Interview with Secretary General Walter Schwimmer on the occasion of the European Day of Languages on 26 September
Question: The Council of Europe portrays linguistic diversity as a key factor in the cultural wealth of our continent. Are all the various languages concerned not increasingly being sidelined now that English has clearly attained dominance in international terms?
Walter Schwimmer: The Council of Europe does not need to portray linguistic diversity as a factor in the cultural wealth of our continent: linguistic diversity is a reality and is one of Europe's strengths. It is part of our cultural heritage and our identity. The question about the dominance of English is one we often hear. It is a fact that English is being used more and more frequently as a means of communication and is also the first foreign language in very many countries' school systems. In my view, that is no cause for criticism or regret. What the Council of Europe can do and is actually doing here is to develop a sensible linguistic diversity policy and disseminate it in all of our member countries. It is not up to us to condemn the dominance of English in everyday communication or in pop culture. The Council of Europe must attempt to change the attitudes of the public and policymakers, emphasising that English alone is not enough. One of our main concerns is that people should learn their neighbours' languages.
Question: Politicians complain that even in France and Germany, which are regarded as driving forces of the process of European unification, fewer and fewer young people are learning their neighbours' language. What do you believe lies behind this lack of interest? Are all the appeals, including those by your own organisation, having no effect at all?
Walter Schwimmer: I would not say that there is a lack of interest. Being able to converse with other people in as many languages as possible actually opens up contacts, enriches people's lives and is fun - and I do not believe that young people are against having fun. Admittedly, the challenges young people face, both at school and in their private lives, are very great today. Young people are under tremendous pressure to succeed at school and the expectations of their families and society are very high. So they are understandably glad if they are at least reasonably successful with English and tend to put off any plans to learn other foreign languages. But that is wrong in the long term.
Firstly, because - as they say - the sooner you start learning the better. The later you start learning languages the more difficult it is. I know for myself how difficult it has been for me to improve my French over the last few years. But it is also important to understand that learning languages is a lifelong process that can be a source of great pleasure later in our lives, too. Secondly, people with a command of more than one foreign language definitely have better employment opportunities. Being able to communicate in your business partner's language makes things much easier in an ever more global and tougher market. The Council of Europe therefore also campaigns for children to be exposed to other languages and cultures in a fun way from the earliest possible age. Teaching of a first foreign language, a second foreign language and, for those pupils who are able, a third one, should be introduced on a gradual basis. That does not mean that we should be able to attain the same high degree of proficiency in all foreign languages. It is possible to have better spoken command of one language and better written command of another. Schools should also take account of these differing levels of proficiency. In this connection, the Council of Europe has developed a kind of language passport or language portfolio. This is a document in which language learners can record their own levels of proficiency in a particular language and also indicate the level they wish to achieve. It is a very practical tool for language learning and improving language skills which the Council of Europe has developed and which we recommend very strongly for coherent language teaching at European and, indeed, global level.
Question: Is there a risk of growing cultural alienation between Europe's peoples because of inadequate language skills?
Walter Schwimmer: I can tell you that we at the Council of Europe are doing everything we can to prevent that. Because experts are now warning that, in countries with less widely spoken languages, the dominance of English really could threaten these languages. In certain Council of Europe member states, for instance, it is possible that more and more English could be spoken at university level, resulting in their own languages being pushed into the background. It is obvious that trends of this kind could involve the risk of cultural alienation or even threaten the cohesion of a society. As I already emphasised, the Council of Europe's policy is therefore to promote linguistic diversity as an integral component of cultural diversity, both in theory and in practice. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is, for instance, the only international legal instrument devoted solely to protecting such languages, which form a crucial part of our European cultural heritage. Recently, however, the Council of Europe has also developed a guide on language education policy in Europe, which should make it easier for the authorities in the member states to take a critical look at their guidelines for language teaching, in particular with regard to the promotion of social cohesion, public participation and the preservation of linguistic diversity in our modern multicultural society.
Question: Given the dominance of English as a "global language", do you not see the risk of a "uniform global culture" emerging?
Walter Schwimmer: To be honest, I see no such risk. For one thing, because Europe and this is an example I also like to use in other connections - is not a melting pot along the lines of the United States of America, for instance. People's pride in, and love of, their own language and culture will certainly always play a major role in our continent. In other words, alongside the Anglo-American leisure culture being brought into Europe by the mass media, there will also be a specifically European, ie strongly regional, cultural market. And we should also remember that, even in the melting pot of the USA, Spanish is making great advances and actually plays a certain role in election advertising, for instance. It is important that we convince the public that preserving linguistic diversity and hence also cultural diversity is a worthwhile goal and that they should treat their neighbours' languages with tolerance and respect. In my view, that is an ideal task for the Council of Europe.