|Languages of the European Union|
|Main immigrant languages|
|Main foreign languages|
The languages of the European Union are languages used by people within the member states of the European Union (EU). They include the twenty-four official languages of the EU along with a range of others. The EU asserts that it is in favour of linguistic diversity. This principle is enshrined in the EU Charter (art. 22) and in the Treaty on European Union (art. 3(3) TEU).
In the European Union, language policy is the responsibility of member states and EU does not have a common language policy; European Union institutions play a supporting role in this field, based on the principle of "subsidiarity", they promote a European dimension in the member states' language policies. The EU encourages all its citizens to be multilingual; specifically, it encourages them to be able to speak two languages in addition to their native language. Though the EU has very limited influence in this area as the content of educational systems is the responsibility of individual member states, a number of EU funding programmes actively promote language learning and linguistic diversity.
The most widely spoken language in the EU is English, which is understood by 51% of all adults, while German is the most widely used mother tongue, spoken by 18%. All 24 official languages of the EU are accepted as working languages, but in practice only two – English and French – are in wide general use and of these English is the more commonly used. French is an official language in all three of the cities that are political centres of the Union: Brussels (Belgium), Strasbourg (France) and Luxembourg City (Luxembourg).
As of 1 July 2013[update], the official languages of the European Union, as stipulated in the latest amendment of Regulation No 1 determining the languages to be used by the European Economic Community of 1958, are:
|Language||Official in (de jure or de facto)||Since|
|Czech|| Czech Republic
|Hungarian|| Austria[nb 1]
United Kingdom[nb 8]
|Italian|| Croatia[nb 9]
Czech Republic[nb 11]
The number of member states exceeds the number of official languages, as several national languages are shared by two or more countries in the EU. Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, and Swedish are all official languages at the national level in multiple countries (see table above). In addition, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Slovak, and Slovene / Slovenian are official languages in multiple EU countries at the regional level.
Furthermore, not all national languages have been accorded the status of official EU languages. These include Luxembourgish, an official language of Luxembourg since 1984, and Turkish, an official language of Cyprus.
All languages of the EU are also working languages. Documents which a member state or a person subject to the jurisdiction of a member state sends to institutions of the Community may be drafted in any one of the official languages selected by the sender. The reply is drafted in the same language. Regulations and other documents of general application are drafted in the twenty-four official languages. The Official Journal of the European Union is published in the twenty-four official languages.
Legislation and documents of major public importance or interest are produced in all official languages, but that accounts for a minority of the institutions′ work. Other documents—e.g., communications with the national authorities, decisions addressed to particular individuals or entities and correspondence—are translated only into the languages needed. For internal purposes the EU institutions are allowed by law to choose their own language arrangements. The European Commission, for example, conducts its internal business in three languages, English, French, and German (sometimes called "procedural languages"), and goes fully multilingual only for public information and communication purposes. The European Parliament, on the other hand, has members who need working documents in their own languages, so its document flow is fully multilingual from the outset. Non-institutional EU bodies are not legally obliged to make language arrangement for all the 24 languages (Kik v. Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market, Case C-361/01, 2003 ECJ I-8283).
The linguistic translations are expensive. According to the EU's English-language website, the cost of maintaining the institutions’ policy of multilingualism—i.e., the cost of translation and interpretation—was €1,123 million in 2005, which is 1% of the annual general budget of the EU, or €2.28 per person per year. The EU Parliament has made clear that its member states have autonomy for language education, which by treaty the European Community must respect.
The majority of EU languages belong to the Indo-European family, the three dominant subfamilies being the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic. Germanic languages are spoken in central and northern Europe and include Danish, Dutch, English, German, and Swedish. Romance languages are spoken in western, southern European regions; they include French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish. The Slavic languages are to be found in the central Europe and the Balkans in southern Europe. They include Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Slovak, and Slovene. The Baltic languages, Latvian and Lithuanian; the Celtic languages, including Irish; and Greek are also Indo-European.
