Multilingualism in the European Union: a possible reality?

“Cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature.“ – UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity Art. 1 [1]

The European Union currently has 27 Member States, a population of almost 448 million inhabitants and 24 official languages listed in the Treaties (Article 55(1) TEU). However, the linguistic framework of modern Europe is more complicated than that: Europe has about 225 indigenous  languages.[2] Officially, the EU has addressed the issue of multilingualism – and European heterogeneity in general – with the motto “United in Diversity”, which is supposed to summarize how Europeans have managed to work together for peace and prosperity, while, at the same time, maintaining the richness of their different heritage, cultures, traditions and languages.[3] Despite this declaration of intent, multilingualism has always been perceived as one of the main obstacles to the development of a more deeply rooted political integration in Europe. The need for a linguistic meeting point that went beyond national borders led to a crisis of linguistic identity. The search for a way to realize intercommunication in this multilingual set of nations led to numerous different attempts to address the issue. Through the exploration of language planning in the EU, I intend to address the debate on multinational communication in Europe and the creation of a European identity, without the loss of a sense of national identity.

“European identity” 

The discussion about European identity is, first and foremost, a sociological one. Not only is there no scientific definition of the term ‘identity’ in its collective dimension, but the adjective ‘European’ also has many meanings and this ends up producing a great variety of interpretations and definitions. The careful sociological study aimed at formulating a definition of the term ‘European identity’ mainly presupposes the identification of the elements that lie beneath European culture as a whole, distinguishing it from other parts of the world.  It is noted that the idea of what is genuinely European refers to a unitary cultural and spiritual heritage. Going into more historical and political details, it goes back to Greek and Roman antiquity and the significant influence of Christianity, the Enlightenment and Humanism. In fact, the Roman Empire was the first major effort to integrate an important part of the continent with the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The Middle Ages gave birth to the idea of unification under the common banner of Christianity, and the concepts of Euro-centrism and the superiority of European civilization emerged. Without the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, it would be impossible to understand the ideologies of tolerance, freedom, respect for human rights and democracy that are now the foundations of the European moral principles. It is therefore clear that to speak of  ‘European peoples sharing the same cultural heritage’ is tantamount to speaking of a great single heritage, that of the European continent, characterized by the sharing of significant general cultural traits and enriched even more by the wide linguistic and cultural diversity of its components.

The principle of multilingualism in Europe

The European Union is a unique reality. Twenty-seven Member States have decided to share part of their sovereignty by setting up a shared institutional apparatus. The original idea was to promote peace in one of the most warlike continents in the world. The successes and merits of this project have led to continuous enlargement that has resulted in the increase in the number of official languages at European level: 24 languages are currently recognized as official. Given the great variety of cultures in Europe, there can be no greater cohesion factor than linguistic understanding. For this reason, a large part of civil society and the academic world has been looking at the phenomenon of multilingualism within the EU as one of the main phenomena for the advent of a true political union. The challenge is not one of the easiest but steps that have been taken and more are to come. 

The European Union recognizes the right to identity and actively promotes the freedom to speak and write in the native language, while, at the same time, continuing to pursue its goal of closer integration between the member countries. These are the two complementary objectives from which the motto ‘United in Diversity’ has taken shape in 2000. This objective of the EU to safeguard linguistic diversity demonstrates that the EU is not trying to erase national or regional characteristics and replace them with a “European” uniformity. Multilingualism has been gradually adopted as a language policy of the European Union, starting from the conviction that linguistic diversity, instead of being an obstacle, can be an opportunity of growth and knowledge.

Multilingualism is not only one of the main aspects of European language policies but it is also, and above all, a daily reality in an increasingly multicultural and multi-ethnic Europe, which has to deal not only with the numerous national (and recognized minority) languages of its constituent states, but also with an increasingly globalized world and with ever more intense and consistent migratory flows. In such a situation, the very concept of ‘multilingualism’ can be interpreted according to different perspectives, since it can refer to the coexistence of the various national languages within the European Community; to the different languages, officially recognized or not, actually spoken in each State; or even to the coexistence, in a given social context, of people speaking different languages. The Council of Europe defines multilingualism and distinguishes it from plurilingualism as follows:

            “Plurilingualism is the ability to use more than one language – and accordingly sees languages from the standpoint of speakers and learners. Multilingualism, on the other hand, refers to the presence of several languages in a given geographical area, regardless of those who speak them. In other words, the presence of two or more languages in an area does not necessarily imply that people in that area can use several of them; some use only one.” (Council of Europe, 2010: 23)[4]

The promotion of multilingualism in the EU has two faces: one is to allow all European citizens the right to speak their mother tongue and, in any case, not to be discriminated or exploited because of it; the other is to connect European citizens and build bridges between differences, in order to establish a union. There is no doubt that a Union is not possible if people are not able to communicate with each other, to move to other countries, to integrate into other cultures. Multilingualism is therefore a primary objective of European citizens. Over the years, the European Commission has identified language learning as a priority for successful European integration. To promote this exchange of European languages and cultures, one of the objectives of the EU is that every citizen should learn at least two other languages, in addition to their mother tongue.

