Truths and Misconceptions about Multilingualism: The 23 EU Languages

“Multilingualism is a totally necessary asset, but there is a problem. There are many myths, such as ‘it troubles the mind’, ‘multilinguals can’t learn any foreign language well enough’ and ‘only children can learn a foreign language well’. The latest research has come to break down misconceptions of such kinds”, explains Nick Sifakis, assistant professor at the Hellenic Open University, who had a speech on multilingualism during an event of the British Council in Thessaloniki at March 28.

In Greece we are used to learning ‘major’ languages, such as English at the huge percentage of 86%, followed by German at 6%.

According to the ENIC Network (European Network of Information Centres), more than 90% of Greek people consider English the most useful language after their mother tongue Greek. Despite the bad success percentages (57%) for the Lower Examination – Greece is the 50th country out of 67 – and the Proficiency examination (46%), half of Greeks consider themselves capable speakers of English

English people, on the other side, tend to disregard the learning of foreign languages, just because they have the advantage of their mother tongue being a “lingua franca”. The English language has the unique feature that it’s being widely used by non-native speakers.

There are 23 official EU languages in the 27 European countries : Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish.

German is the most widely spoken native language in the EU with approximately 90 million native speakers (18% of EU population). English, Italian, and French are each a mother tongue of 60-65 million EU citizens (12-13% of the overall population). It’s estimated, however, that 38% of the EU citizens learn English as their first foreign language, a percentage significantly bigger than the one of German or any other language. Approximately 14% of EU citizens have French or German as their first foreign language.

EU’s cultural goal is that every citizen learns two languages aside from his or her mother tongue, so its institutions are making efforts to that end.

The importance of multilingualism, multi- and inter-culturalism is being stressed by Professor Sifakis referring to the EU policy on language learning. He suggests that we all learn as many languages as possible, in order to communicate outside the borders of our country. Localization in Europe is of great significance, so it’s important that we change it and look beyond our country, he concludes.