Outside the Indo-European family, Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian are Finno-ugric languages while Maltese is the only Afroasiatic language with official status in the EU. The Basque language, whose roots are unknown, is an official language in some parts of northern Spain, but not an official language of the EU.
Most official EU languages are written in the Latin script. The two exceptions are Greek, which is written in the Greek script, and Bulgarian, which is written in Cyrillic script. With the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union on 1 January 2007, Cyrillic became the third official script of the European Union, following the Latin and Greek scripts. The current design of euro banknotes has the word euro written in both the Latin and Greek (Ευρώ) alphabets; the Cyrillic spelling (Eвро) was added to the new Europa series of banknotes started in 2013 (see Linguistic issues concerning the euro).
Although Maltese is an official language, the Council set a transitional period of three years from 1 May 2004, during which the institutions were not obliged to draft all acts in Maltese. It was agreed that the Council could extend this transitional period by an additional year, but decided not to. All new acts of the institutions were required to be adopted and published in Maltese from 30 April 2007.
When Ireland joined the EEC (now the EU) in 1973, Irish was accorded "Treaty Language" status. This meant that the founding EU Treaty was restated in Irish. Irish was also listed in that Treaty and all subsequent EU Treaties as one of the authentic languages of the Treaties. As a Treaty Language, Irish was an official procedural language of the European Court of Justice. It was also possible to correspond in written Irish with the EU Institutions.
However, despite being the first official language of the Republic of Ireland and having been accorded minority-language status in the UK region of Northern Ireland, Irish was not made an official working language of the EU until 1 January 2007. On that date an EU Council Regulation making Irish an official working language of the EU came into effect. This followed a unanimous decision on 13 June 2005 by EU foreign ministers that Irish would be made the 21st official language of the EU. However, a derogation stipulates that not all documents have to be translated into Irish as is the case with the other official languages.
The regulation means that legislation approved by both the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers is translated into Irish, and interpretation from Irish is available at European Parliament plenary sessions and some Council meetings. The cost of translation, interpretation, publication, and legal services involved in making Irish an official EU language is estimated at just under €3.5 million a year. On December 3, 2015, a new regulation passed by the Council has set a definitive schedule on the gradual reduction of the derogation of the Irish Gaelic language. This new regulation outlines an actual schedule of gradual reduction spread across five years starting from 2016. If EU institutions have sufficient available translation capacity, and if no other Council regulations state otherwise, the derogation completely ends by January 2022.
Irish is the only official language of the Union that is not the most widely spoken language in any member state. According to the 2006 Irish census figures, there are 1.66 million people in Ireland with some ability to speak Irish, out of a population of 4.6 million, though only 538,500 use Irish on a daily basis (counting those who use it mainly in the education system) and just over 72,000 use Irish as a daily language outside the education system.
Due to the close similarity between Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin – which are mutually intelligible – it was proposed that only one joint language be accepted as an official EU language as opposed to four separate ones (as in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) in order to reduce translation costs. In negotiations with Croatia, however, it was accepted that Croatian would become a separate official EU language.
According to the Euromosaic study, some regional or minority languages spoken within the EU do not have official recognition at EU level. Some of them may have some official status within the member state and count many more speakers than some of the lesser-used official languages. The official languages of EU are in bold.
In the list those idioms deemed by member states as mere dialects of an official language are not included. It should be noted that many of these alleged dialects are widely viewed by linguists as separate languages. These include Scots—the Germanic language descended from Old English, not the Celtic language known as Scots Gaelic—and several Romance languages spoken in Portugal and in Italy, such as Mirandese, Lombard, Ligurian, Piedmontese, Sardinian, Venetian, Corsican, Neapolitan, and Sicilian.
The French constitution stipulates French as the sole language of the Republic. Since the 2008 modifications, the article 75-1 of the Constitution add that « regional languages form part of the French heritage ».
Nevertheless, there exist a number of languages spoken by sizeable minorities such as Breton, a Celtic language, Basque, and several Romance languages such as Occitan, Catalan, Corsican and the various langues d'oïl (other than French), as well as Germanic languages spoken in Alsace-Lorraine (Franconian, Luxembourgish, Allemanic) and French Flanders (Flemish).
