Languages are the core of our cultural heritage

Written by Henri Malosse on 26 September 2018 in Opinion
Opinion

Failing to preserve multilingualism goes against the values on which the EU was founded, says Henri Malosse.

Henri Malosse | Photo credit: EESC


It’s a paradox: writing about the European Day of Languages for a website exclusively English language content. Yet this is the state of a¬ airs in Brussels, where even the European institutions have forgotten the long discussions of the European Community’s founding members.

Multilingualism was at the forefront of the EU’s original principles, in direct contrast to the UN’s five official languages and with the explicit intention of cultivating a state of equilibrium between the member states as well as the communities within them. The theory was that, at the EU level, each language would be treated equally, with all official documents being translated into the 24 official languages.

To our detriment, this ambitious rule is broken on a daily basis, when priority is given to the EU’s ‘working languages’ of English, French and German. Justifications of ‘practicality’ and ‘cost-reduction’ are distractions from the truth: the EU is compromising its principles of equality.


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We should retain our respect for the people of Europe, whose languages are an extension of their cultures and – by definition - their identities. Globally, we are witnessing enormous cultural loss. It is estimated that one language disappears every 14 days. 

In Europe, there are more than 100 spoken languages, including those cherished by minority groups, such as Welsh, Sardinian, Corsican, Basque and Frison. Each of these languages contains complexities of literature, poetry, ritual and history. The loss of any of these languages would be equivalent to the loss of a nation’s soul.

Many European nations have gone to great lengths to preserve their linguistic heritages. For example, in Wales, the government has attempted to revitalise the language by incorporating learning into primary schools and by engaging with local communities that continue to value the Welsh language. 

Fellow EESC member Bryan Curtis shared his story with me. “I am a bad Welsh speaker,” he admitted, “but my son is better. My grandson speaks fluently, and my great-grandson, at only five years old, well, he only speaks Welsh.” 

It is deeply frustrating that when you listen to the technocratic ‘Brussels speak’, the words are often empty of content or emotion, filled with platitudes and pleasantries rather than passion and vision. This is a sharp contrast to the force of our diverse languages, which are rich with sentiment and charge.

The loss of this linguistic depth has also exacerbated the divide between citizens and bureaucrats, risking the stability of our democracy. People no longer feel connected to the institutions tasked with representing them. A lack of citizen engagement in the democratic process is a real and persistent problem, one which will reverberate throughout coming generations. 

Engagement is based on communication, and when linguistic sentiment is lost to the standardisation of language and the coercion of ‘political correctness’, we lose all hope of truly understanding each other. We lose all hope of comprehension, and as a consequence, the hope of adequately representing the depth of diversity across Europe.

The Council of Europe has proposed a European convention for minority languages, which France has subsequently refused to ratify. It seeks to deny official recognition for the Corsican, Basque, Occitan, Breton, Catalan and Alsatian languages. This is not only disrespectful; it is an example of institutional discrimination against minority groups. 

On Europe’s Day of Languages, European leaders must demonstrate their appreciation of our true European heritage by ensuring all European languages are equally protected.

 

About the author

Henri Malosse is a member of the European Economic and Social Committee

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