Original publication: July 2016
Authors: Cambridge English Language Assessment/Association of Language Testers in Europe: Nick Saville, Esther Gutierrez Eugenio
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Background and aim
European Strategy on Multilingualism - Policy and Implementation at the EU Level

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Multilingualism and the development of European citizens’ linguistic abilities are at the heart of the EU’s mission. As a reflection of this, in 2002 the European Council met in Barcelona and invited Members States “to improve the mastery of basic skills, in particular by teaching at least two foreign languages from a very early age” and “the establishment of a linguistic competence indicator by 2003”. This has been commonly known as the Barcelona goal of the “mother tongue +2”.

As a follow up to the Barcelona goal, in 2008 the Council of the European Union adopted the Resolution on a European Strategy for Multilingualism inviting the European Commission and Member States to promote multilingualism as a tool to enhance social cohesion, intercultural dialogue, the competitiveness of the European economy, and citizens’ mobility, employability and lifelong language learning. Additionally, the European Strategy for Multilingualism also called for further promotion of EU languages across the world and specific funding to translate European works so they can be disseminated more meaningfully across the EU and the world. The 2008 Council’s resolution was followed by a similar resolution by the European Parliament in 2009, and in 2011 the European Commission provided an account on the implementation of the strategy. The goal of this paper is to provide an overview of how the European Strategy on Multilingualism has been further implemented since 2011, and to offer a set of recommendations which could potentially help shape future EU language policies.


In 2012 the results of the European Survey on Language Competences (ESLC) were published by the European Commission. The survey was intended to measure secondary school students’ competences in their first and second foreign languages from across a sample of Member States, in the hope of collecting reliable data on the development of language skills across Europe. The results showed that European students’ level in their first and second foreign languages were not in line with policy expectations, and presented a hugely diverse picture of language education across Member States.

In light of these results, in May 2014 the Council Conclusions on Multilingualism and the Development of Language Competences invited the Commission to assess the feasibility of using national data on language competences to monitor progress towards the “mother tongue +2” goal, to collect EU data on the number of students at secondary education studying a third language, and to strengthen their cooperation with the Council of Europe’s European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML) in Graz, Austria. The Council also urged Member States to continue benefitting from the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) to exchange best practices about different strategies to enhance the quality and effectiveness of language education.

As a response to these Council Conclusions, the European Commission conducted a number of studies, particularly to gain a better picture of the language testing panorama across Member States (Eurydice 2015) and to assess the possibility of monitoring progress in language competences by using data collected through national language testing systems (European Commission 2015). The results from these studies offered again an extremely varied picture and highlighted the difficulties of comparing extracted data from across Member States without considering the very complex and unique characteristics of each national language education system.

With the constraints imposed by the principle of subsidiarity and by higher-level current European priorities, the European Commission has been working for the promotion of multilingualism and linguistic diversity through the tools they have at their disposal. For several decades, the European Commission has been offering funding to support initiatives regarding multilingualism and language learning across Member States.This funding can be accessed through a wide variety of mechanisms, ensuring that European citizens in all age, geographical and social groups can benefit from these language learning opportunities. The European Commission has also been exploiting the funding available to collaborate closely with Member States through the Open Method of Coordination, ensuring in this way the relevance of their work and a larger impact on national language policies. Similarly, the European Commission has produced a wide array of studies, materials and resources to support more effective language learning and teaching and the promotion of linguistic diversity across Member States, reacting quickly to the socio-economic challenges such as those presented by the recent immigration crisis. Following partly from the 2014 Council Conclusions, the European Commission has also continued and strengthened its collaboration with the Council of Europe’s ECML. Through this collaboration agreement, EU funding is now available to support the running of ECML workshops across EU Member States and help teachers and policy makers develop better policies and practices in language teaching and learning at national level.

Despite all these efforts, there still remain a large percentage of European citizens who do not have sufficient language skills, and evidence shows that this is likely to have an impact on both their personal and professional opportunities. For this reason, it is essential to ensure the sustainable impact of all the initiatives which have been carried out and which are currently being implemented. European Institutions and Member States need to keep collaborating towards the creation of language-friendly environments where technology could help raise standards in language education by enabling much more efficient learning and assessment outside of the traditional classroom setting. The conclusions that the European Commission offered at the European Day of Languages event in 2015 provide a set of very helpful measures which, embedded with technology, could effectively help bring about the type of systemic change needed to improve the quality of language education across Europe. Last but not least, the European Commission needs to remain empowered both politically and financially to keep coordinating these activities with Member States and working together towards the successful implementation at national level of current and future EU-level language policies.

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/573-456

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Table 1 - ESLC: main achievements, limitations and conclusions

The main achievements, limitation and conclusions of the ESLC are captured in Table 1.

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