These languages enjoy no official status under the French state and regions are not permitted to bestow any such status themselves. Since December 2004, Breton and Gallo are officially recognized in Brittany.
The Spanish governments have sought to give some official status in the EU for the languages of the Autonomous communities of Spain, Catalan/Valencian, Galician and Basque. The 667th Council Meeting of the Council of the European Union in Luxembourg on 13 June 2005, decided to authorise limited use at EU level of languages recognised by member states other than the official working languages. The Council granted recognition to "languages other than the languages referred to in Council Regulation No 1/1958 whose status is recognised by the Constitution of a Member State on all or part of its territory or the use of which as a national language is authorised by law." The official use of such languages will be authorised on the basis of an administrative arrangement concluded between the Council and the requesting member state.
Although Basque, Catalan/Valencian and Galician are not nationwide official languages in Spain, as co-official languages in the respective regions – pursuant to Spanish constitution, among other documents – they are eligible to benefit from official use in EU institutions under the terms of the 13 June 2005 resolution of the Council of the European Union. The Spanish government has assented to the provisions in respect of these languages.
The status of Catalan, spoken by over 9 million EU citizens (just over 1.8% of the total), has been the subject of particular debate. On 11 December 1990, the use of Catalan was the subject of a European Parliament Resolution (resolution A3-169/90 on languages in the [European] Community and the situation of Catalan).
On 16 November 2005, the President Peter Straub of the Committee of the Regions signed an agreement with the Spanish Ambassador to the EU, Carlos Bastarreche, approving the use of Spanish regional languages in an EU institution for the first time in a meeting on that day, with interpretation provided by European Commission interpreters.
On 3 July 2006, the European Parliament's Bureau approved a proposal by the Spanish State to allow citizens to address the European Parliament in Basque, Catalan/Valencian and Galician, two months after its initial rejection.
On 30 November 2006, the European Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, and the Spanish ambassador in the EU, Carlos Bastarreche, signed an agreement in Brussels to allow Spanish citizens to address complaints to the European Ombudsman in Basque, Catalan/Valencian and Galician, all four co-official languages in Spain. According to the agreement, a translation body, which will be set up and financed by the Spanish government, will be responsible for translating complaints submitted in these languages. In turn, it will translate the Ombudsman's decisions from Spanish into the language of the complainant. Until such a body is established the agreement will not become effective.
Galician in particular, not being itself a European Parliament official language, can be used and is in fact used by some European Parliament constituents as a spoken dialect of Portuguese due to its similarity with this language.
Luxembourgish (Luxembourg) and Turkish (Cyprus) are the only two national languages that are not official languages of the EU. Neither Luxembourg nor Cyprus have yet used the provision of the 13 June 2005 resolution to benefit from use in official EU institutions. On 26 February 2016 it was made public that Cyprus has asked to make Turkish an official EU language, in a “gesture” that could help reunification and improve EU–Turkey relations.
The Romani people, numbering over two million in the EU, speak the Romani language, which is not official in any EU member state or polity. Moreover, Romani mass media and educational institution presences are near-negligible.
Though not an official language of the European Union, Russian is widely spoken in all member states that were part of the Soviet Union (and before that the Russian Empire). Russian is the native language of about 1.6 million Baltic Russians residing in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, as well as a sizeable community of about 3.5 million in Germany and as a major immigrant language elsewhere in the EU. Russian is also understood by a majority of ethnic Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians born before c. 1980, since, as official language of the Soviet Union, it was a compulsory school subject in those countries during the Soviet era. To a lesser extent, this legacy also holds true among the older generation in parts of the EU that were formerly part of the Eastern block, such as the GDR. The Russian language cannot be used in any official communications in the European Union; nor can it be used as a language of EU meetings, conferences, for public information or mass-media.
In Finland, the Sami languages Northern Sami (ca. 2000 speakers), Skolt Sami (400) and Inari Sami (300) have limited local recognition in certain municipalities of Finnish Lapland. Furthermore, legislation specifically concerning the Sami must be translated to these languages. Bilingualism with Finnish is universal, though.
