Language in the EU: Who is Speaking what, where?

The European Union, while constantly in the news as a vague entity that could fall apart at any time, is actually a fascinating political experiment that has sought to create a European identity for all citizens of the union’s 27 member states. This is huge, language-wise, as every single language spoken in the EU is considered an official language, and with the free movement of goods and services, the Union’s laws require that any citizen have access to their own country’s native language when working or residing in any other county. Besides causing a bureaucratic nightmare, this principle has certainly had an impact on the languages new generations of Europeans speak!

There are currently 24 official languages of the European Union, and they include the following: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish. However, The EU is home to over 60 indigenous regional or minority languages, spoken by some 40 million people. They include Basque, Catalan, Frisian, Saami, Welsh and Yiddish! There is debate, however, about what languages should actually be spoken, where, and when. For example, English is the most widely spoken and used language by far, and French is close behind, as the French were one of the founding member states and insisted French remain critical.

According to the European Commission, “The EU supports language learning because:

  • Better language skills enable more people to study and/or work abroad, and improve their job prospects
  • Speaking other languages helps people from different cultures understand one another – essential in a multilingual, multicultural Europe
  • To trade effectively across Europe, businesses need multilingual staff
  • The language industry – translation and interpretation, language teaching, language technologies, etc. – is among the fastest growing areas of the economy.”

Therefore, the EU has implemented programs, such as the Erasmus+ program, to assist citizens when it comes to language learning, and to fund initiatives that support the overall goal of increased spread of linguistic knowledge. What has this done, then, for language in the EU? Which languages are most widely spoken, and where?

The European Commission uses a tool called the Eurobarometer survey to keep track of the way the initiatives to spread language learning are working. The latest report was issued in 2012 and was given at the request of DG COMM, the directorate general for communication, and its Research and Speechwriting Unit.

The data that we have to date so far shows that the most widely spoken language in Europe (mother tongue) is German, followed by Italian, English, French, Spanish and Polish. Additionally, two thirds of working age adults in the EU member states claim that they know a foreign language. The debate however remains as to how much investment should be placed on learning new languages, and maintaining old languages. The EU’s motto is “united in diversity,” so the balance is delicate.

Other initiatives the EU has used to foster language learning together with the Council of Europe and its European Centre of Modern Languages include cooperation with European Institutions’ language service providers. The Commission itself has a Translation and Interpretation department which actively promotes education and training for linguists. The department also awards the European Language Label, which encourages new language teaching techniques.