The Politics and Policy of Multilingualism in the European Union

By Gazzola, Michele; Ronza, Rocco W. | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall/Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

The Politics and Policy of Multilingualism in the European Union


Gazzola, Michele, Ronza, Rocco W., The Brown Journal of World Affairs


Language Policy and Resource Distribution

Between the 1950s and 1980s, political scientists had considerable interest in the areas of multilingualism and linguistic diversity.1 As part of the comparative analysis of political development, scholars interested in nationalism and the mobilization of territorial identities, such as Karl Deutsch, Jean Laponce, and Stein Rokkan, devoted much attention to the role of languages in the formation of states in Europe and elsewhere.2 However, this interest has slowly declined over the past two decades, with some notable exceptions.3 In many countries, linguistic minorities have gradually obtained more rights, and globalization has led to the spread of lingua francas (i.e., languages used in international and intercultural communication among speakers of different languages). This has created the illusion that language-based political conflicts are a thing of the past. It has often been assumed that the spread of certain languages and the retreat of others are natural phenomena, and that they have neither political causes nor political consequences.

Even in the absence of ideologies inspired by state nationalism or linguistic imperialism, however, governments cannot be neutral with respect to language.4 Since the ability of human beings to learn new languages in the course of their lives is not infinite, the choice of using one specific language instead of another has political and economic effects on their citizens, which can generate situations of conflict and inequality. Language policy, therefore, is the result of politically-fraught processes that should be interpreted and analyzed as more or less equitable, and its outcomes must be evaluated.

The idea that the spread or decline of a language is a "natural" phenomenon ignores the role language politics and policy still play in our contemporary societies. The adoption of at least one language (and therefore the exclusion of many others) as a means of communication within the educational, legal, administrative, media, or economic systems is indeed inevitable. By politics of language, we refer to the conflicts of interest that arise between groups that live in the same territory but have unequal competency in certain languages. The focus of language policy studies is placed on the measures adopted by states and other organizations-both sub-national and supranational-to manage linguistic diversity within that territory. This paper discusses different issues related to the politics and the policy of language in the European Union as a backdrop for political effects of the adoption of English as a lingua franca in three realms (institutional, economic, and educational/social).

The illusion that the structures of the liberal state could be neutral visa-vis languages has limited the study of the political implications of linguistic diversity. In reality, language policy, like any form of public policy, has allocative and distributive effects. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that some of the most significant recent progress in the study of language policy has come from economics and political philosophy.5 First, depending on the choice of the official language(s), or their de facto dominance over a territorial space, access to public services, goods, and education can be made easier or more difficult for groups defined by particular linguistic repertoires. Second, government action can directly influence the language repertoire of people through education and vocational training, thereby affecting their human capital and therefore their job opportunities.6 In addition, linguistic policies can have distributive consequences at the macroeconomic level. Countries where the dominant native language of the population is adopted as an international communication tool need to spend less public money on language training because they can rely on the fact that their language is taught in other countries. Finally, language teaching policy reduces the average cost of migration to countries where such foreign languages are official, generating distributive effects in the labor market. …

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