Three different Sami languages are spoken in Sweden, but "Sami language" (undifferentiated) is recognised as an official minority language in Sweden, and is co-official with Swedish in four municipalities in Norrbotten County (Swedish Lapland).
For several centuries, Latin was the lingua franca for administrative and scholarly purposes in a large part of what is now the European Union. Therefore, several institutions use Latin in their logos and domain names, instead of listing their names in all the official languages. For example, the Court of Justice has its website at "curia.europa.eu". The Court of Auditors uses Curia Rationum in its logo. The Council of the European Union has its website at http://www.consilium.europa.eu/ and its logo showing Consilium. The motto of the European Union has a Latin version at an early stage of conception: "In varietate concordia". Under the European Company Regulation, companies can be incorporated as Societas Europaea (Latin for "European Company", often shortened to "SE" after the company's own proper name).
Esperanto is part of the educational system in several member states. In Hungary it is officially recognised by the Ministry of Education as a foreign language; and examinations in Esperanto may be used to meet the requirements of knowledge of foreign languages needed to complete university or high school. Every year, since 2002, about 2000 people have passed examinations in Esperanto and it is recognised by the state. The Hungarian census 2001 found 4575 Esperanto speakers in Hungary (4407 of them learned the language, for 168 of them it is a family or native language); In 2011 it found 8397 Esperanto speakers, 995 of them as native speakers. In 1990 there were 2083 Esperanto speakers in Hungary following the census.
Esperanto is not mentioned by the EU Commission as an EU language; the Commission mentions only official, indigenous regional and minority languages as well as languages of immigrants. Following estimates there are approximately 100,000 Europeans sometimes using Esperanto (and several millions having learned Esperanto); the language has several thousand native speakers, some of them of the second or third generation.
The European party Europe – Democracy – Esperanto seeks to establish the planned language as an official second language in the EU in order to make international communication more efficient and fair in economical and philosophical terms. They are based on the conclusions of the Grin Report, which concluded that it would hypothetically allow savings to the EU of €25 billion a year (€54 for every citizen) and have other benefits. However, the EU Parliament has stated clearly that language education is the responsibility of member states.
A wide variety of languages from other parts of the world are spoken by immigrant communities in EU countries. Turkish is spoken as a first language by an estimated 1% of the population in Belgium and the western part of Germany, and by 1% in the Netherlands. Other widely used migrant languages include Berber languages which is spoken by about 1% of the population of both the Netherlands and Belgium and by many Berbers migrants in France, Spain, Italy and Germany. Arabic is spoken in many EU countries mainly in its two varieties Maghrebi Arabic and Levantine Arabic. The Maghrebi Arabic is spoken by migrants in France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The Levantine Arabic is spoken by migrants in Germany, France, United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Greece. Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, and Punjabi are spoken by immigrants from the Indian sub-continent in the United Kingdom. Languages from former Yugoslavia (Serbian, Bosnian, Albanian, etc.) are spoken in many parts of the EU by migrants and refugees who have left the region as a result of the Yugoslav wars and unrest there.
There are large Chinese communities in France, the UK, Spain, Italy, and other countries. Some countries have Chinatowns. Old and recent Chinese migrants speak a number of Chinese varieties, in particular Cantonese and other southern Chinese varieties. However, Mandarin is becoming increasingly more prevalent due to the opening of the People's Republic of China.
A wide variety of sign languages are used in the EU, with around 500,000 people using a sign language as their first language. None of these languages are recognised as an official language of an EU member state, and only two states (Finland and Portugal) refer to sign languages in their constitution.
Several NGOs exist which support signers, such as the European Union of the Deaf and the European Sign Language Centre. The European Commission has also supported some initiatives to produce digital technologies that can better support signers, such as Dicta-Sign and SignSpeak.
