Academic journal article European Journal of Language Policy

The European Commission's Language Policy: Challenges and Priorities

Academic journal article European Journal of Language Policy

The European Commission's Language Policy: Challenges and Priorities

Article excerpt

Presentation at the CEL/ELC Forum, on "Languages and societal challenges. The role of higher education", in Milan December 20161

Dear Professor Conceiçâo, lieber Wolfgang, Professoressa Zanola, dear colleagues and friends,

Thank you for inviting me to take part in this interesting Forum. And thank you for bringing me back to this city where I did my studies some 40 years ago - my high school was just a few minutes' walk from here.

When I was an undisciplined student of the Liceo Classico Alessandro Manzoni, at the turning point between late 1960s and early 1970s, the school programme included English or French courses for the first two years; then, at 15 or 16, you would quit studying foreign languages to focus on ancient Greek, Latin, History, Philosophy and so on.

Somehow, it was thought that such a limited exposure was enough for young learners that would mostly go on to higher education. And that probably made sense - at the time.

* Most of my class- and schoolmates would become doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, managers or civil servants and could reasonably expect to spend their private and professional lives in this area, one of the most developed in Italy.

* Until 1979, TV sets in Italy only gave you access to the two channels of the state broadcasting company RAI, whose policy was - and still is - to erase any trace of foreign languages from the news, from films and, if they could, even from pop music. In Italy we are so proud of our dubbing specialists that you'll never see subtitles.

* The Internet Protocol wasn't introduced until 1982.

* Erasmus came into life in 1987.

* You did not meet that many foreigners in the streets and, unless you spent your holidays in Val d'Aosta, in South Tyrol or close to the Slovenian border, you had little opportunities of hearing words from different dictionaries. Admittedly, German and Nordic tourists brought an exotic touch to the beaches of the Adriatic coast.

Today, of course, things are quite different and we all live in a society for which that school had hardly prepared us.

Our countries belong to a continental Union, where monolingual spaces are shrinking by the day. More than 60 languages have some sort of official recognition at regional or national level in the Union. Many more - either indigenous or carried across the sea or through heavily guarded borders by citizens of other continents - are spoken by millions of new Europeans.

Even categorising those languages is becoming increasingly difficult: we have regional, minority, non-territorial languages, as well as heritage or community languages, not to mention the so-called "world" languages, and some of these named languages move from one category to the other following the geo-political and economic developments of the planet. I will come back to this point.

Intra-European mobility, migration, the development of information and communication technologies, the interconnectedness of our globalised economy and society, but also the growing requests for autonomy of some regions, have radically transformed the needs in terms of language education. As a consequence, education systems that for the last couple of centuries had devoted their efforts towards unifying and standardising the usage of the national language find themselves once again struggling with diversity.

Diversity in the input of pupils, whose different abilities to manage the language of schooling come today under scrutiny following the arrival of children of foreign origin, but in many cases may also have other reasons, such as the social, economic and cultural conditions of their families. And diversity in the learning outcomes, since ministries around the Union have come to realise that it is important for young people to master a broad array of languages and linguistic competences.

Lowering the starting age for the study of the first foreign language seems to be a common reply to this new needs: on average, this happens between age 7 and 9, with France now starting in pre-school (classes préparatoires). …

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