The European Year of Languages

The twin ideals of diversity and opportunity lie at the heart of this year-long celebration of European languages and cultures..

The European Year of Languages is a joint campaign organised by the Council of Europe and the European Union. The scheme has a budget of 8 million that will be spent on promoting multilingualism in the 45 countries taking part in the programme.

According to Council of Europe President Walter Schwimmer and Viviane Reding the European Commissioner in charge of cultural policy, the twin ideals of diversity and opportunity lie at the heart of the EYL.

"Everybody deserves the chance to benefit from the cultural and economic advantages language skills can bring. Learning languages also helps to develop tolerance and understanding between people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds," they said in a joint statement released at the EYL's official launch earlier this year. 

The EYL has five key objectives.

  1. To raise awareness of the extent and value of Europe's linguistic diversity;
  2. To encourage multilingualism;
  3. To promote language learning among the general public for self development, enhancing the economy, intercultural understanding and knowing one's rights as a European;
  4. To encourage lifelong learning of languages regardless of age or background;
  5. To collect and disseminate information about language teaching and learning.

The Year of Languages was officially launched in February 2001 in Lund, Sweden at a conference entitled "The Challenge of Linguistic Diversity in Europe." But preparations for the EYL actually began last autumn with an information campaign and a call for proposals from professional organisations interested in taking part in the scheme.

The European Commission explained that projects considered for funding must promote one or more of the 5 objectives of the EYL whilst "celebrating Europe's linguistic and cultural diversity." Projects should also encourage language learning and practice "as an enjoyable and enriching activity," the institution added. 

EU money, however, is not available to applicants from all 45 countries taking part in the EYL. The Commission said that because of the scheme's relatively small budget, it only could only fund projects from within the European Union or European Economic Area (the EU15 along with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.)

The call for proposals closed in February this year and over half of the EYL budget has been earmarked to co-finance the 150-successful projects selected for funding. Aside from the more serious projects chosen from the call for proposals, the EYL is also backing many more light hearted language-related events. These include a number of interactive language games and competitions that can be accessed via the EYL website (

Italian couple Aldo Riberto and his Monica Grandi have already won one of these competitions by naming the EYL mascot, a chameleon who will henceforth be known as "Polyglottilus". 

EYL officials have also drawn together a huge amount of statistical information on the state of language learning in Europe, all of which is available through the scheme's website. For example, one survey commissioned by Linguaphone shows that most European members of parliament (MPs) are only able to work in their own language.

In a bid to change these somewhat embarrassing statistics, 22 British MPs have decided to lead by example and learn a language. Kevin McNamara, MP for Kingston-upon-Hull in the North East of England chose to learn Gaelic, for example while his parliamentary colleague Terry Davis will try his hand at Russian. As part of the company's involvement in EYL, Linguaphone has offered to provide learning materials free of charge to any MPs who want to learn a new language.

Meanwhile, another survey on the EYL site, this time by INRA, shows that 41% of Europeans can speak English as one of their foreign languages. According to the study on "Europeans and languages" the next most common "other" language is French with 19% of non-native European speakers. (The survey itself was first published in French.)

Elsewhere, a recent edition of the Commission-backed `Eurobarometer' series of opinion polls showed that half of Europeans claim to speak at least one foreign language. It has been suggested that one of the biggest barriers to learning a new language can be the fact that your mother tongue is very widely spoken. This is particularly true for English speakers, who for decades have tended to rely on foreigners to make the effort and cross the language barrier. 

Indeed, English has now become so widespread that some European countries have passed laws to protect their language from the anglophone onslaught. In France for example the infamous `Loi Toubon' has been used to prosecute retailers who sold products only labelled in English. In addition, the country's Académie Nationale is a bastion of defenders of the French language against invading foreign words. These "word police" propose French alternatives to new words that appear in France in a non-French form.

Members of the government are obliged to respect this official vocabulary, which sometimes has a hollow ring to it, but some words have passed into the spoken language. "Baladeur" was greeted with mirth when it was proposed instead of "walkman", but it is now in common use, for example.

In Switzerland meanwhile, MP Didier Berberat wants to see the national constitution changed in order to protect the country's four official languages - German, French, Italian and Romansch. Berbarat says Swiss schoolchildren should be obliged to learn another Swiss tongue before they are allowed to study a foreign language like English or Spanish.

Poland, Romania and Germany are also considering legal steps to protect their national language. In a recent poll 53% of Germans expressed dislike for the use of English words in German.

The fact that English is seen as a danger to other languages can be partly attributed to the high rate of non-native English speakers in Europe. The most important factor affecting the speed at which one can learn a second language is the motivation behind the activity and English's undisputed claim to be the international language of business has made it the second language choice for a huge number of Europeans. Even the French government has been forced to recognise this reality and is now calling for a long-standing ban on the use of English at the Paris stock exchange to be lifted.

But despite the seemingly unstoppable march of English, the Commission and Council of Europe still insist there is much to be gained from learning other tongues. This is one of the reasons why EYL funding will be made available to a wide variety of different projects from right across Europe, the Commission explains.

According to Aristotle, "speech is the representation of the experiences of the mind, and writing is the representation of speech." This suggests that language and culture are linked and the EYL certainly seems to have recognised this important fact. 

Simon Coss is a Paris-based freelance journalist.
Recommended citation format:
Simon COSS. "The European Year of Languages". June 5, 2001. Accessed May 25, 2020. <>.

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European Union of the Deaf


Do watch out for those Year of Languages related project that include (European)sign languages, those oft overlooked indigenous European languages. At last they too get a look in on the language front at EU level!!

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silvia camilo


Thanks for your article; One of the reasons given for lack of funds for financing most projects was that the initial funding was almost entirely spent on making the different language versions of the European Year of Languages site which in itself was not a project within the whole programme. One would have thought that that would have been catered for coming from other sources.

This of course meant that europe wide initiatives, most of them quite interesting and grassrooted never saw the light of day. A pity..

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Manuel Sant'Iago Ribeiro


heady stuff...but reality fall short of's part of the (negative) reply the Port. region just received after we submitted a project:

O volume dos pedidos de subsídio ultrapassou largamente o das dotações disponíveis: recebemos 1056 propostas, solicitando um total de quase 35.000.000 €, o que representa um montante mais de oito vezes superior ao montante do orçamento destinado a esta fase de selecção. Dos pedidos apresentados foram aceites 142.

Para estabelecer as suas conclusões, a Comissão avaliou todos os pedidos com base nos critérios de elegibilidade e selecção publicados no convite à apresentação de propostas, bem como em função das prioridades do Ano Europeu, tal como foram expostas na decisão e no convite. Só puderam ser aceites os projectos apresentados em conformidade com os procedimentos de candidatura e integrando um número significativo de prioridades do Ano Europeu.

Entre os projectos que não obtiveram auxílio financeiro a Comissão identificou muitas ideias que poderiam dar lugar a actividades extremamente interessantes e úteis no âmbito do Ano Europeu e para além dele.


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