There is a number of instruments with which the EU encourages its citizens to learn other languages and to promote opportunities for professional and personal mobility both as an incentive for intercultural contacts and mutual understanding and for the creation of transnational partnerships, thus, ultimately fostering the integration process. There are education and training programmes, mobility and transnational partnerships, cultural programmes, and the Media programme, which finances the dubbing and subtitling of European films for cinema and television. Today, there are plenty of exchange programmes such as Erasmus, which aim to promote mobilization, while building a European identity, by allowing students to live, work, and study in other countries and learn about other facets that build the continent’s identity. The European policy for multilingualism, expressly desired by the European Commission, is unique in the world, also because the use of different national languages is one of the factors contributing to making the European Union more transparent, legitimate and efficient in its legislative processes and activities.

Protection of linguistic minorities in the EU

Respect for the national identities of the member states is a priority for the European Union. Since language is considered an essential component of national identity, the protection of any language can be seen as a commitment to improving equality between all member states and between all citizens of the same country. In Europe there are only 3% of the total linguistic heritage of the world, about 225 indigenous languages, and only 24 of them are officially recognised by the European Union. The remaining languages are considered to be minority languages, spoken by groups defined as ‘linguistic minorities’. But what is a linguistic minority? It is a population group speaking a different mother tongue from that of a majority. They are groups of people who enjoy the rights of citizenship of a state, but for historical or geographical reasons do not share the same language and culture as the majority of the country. The issue of linguistic minorities and their protection is a very sensitive one, in fact, the protection of minority languages does not fall within the competence of the European Union and there is no law that obliges member states to protect languages.

The equal treatment of European languages has been the subject of debates. As previously seen, the standardization of a national language must exclude some other languages in order to function effectively. State’s institutions require the use of the language of the majority, leading to another obstacle, that of the equality of minority languages. So, when a multitude of languages from different nations are framed in a supranational environment such as the EU, it creates its own linguistic minorities, inevitably leading to a constant struggle for equal rights from various nations.

Often, communities speaking a regional or minority language are unable to ensure the survival and development of their language. The critical threshold for the survival of a language is estimated at 300 000 speakers. According to UNESCO, there are 221 endangered regional and minority languages in the EU.[5] In some cases, some groups have managed to revitalize their native language, leading to conflicts with national governments that are responsible for making decisions on language policies. In Spain, for example, the official language is Castilian, but its inhabitants also speak Galician, Basque and Catalan, languages that are not recognised at national level. Precisely because the Spanish government does not consider these languages to be official languages, the European Union counts them among the minority languages, including them in the study Euromosaic and in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Thanks to the impetus given by the expansion of the European Union, increasing attention has been paid in recent years to the issues of linguistic diversity and the right to speak uncommon languages. This is why, in recent years, people have begun talking about “linguistic rights”, meaning the right of individuals or a community to be able to speak their mother tongue. Minority languages, even if not recognised as official languages by the European Union and therefore not used for communication between institutions and citizens, are nevertheless part of the history of the European Union: forty million people speak sixty regional languages,[6] and these minority groups are guaranteed support,  including economic support, due to the European Union’s commitment to defend its diversity. Therefore, the EU has aimed to pay tribute to minority languages by taking the necessary measures to treat them impartially.

Despite all these attempts to protect minority languages in the EU, little effort has been made for the languages of immigrants. This goes against the EU’s ideology of respecting every culture and language equally, and not discriminating on the basis of language. This contrast between the multilingualism of the elite and that of immigrants threatens the cohesion of society. There is a clear lack of willingness to support the languages of immigrants, languages that are certainly not treated in the same way as minority languages. In fact, the main concern of most states is that migrants learn the official language of the host state, while their mother tongues are often neglected (with the risk that they will gradually be forgotten, especially by younger people). Thus, the tendency in the EU is to treat the promotion and valorisation of non-European languages as a separate issue, in documents dedicated to the integration of immigrant communities into the larger European society. Therefore, the term “integration” is ambiguous: it seems to tend towards ‘multiculturalism’ when it comes to European national languages and cultures, but risks becoming ‘assimilation’ when it comes to the cultural heritage brought by non-European migrant communities.


[1]UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity. UNESCO. (2001, November 2). Retrieved December

22, 2021, from 

[2] Amt, A. (n.d.). European day of languages: 10 things you never knew about European languages.

Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Retrieved December 22, 2021, from 

[3] Eu motto. European Union. (n.d.). Retrieved December 22, 2021, from

[4] Beacco, J.-C., Byram, M., & Cavalli, M. (2016). Guide for the development and implementation of

curricula for plurilingual and Intercultural Education. Council of Europe.

[5] Service, M. R. (2021, September 24). European day of languages: Multilingualism as a cornerstone of

better communication. Epthinktank. Retrieved December 22, 2021, from

[6] Briefing European Parliamentary Research Service. (n.d.). Retrieved December 22, 2021, from

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