The sign languages in use in the EU are more difficult to classify into language families than the spoken languages, because of language contact and creolization. Important families include the British, French, and German sign language families.
|Official languages||First language||Additional language||Total||Non-official languages||First language||Additional language||Total|
|Dutch||4%||1%||5%||Scottish Gaelic (s)||<1%||0%||<1%|
The five most spoken languages in the EU are English (51%), German (32%), French (26%), Italian (16%) and Spanish (15%). At 18% of the total number of speakers, German is the most widely spoken native language, followed by Italian, English, French and Spanish. The knowledge of foreign languages varies considerably in the specific countries, as the table below shows. The most spoken second or foreign languages in the EU are English, French, German, Spanish, Russian and Italian. In the table, boxes coloured light blue mean that the language is an official language of the country, while the main language spoken in the country is coloured dark blue.
1 Please note that this does not refer to the total population of the countries.
2 40% of those who speak French are native speakers, for a total of 85%.
3 Includes about 30% native speakers
4 Includes more than 30% native speakers
56% of citizens in the EU member states are able to hold a conversation in one language apart from their native language. This is nine points higher than reported in 2001 among the 15 member states at the time. 28% of the respondents state that they speak two foreign languages well enough to have a conversation. Almost half of the respondents—44%—do not know any other language than their native language. Approximately 1 in 5 Europeans can be described as an active language learner (i.e., someone who has recently improved his/her language skills or intends to do so over the following 12 months).
English remains by far the most widely spoken foreign language throughout Europe. 95% of students in the EU study English at secondary level and 38% of EU citizens state that they have sufficient skills in English to have a conversation (excluding citizens of the United Kingdom and Ireland, the two English-speaking countries). 28% of Europeans indicate that they know either French (14%) or German (14%), along with their native language. French is most commonly studied and used in southern Europe, especially in Mediterranean countries, in Germany, Portugal, Romania, the UK, and Ireland. German, on the other hand, is commonly studied and used in the Benelux countries, in Scandinavia, and in the newer EU member states. Spanish is most commonly studied in France, Italy, Luxembourg, and Portugal. In 19 out of 29 countries polled, English is the most widely known language apart from the native language, this being particularly the case in Sweden (89%), Malta (88%); the Netherlands (87%); and Denmark (86%). 77% of EU citizens believe that children should learn English. English was considered the number one language to learn in all countries where the research was conducted except for the United Kingdom, Ireland and Luxembourg. English, either as a native language or as a second/foreign language, is spoken by 51% of EU citizens, followed by German with 32% and French with 26%.
With the enlargement of the European Union, the balance between French and German is slowly changing. More citizens in the new member states speak German (23% compared with 12% in the EU15) while fewer speak French or Spanish (3% and 1% respectively compared with 16% and 7% among the EU15 group). A notable exception is Romania, where 24% of the population speaks French as a foreign language compared to 6% who speak German as a foreign language. At the same time, the balance is being changed in the opposite direction by growth of the French-speaking population and decrease of the German-speaking population.
Language skills are unevenly distributed both over the geographical area of Europe and over sociodemographic groups. Reasonably good language competences are perceived in relatively small member states with several state languages, lesser used native languages or "language exchange" with neighbouring countries. This is the case in Luxembourg, where 92% speak at least two languages. Those who live in southern European countries or countries where one of the major European languages is a state language have a lower likelihood of speaking multiple foreign languages. Only 5% of Turkish, 13% of Irish, 16% of Italians, 17% of Spanish and 18% from the UK speak at least two languages apart from their native language.
While documents for and communication with citizens are in every official EU language as a right, day-to-day work in the European Commission is based around its three working languages: English, French, and German. Of these English is used most often. The use of English vs. French depends a lot on the unit or directorate. Only a few of the Commissioners use a non-English language as their working language. German is rarely used as a true working language in the Commission, and German media have called the dominance of English and French a discrimination against German (which is by far the most spoken mother tongue of the EU) and a violation of the regulations pertaining to the EU's working languages. The German Bundestag has repeatedly called for German to finally receive an equal position in the EU Commission alongside English and French. The language situation also disappoints many in France, and Kristalina Georgieva, who is from Bulgaria, gained a round of applause when she told Parliament she would learn French while in the Commission. Parliament itself translates its proceedings into all official languages, although the actual spoken language of MEPs is sometimes English, so that fellow MEPs can understand them better than if they had the delayed translation. Committee meetings also often default to the language most understood by those attending instead of listening to the translation.
