The European Union’s motto is ‘united in diversity’, but how does it support individuals in EU countries to learn foreign languages? We spoke to David Hughes, Head of the European Commission Office in Wales, to find out more.

What is the EU’s policy on learning foreign languages?

The Maastricht Treaty, which introduced education for the first time into the EU’s founding Treaty, does not directly give the EU any legal powers in education or language learning policy. It clearly states that education is a matter for EU Member States and the EU’s role is a supportive one. Therefore it is not possible to introduce EU legislation in the field of education, but there have been a number of resolutions of the European Council and the European Parliament supporting further action on language learning.

One of these was the Barcelona Agreement by the European Council in 2002, which set a political goal of enabling European citizens to communicate in two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue. The Agreement says that the best way to achieve this is to start teaching two foreign languages to children at an early age. It is not legally binding, but it was a political commitment whereby all Member States agreed that it would be a good goal to work towards. Some Member States have been more successful in this regard than others, but it remains an avowed political goal of the EU.

What support does the EU provide to increase language learning?

The Erasmus+ programme is the main way that the EU supports language learning. It includes what was previously the Lingua programme which aimed at the development of language learning approaches in the EU and helping Member States to learn from each other. Arranging student exchanges between EU Member States  is still the backbone of the programme, but it is now much more than that as it supports cooperation between European schools and education ministries. The support is twofold: it supports the mobility of students, staff and apprentices, but also the development of language learning policies and tools across Europe.

The UK is on course to leave the EU and English is widely spoken all over the world; should learning languages be a concern for Britons in the future?

There’s a famous quote by past German chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s which goes: “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen (then you must speak German).” While it is true that English has become the language of international business and diplomacy, not everyone speaks the language. Therefore if you want to trade, it is a good idea to have at least a section of your workforce that is fluent in other languages – and not necessarily European languages. Nevertheless the UK’s closest and most important trading partners are in Europe. So there is an economic and business rationale for learning languages, and I think the need to learn European languages in the UK will not diminish as a result of leaving the EU, and in fact will probably increase.

Over and above that, it’s not simply a matter of speaking another language to be able to trade with others across the world. It’s a matter of understanding a culture, and you cannot separate a language from a culture. You can see this even within the English-speaking world with the UK and the USA – as Churchill is supposed to have famously said, we are “two peoples divided by a common language”. I think people in the UK may have to bear in mind that English, as a worldwide language, is perhaps no longer the property of one country; it’s the property of people all over the world including people who speak it as a second language.

Do you yourself speak any other languages, or do you have ambitions to learn a new language in future?

My two languages are German and French, in that order. I maintain my German as I am married to a German, although as we live in the UK it is sometimes quite difficult to force her to speak German to me! It is quite difficult to maintain my French and I have decided to restart French lessons as of January for one hour a week. In terms of new languages, although I am Welsh and my father was a Welsh-speaker he did not transmit the language to his children. I have come to regard this as one of the biggest regrets of my life. I have started Welsh courses here, although work makes it difficult to find time to follow them.  I have not given up, so that’s another New Year’s resolution.

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