The European Union is only e very tiny part of the world surface.
In that Union loads of languages are spoken and it is very important to come to a harmonious co-existence of 24 official languages. It is one of the most distinctive features of the European project. Multilingualism is not only an expression of the EU countries’ cultural identities but it also helps preserve democracy, transparency and accountability. No legislation can enter into force until it has been translated into all official languages and published in the Official Journal of the EU. Crucially, the provisions relating to the EU language regime can only be changed by a unanimous vote in the Council of the EU. Having to translate all the documents makes those in charge looking for the traps or loopholes in the texts and as such makes it possible to discover certain weaknesses in what seems clear in one or another language.
Having so many languages spoken in one country or all over the Union, makes people to find a way to communicate with each other. In Belgium for example, having three national languages, Dutch, French and German, all together there can be found 67 different languages spoken by inhabitants. A 2012 poll suggests that a slim majority of Europeans (54 %) can hold a conversation in at least one foreign language. English seems a very usable language for many to have a fluent conversation with each other. But worryingly today, strangely enough, having obligatory education until the age of 18, nearly half of all Europeans (46 %) cannot, and only four in 10 pupils attain the basic level of competence allowing them to have a simple conversation in a foreign language.
The European Parliament is committed to ensuring the highest possible degree of multilingualism in its work.
Based on the 24 official languages that constitute the public face of the EU, the total number of linguistic combinations rises to 552, since each language can be translated into the 23 others. Currently, over 1 000 staff employed in translation and over 500 in interpretation care for the translation and interpretation needs of the 751 Members of the European Parliament. Internally, the EU institutions mostly use just three working languages: English, French and German.
The overall cost for delivering translation and interpretation services in the EU institutions is around €1 billion per year, which represents less than 1 % of the EU budget or just over €2 per citizen.
Between 6 000 and 7 000 languages are spoken in the world today. Giving a precise figure is impossible, since the borderline between a language and a dialect is not well defined. Strikingly, 97 % of the world’s population speaks about 4 % of the world’s languages, while only about 3 % speaks the roughly 96 % of remaining languages. Half of the world’s 7.7 billion inhabitants share just six native languages. Some 3 % of the world’s languages (255) belong to Europe. The highest number of living languages – 2 165 – is found in Asia.
Unless current trends change, some 90 % of all languages spoken today may be replaced by other dominant ones by the end of the century. The Unesco Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger reveals that 40 % of languages spoken in the world are endangered (see Figure 2). Worryingly, at least 2 000 of the world’s endangered languages have under 1 000 speakers, and 4 % have disappeared in the past 70 years.
Following the success of the European Year of Languages (2001), the Council of Europe designated 26 September as the European Day of Languages.