The working language of the Court of Justice of the European Union is French and it is in this language that the judges deliberate, pleadings and written legal submissions are translated and in which the judgment is drafted. The Advocates-General, by contrast, may work and draft their opinions in any official language, as they do not take part in any deliberations. These opinions are then translated into French for the benefit of the judges and their deliberations.
The working language of the ECB is English.
The European Union ability for legislative acts and other initiatives on language policy is based legally in the provisions in the Treaties of the European Union. In the EU, language policy is the responsibility of member states and the European Union does not have a common "language policy." Based on the principle of "subsidiarity," European Union institutions play a supporting role in this field, promoting cooperation between the member states and promoting the European dimension in the member states language policies, particularly through the teaching and dissemination of the languages of the member states (Article 149.2). The rules governing the languages of the institutions of the Community shall, without prejudice to the provisions contained in the Statute of the Court of Justice, be determined by the Council, acting unanimously (Article 290). All languages, in which was originally drawn up or was translated due to enlargement, are legally equally authentic. Every citizen of the Union may write to any of the EU institutions or bodies in one of these languages and have an answer in the same language (Article 314).
In the Charter of Fundamental Rights, legally binding since its inclusion in the Lisbon Treaty, the EU declares that it respects linguistic diversity (Article 22) and prohibits discrimination on grounds of language (Article 21). Respect for linguistic diversity is a fundamental value of the European Union, in the same way as respect for the person, openness towards other cultures, and tolerance and acceptance of other people.
Beginning with the Lingua programme in 1990, the European Union invests more than €30 million a year (out of a €120 billion EU budget) promoting language learning through the Socrates and Leonardo da Vinci programmes in bursaries to enable language teachers to be trained abroad, placing foreign language assistants in schools, funding class exchanges to motivate pupils to learn languages, creating new language courses on CDs and the Internet, and projects that raise awareness of the benefits of language learning.
Through strategic studies, the Commission promotes debate, innovation, and the exchange of good practice. In addition, the mainstream actions of Community programmes which encourage mobility and transnational partnerships motivate participants to learn languages.
Youth exchanges, town twinning projects, and the European Voluntary Service also promote multilingualism. Since 1997, the Culture 2000 programme has financed the translation of around 2,000 literary works from and into European languages.
In addition, the EU provides the main financial support to the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, a non-governmental organisation which represents the interests of the over 40 million citizens who belong to a regional and minority language community, and for the Mercator networks of universities active in research on lesser-used languages in Europe. Following a request from the European Parliament, the Commission in 2004 launched a feasibility study on the possible creation of a new EU agency, the "European Agency for Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity." The study concludes that there are unmet needs in this field, and proposes two options: creating an agency or setting up a European network of "Language Diversity Centres." The Commission believes that a network would be the most appropriate next step and, where possible, should build on existing structures; it will examine the possibility of financing it on a multi-annual basis through the proposed Lifelong Learning programme. Another interesting step would be to translate important public websites, such as the one of the European Central Bank, or Frontex web site also, in at least one other language than English.
Although not an EU treaty, most EU member states have ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.
To encourage the member states to cooperate and to disseminate best practice the Commission issued a Communication on 24 July 2003, on Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity: an Action Plan 2004 – 2006 and a Communication on 22 November 2005, on A New Framework Strategy for Multilingualism.
From 22 November 2004, the European Commissioner for Education and Culture portfolio included an explicit reference to languages and became European Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture and Multilingualism with Ján Figeľ at the post. From 2007 until 2010, the European Commission had a special portfolio on languages, European Commissioner for Multilingualism. The post was held by Leonard Orban. Since 2010, the portfolio was merged with education and culture, again.
EU devotes a specialised subsite of its "Europa" portal to languages, the EUROPA Languages portal.
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