapter is designed to evaluate the necessity for the reduction of the official languages of the EU. Furthermore several languages, as possible lingua francas for the EU, will be presented and analyzed based on four principles.

3.1 The necessity of a lingua franca for the EU

In view of the opulence of languages and complicated language arrangements in the EU institutions, it seems very inviting to reduce all official languages in order to reduce costs and conflicts. The British ambassador, Sir Paul Lever, once said about the necessity of a lingua franca for Europe: “If we want more than just an association of nation states, if we want it somehow to have a political character that is European, then a common language is needed.”(Fischer 2007, p.160).

Imagine every EU citizen would have to choose between one advantageous common language, the EU should only operate in, or all nation’s languages as EU official languages. A survey of the European Commission called ‘Eurobarometer’ shows, that 55% of the respondent demand one language for all EU institution, while all binding agreements should be accessible in the reader’s mother tongue.[4] Following this idea, the expensive administration could be simplified and conflicts prevented, without renouncing the rights of the EU citizens. In short, a common EU language would change the EU policy. Moreover, it is likely that a common European language, even if only used for administrational purposes, can encourage the aspired integration and lead to a strong European identity, now that the EU citizen would not only share common history and values but also a common language (Bigini and Svanda 2003, p.2).

In the last years the EU has been part of a worldwide emergence, as the English language became an international lingua franca. For example many documents and part of the official EU homepage[5] are only available in English, the mostly used language in the European diplomacy (Weber 2007, p.91). The tendency towards this linguistic concentration is understandable, looking at the reduced effort and costs, when only operating in a single language, in order to be understood worldwide. Although the above mentioned advantages strongly support one language for the EU, a possible common language has to be determined first in order to fully answer the question, if Europe needs a lingua franca.

3.2 Language Analysis

First of all, before analyzing relevant languages, the main requirements of a European lingua franca have to be considered (Lobin 1979, p. 84):

- it has to be a neutral language
- it has to have relation to European culture, values and history
- it has to be a flexible language
- it has to be easily learnable

Regarding the neutrality of the language it is important to consider the emerging rivalry between countries, when choosing two already existing European languages. Therefore only one neutral language can be lingua franca. The idea of neutral unification has already been implemented when introducing the Euro as the official EU currency in 2002. Furthermore when determining a lingua franca for the EU, it is important that the chosen language evolved from historical and social developments of Europe, in order to build a European identity. Another important aspect is the ability of the language to forward information of different fields, like science, politics or culture. In the end the language should be easily acquired by ever EU citizen, in order to implement this approach in long-term.

Of course it is not possible for the EU or anyone else to create a unifying language, which would be called ‘European’, similarly to the Euro, as a common European language. Therefore several already existing languages were taken into consideration. For example Latin, an ancient lingua franca, was chosen because it is a neutral language used in several fields of science, medicine and literature. Furthermore the artificial language Esperanto was taken into consideration because it is also neutral and easily learnable. Finally English, the current international lingua franca, was analyzed, because it is the most used language in the operative diplomacy (Bigini and Svanda 2003, p.2). German and French are not included due to the lack of importance in the EU diplomacy and its complexity.


In the century of the Imperium Romanum, Latin emerged as the lingua franca of Europe and therefore mainly influenced all other European languages. Even after the breakdown of the Imperium, Latin remained official language in science, art, religion and policy, although it was not spoken by any native speaker anymore. In the 14th century the popular speeches gained immense strength and restrained Latin as the language of the church. Today Latin is not used as a communication medium anymore, except as the external official language of the Vatican in Rome (Grzega 2006, p.73).

If Latin again would be the European lingua franca, no nation should feel disadvantaged, due to its neutral character (Lobin 2007, p. 84). Furthermore it is still an accepted language in schools, science and medicine. Moreover Latin meets the requirement like no other language, to merge European history and culture. Nevertheless Latin remains a dead language and is difficult to acquire. In order to actively use Latin as the lingua franca, most of its grammar would have to be changed and adjusted to the modern standard. This would result in a constructed artificial language and would not be comparable to Latin anymore (Bigini and Svanda 2003, p.3). For this reason Latin cannot be the lingua franca of the EU.


