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Languages for life - 18/09/2008

Language studio full of people seated at cubicles, wearing headphones

Concerned at shortage of foreign language skills, commission promotes language learning – for adults and children.

Ever consider learning Bulgarian? What about Maltese or Irish? When it comes to languages, the EU offers plenty of choice: 23 official languages and more than 60 others widely used.

But for all that linguistic diversity, only about half of EU citizens can hold a conversation in a second language. And that’s a big problem in today’s global economy.

The commission’s new policy paper calls for an EU-wide approach that starts from the position that learning other languages is a lifelong process – not one that ends with school.

The goal is to create opportunities to learn languages later in life, in vocational and continuing education programmes, for example. Ideally Europeans would learn at least two languages besides their mother tongue.

Foreign language skills are vital to a cutting-edge economy. According to an EU-commissioned study, many small and mid-sized firms are losing business because of communication barriers. Recruiters say they have a hard time filling jobs requiring foreign language skills.

The demand isn’t just for English. With companies doing business around the world, there’s a growing need for other languages, including Russian and German (for eastern Europe), French (Africa) and Spanish (Latin America). Within the EU, the problem has become more pressing with the addition of 12 new member countries in recent years – more than doubling the number of official languages.

As well as keeping the EU competitive, learning new languages enables Europeans to get more out of the cultural and social opportunities offered by European integration. The EU celebrates its linguistic diversity on 26 September, known as the European day of languages, when member countries stage events focusing on linguistic diversity as a bridge between cultures.

The commission has also organised a series of debates this year on multilingualism in Europe, part of the 2008 European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. The latest debate, held in Brussels earlier in September, addressed whether linguistic diversity is a source of tension or enrichment in the EU.

To promote the learning of foreign languages and the art of communicating between them, this year the commission is holding a translation contest for 17-year-olds.

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