Trolleys Decode EU's 27 Tongues

Article excerpt

On a visit to southern Spain last year, Lithuanian Daiva Malinauskiene encountered a typical traveler's problem: no one could give her directions in a language she understood.

But rather than pass it off as an inevitable annoyance of travel within the European Union (EU), which has 23 official languages and 60 indigenous ones, she devised an unusual solution when she returned to Lithuania: the Learning by Moving project.

Today, on commuter-packed trolleys in the capital, Vilnius, the PA systems crackle with impromptu language lessons. "Is the post office far from here?" a voice asks cheerily, first in Lithuanian, then in English and Polish.

Passenger Ana Zagun spies the saddle slung over a plexiglass partition, pulls a brochure from its pocket, and follow along. "We're in Europe now, so we must learn English," says Ms. Zagun, who speaks Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian.

Launched last fall in this ex-Soviet republic, the project has since expanded to five other EU countries: Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Malta. It's one prong of a broader policy to promote multilingualism, as the 27-member Union struggles to cultivate a sense of "Europeanness" while respecting unique identities.

Such tolerance was enshrined in 2000 in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. And many embraced the proverb of another marginal language, Slovak: Kol'ko jazykov vies, tol'kokrat si clovekom - The more languages you know, the more of a person you are.

With that, the Union advances a policy of "mother tongue plus two" - preferably the lingua franca, English, plus the language of a key minority or neighbor.

Slovak Jan Figel, the European Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture, and Multilingualism, said last year that institutional multilingualism also enhances "democratic legitimacy and the transparency" of EU decisions.

"Its cost, so frequently discussed in the papers, amounts to a few euros per year per European citizen," Mr. Figel said. "I cannot imagine what the social and cultural costs could be if ever the Union were to abandon its promotion of linguistic diversity."

Still, despite the resources poured into preserving linguistic diversity - up to EUR 118,000 are spent per day on translation alone - some express particular concern about the "LWUEL" - Less Widely Used European Languages. Not surprisingly, then, the trolley project was hatched in Lithuania, proud owner of one of the EU's more impenetrable tongues.

"If we want everyone to feel at home and a citizen of this 'country,' you need to feel your culture is also accepted," says Ms. Malinauskiene. "We all live together, so we have to find ways to live together in peace. …