The European Day of Languages
As we mark the European Day of Languages, it’s worth taking a closer look at the statistics published today.
Over 84% of primary school pupils, and 98.6% of lower secondary school pupils, learn a foreign language in EU-27. In all but two bilingual countries (Belgium and Luxembourg), English is the first foreign language, followed – by some distance – by French, German and Spanish.
These figures show that English has become a ‘lingua franca’ of Europe; this is to be welcomed at one level, as we have one language that a growing number of us can communicate in. But this also challenges us. Even in Europe’s largest countries, such as Germany and France, universities have introduced English-language courses to cater to international (not just EU) students. But how do we maintain a diversity of national academic approaches, of debate, of discourse, if we all converge on one language? French critical thought and German philosophy, for instance, have been intertwined with language and meaning; are we the poorer if we express ourselves academically in languages other than our first language?
There are also real challenges for our diversity, not least in small countries: The Universities of Tartu (Estonia) and Ljubljana (Slovenia), for instance, are centres of learning with a critical national remit. In places such as these, the importance for sustaining national intellectual traditions and discourses must be balanced against the need for ‘internationalisation’ through English-language courses.
There is, then, a tension between maintaining national and regional tradition and discursive spaces, and finding new links and connections through common foreign languages (this blog is, after all, written in English). Perhaps the most important way in which this tension can be resolved is through Erasmus+: freed from the rigours of school it is at university that students can be exposed to new languages and cultures.
The Guild has put its concern, that foreign language acquisition in the host language be strengthened, front and centre of its position paper on Erasmus+: this is core for teaching students lifelong skills. It is also critical for the diversity of our universities, and for the health and vitality of academic debate. This is a good day to celebrate the Erasmus programme throughout its history, and to set our ambitions high for what it can achieve in the future!