Guidebook to shape language policy in multilingual Europe
An EU-funded project has transformed cutting-edge research about multilingual societies into a handbook designed to guide MPs, MEPs and civil servants as they shape Europe's future language policies.
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It was April 1958 when an early incarnation of the European Union announced the four official languages that would be used for official communication across its six Member States Dutch, French, German and Italian.
But in the 60 years since then, the EUs roster of languages has mushroomed as its borders have expanded. European law is now published in 24 languages, though the number spoken across the bloc is much higher. When researchers began to count, they found between 55 and 60 indigenous languages, with that number growing to 250 if they included people with roots in third countries countries outside the European Union.
There are few things in a society that are as important as language. Its practically impossible to think about a single part of the human experience that is not deeply affected by it, says language policy expert and economist François Grin.
But tensions also seem to crystallise around matters of language and culture, he adds. This raises lots of questions. For example, how far should the linguistic needs of immigrants be accommodated in public space? To what extent is the success of far-right populist parties linked to the ways in which linguistic and cultural difference is handled in current policies, and how should we respond to that?
To help Europe tackle these difficult questions, the team behind the EU-funded MIME project transformed their unique interdisciplinary research into a handbook and 17 policy priorities that could guide MPs, MEPs and other decision-makers as they create language policy across the bloc. The approach MIME took is radically novel, says Grin, who was the projects coordinator. To our knowledge, no previous research project has attempted to tackle, in a coordinated research enterprise, such a wide range of language policy questions at the same time.
An invaluable resource
Throughout their research, the MIME team focused on how decision-makers could create language policy that encourages mobility between EU Member States without compromising inclusion. By presenting their results in an easy-to-read handbook that has already been downloaded hundreds of times, the project created an invaluable resource for policy-makers and legislators who need to think about what role language diversity plays in European society.
The handbook explores 72 questions such as, in what languages should healthcare be provided? What language should road signs be in? What language should schools teach in? And what language should staff at refugee reception centres speak? Each question is accompanied by a summary of existing research and an explanation of how countries around the world have successfully and unsuccessfully tackled each issue.
While the handbook draws conclusions from these examples, the MIME team purposefully avoided dictating a list of best practices. Instead we wanted to inspire policy-makers to adapt successful tools to their own specific contexts, whether they are working at a local, national or supra-national level, says Grin.
Contributing to Europes cohesion
The MIME project was able to confront a range of linguistic challenges because the team included researchers from 11 diverse disciplines, including translation, law and psychology. For Grin, producing research that could equip civil servants, MPs and MEPs to effectively manage language diversity across different parts of society is crucial to the EUs future: Our project will enable policy-makers to address questions that are essential to Europe as a political, social, economic and cultural project, because the management of multilingualism can significantly contribute to its cohesion or, if mismanaged, can seriously hamper it.
The team hope their research will continue to reach decision-makers across Europe, which is why the handbook and policy priorities are free to download from the projects website and 150 paper copies have already been delivered to MEPs in Brussels. But the researchers also hope the project will reach a diverse audience, enabling anyone with an interest in the linguistic future of Europe to learn more about the challenges ahead.
Finally, a book that details the projects in-depth findings is due to be released by 2021. The publication is aimed at an academic audience, partly to encourage other researchers to push forward with the research started by MIME and to identify more strategies to help multilingual Europe flourish.