Esperanto is the most internationally spoken artificial language. The language was created by L.L Zamenhof in 1887. 75% of the vocabulary has its origin in the Latin and Romanic languages, 20% emerged from Germanic languages and 5% from the Slavic ones (Bigini and Svanda 2003, p.3). Zamenhof's goal was to create an easy and flexible language that would serve as a universal second language to foster peace and international understanding. The UEA, which functions as the international headquarters of the Esperanto movement is located in Rotterdam. The UEA currently counts 12.253 members of the various Esperanto organizations <>. Recently, Esperanto appears to have reached a plateau far below the level of support necessary if it is to become a universal language. Nevertheless Esperanto has been used at international conferences, in radio and television broadcasts, for books, newspapers and in social events. Esperanto as a constructed language is not officially adopted by any country, and therefore provides the needed neutrality for the European lingua franca. Furthermore the language shows enormous simplifications compared to other languages. For example the spelling and pronunciation are phonetic. It is said, that 500 word roots are enough to express basically anything in Esperanto <>. An important aspect in this analysis is the fact that Esperanto does not aspire to replace local languages unlike other common European languages (Wolf 2006, p.1).

However it is obvious that a constructed relatively young language does not have relations to the European culture and history. Furthermore compared to other European languages the speaker community is not established enough to support a lingua franca. Moreover the flexibility of the language has not been proved yet, since Esperanto has not been used for official purposes. Finally it can be summarized, that Esperanto has no culture and therefore cannot strengthen the European identity. Consequently, Esperanto is not the right choice for the European lingua franca.


English is the current international lingua franca, which means, that it is used as a communication medium by non native speakers all over the world. It is assumed that about 340 Million people speak English as their mother tongue and 350 Million up to 1 billion as their second language <>. The establishment of the world language English is a considerable linguistic development. The reason for this can be found in the far-reaching history of Great Britain (GB). For example the colonization of several countries and continents of the British Empire; the development after the Second World War and ongoing Internationalization in line with the emerging super power USA provided the English language with enough economical and political influence, which is required in order to become a lingua franca (Fischer 2007, p. 149). When using English as the European lingua franca, the EU can avoid a lot of effort, costs and conflicts, since it is already established as the main working language in all EU institutions. Even for each EU citizen it would provide easy access to almost every national culture of the world.

The English language meets the most requirements set for a European lingua franca. Undeniably, English is a European language rooted in European history and culture. Furthermore it is already established in all fields of science, culture, medicine, policy and many more (Lobin 2007, p. 85). Moreover compared to other European languages it can be easily acquired. However one important aspect of this analysis is the neutrality and the ability to strengthen the European identity. English is the official language of various countries and therefore not only reserved for Europe. This also implicates the lacking neutrality of the language, which is highly required for the EU. In short, it cannot be only the European lingua franca. Moreover, choosing English as the lingua franca would disadvantage all non native speakers in the EU and all other countries besides GB. Consequently, all concerned parties may suffer economical and political detriment. The English-skeptics even speak of linguistic imperialism and doubt that the EU with English as the lingua franca can maintain its cultural diversity (Fischer 2007, p.156). Finally, due to the internationally usage of English and the associated American and British culture, English can definitely not form a European identity (Bigini and Svanda 2003, p.3).


[1] Africa has about 2092 languages; America has 1002 languages; Asia has 2269 languages and the Pacific area has 1310 languages.

[2] Article 2 1 of the Charta of Fundamental Rights: Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex, race, colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion or belief, political or any other opinion, membership of a national minority, property, birth, disability, age or sexual orientation shall be prohibited.

Article 22 of the Charta of Fundamental Rights: The Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.

[3] Appendix II The tower of Babel, p. 21

[4] Appendix III Eurobarometer , p.22


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Does Europe need one language?
An analysis of the challenging linguistic diversity in the European Union
Fontys University of Applied Sciences Venlo
European Studies
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Does, Europe, European, Union
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Ilinca Apolzan (Author), 2008, Does Europe need one language?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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