The more languages the better

Marc van Oostendorp

This article appeared in the ECF Newsletter of the European Cultural Foundation, Spring 2001

Europe is quickly developing into a continent with one currency, one market – and hundreds of languages. It may be true that a growing number of Europeans speak some form of English, and that according to a recent poll about 70 percent of all Europeans stated that they thought that every citizen of the EU should be able to speak English. Yet the language is certainly nog replacing others in the way in which the euro is replacing francs, marks and liras.

It is quite obviously irrealistic to talk about the future of Europe as a monolingual one. In London alone, over 330 languages are spoken according to recent assessments. Immigrants from all over Europe are bringing their linguistic riches to our continent. At the same time, autochtonous regional minorities are claiming rights which have been denied to them for a very long time, and in some cases – Breton is a case in point – people are rediscovering and reviving the languages of their ancestors.

The linguistic landscape of Europe thus becomes more and more diversified and this proves a challenge for politicians and researchers alike: how should we deal with the increasing complexity of the linguistic situation? How should we educate young Europeans in this new context? And what means do we have to describe what exactly is going on – how many speakers does a language have, and what are the needs and wishes of these people?

The Other Languages of Europe is a collection of essays in which these questions are discussed by some of the best and most well-known specialists in the field. The book contains three parts: one on regional languages in Europe, one on immigrant languages in Europe, and one on the situation in areas outside Europe, such as Canada, South Africa, and India. The book ends with the text of the so-called 'Declaration of Oegstgeest', a text on the desirability of multilingualism, written during the conference in Oegstgeest (the Netherlands), which was the basis for this conference. It has been edited by Guus Extra, professor of Language and Minorities at Tilburg University, and by Durk Gorter, professor of Frisian Sociolinguistics at the University of Amsterdam.

The fact that these two scholars have collaborated on this book can be seen as a statement. Until quite recently, people working for or studying regional languages hardly ever communicated with people involved in immigrant languages. The groups were separate, because everybody felt that their problems were separate. The Other Languages of Europe shows that they are not, that there are many similarities between the two types of language problems, and furthermore that there are many languages which do not strictly speaking belong to either group, such as Yiddish and Romani (and, we might add, the Sign Languages of Europe, even though these are somewhat unjustly ignored by editors and authors alike).

Very interesting in this connection are the two chapters on Sweden in this volume: 'The national minority languages in Sweden' by Leena Huss, and 'Immigrant languages in Sweden' by Sally Boyd. One of the things which become clear from these chapters is that the national minority languages in Sweden have actually profited from the participation of Sweden in the European Union. Until the early 1990s, the Swedish government hardly paid any attention at all to indigenous minorities such as the Sami and the Tornedalians. The children of recent waves of immigration met with much more sympathy and understanding. After Sweden entered the Union in 1995, people became aware that the 'old' minorities deserved the same rights as the 'old' ones.

One language still plays an implicit role in mucht of the discussion in this book: English. Also from this book it becomes clear that in many European countries, people are aiming at a three-language model: one language for at home, which may be a minority language, one language for in public life, which presumably will be an official national language, and one language for international European use. Seen this way, we do not have to consider the increasing number of languages threatening or frightening. The more languages we can host on our multilingual continent, the better it is.

Guus Extra and Durk Gorter (eds.) The Other Languages of Europe. Demographic, Sociolinguistic and Edicational Perspectives. Clevedon/Buffalo/Toronto/Sydney: Multilingual Matters.