Original publication: October 2016
Author: Michele Gazzola, Research Group in Languages and Economics (“REAL” Group), Department of Eucation Studies of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Institute for Ethnic Studies, Ljubljana, Slovenia
Short link to this post: http://bit.ly/2AVonJL

Background and aims

The European Strategy for Multilingualism (ESM) has three general socio-economic objectives, i.e., promoting mobility of the labour force in the Single Market, employability and growth in Europe; strengthening social cohesion, the integration of migrants, and intercultural dialogue; managing in an effective and inclusive way multilingual communication in a supranational democracy. Promoting lifelong language learning, and supporting translation and interpreting are means to achieve these goals. This report provides an overall evaluation of the relevance of the ESM. We examine the relationship between the Strategy’s objectives and the problems that the ESM is supposed to tackle. Such an evaluation is carried out in the light of the empirical and theoretical results of the academic literature in the economics of languages. These results provide a general, albeit admittedly limited, picture of the needs for language policy in the current European  multilingual environment. Against this background, we evaluate the relevance of the general goals and the recommendations of the ESM. If a policy is not relevant, it is not likely to bring about benefits for society. Finally, this report discusses the actions carried out by the Commission to implement the ESM. The report summarises the available evidence for such actions, and, where possible, we present data on their advantages and disadvantages. This discussion sheds light on the objectives that potentially require more support, and on the type of data and information that are necessary to improve the monitoring of the implementation of the ESM.



The first general goal of the ESM is promoting mobility of the labour force in the Single Market, employability and growth in Europe. The results of empirical research carried out in different countries show that foreign language skills bring about economic advantages for individuals in terms of positive earning differentials. Very good language skills are rewarded more markedly than limited language knowledge. English has an undisputed economic usefulness in the European labour market, but it is not the only linguistic asset worth investing in; in some contexts, skills in other languages may be better rewarded than English. This emphasises the importance of teaching and learning more than one foreign language, following the recommendations of the European Council that have been summarised in the formula “mother tongue + two foreign languages” (MT+2). Positive social rates of return on foreign language teaching show that language learning is a valuable investment for society as a whole. Although the importance of foreign language skills for employability is emphasised in different EU documents, empirical evidence to support this claim is still preliminary. Some studies show that language skills contribute to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but unfortunately, none of these studies concerns EU countries. Proficiency in the language(s) of the host country has a positive effect on migrants’ labour income and their employability. The presence of one or more common languages considerably increases trade flows among countries. As regards the relationship between language and technological innovation, it has been shown that language policy has an impact on the distribution of costs borne by European innovative firms to protect intellectual property rights, in particular through patents.

Supporting language learning to foster intra-EU mobility and to promote inclusion in the host country is a goal of the ESM. Empirical evidence supports the claim that language learning facilitates mobility. Speaking the language of a host country increases migration to that country almost fivefold. In addition, learning the official language of the host country may facilitate inclusion. Yet, good and very good foreign language skills are still not the rule in the EU. Only one fourth of EU citizens state they can speak at least two foreign languages. This percentage has remained virtually constant between 2001 and 2012. Fluency in English is not a universal “basic skill” in Europe: only 7% of EU citizens declare an ability to speak English as a foreign language at a very good level. Intermediate and elementary levels are by far more common. Generally speaking, a language policy based on the MT+2 formula or on the promotion of a single vehicular language cannot resolve the tension between mobility and inclusion because it does not tackle adequately the problem of unpredictability in individuals’ moving opportunities. New measures may be necessary at the European and at the national level in order to promote and to facilitate mobility and inclusion. Learning a language before moving abroad and/or immediately after the arrival in the host country should become more accessible and cheaper. The provision of a greater number of multilingual public services and administrative forms in several languages should be supported. This emphasises the importance of translation and interpreting in the management of multilingual communication in Europe.

The third general goal of the ESM is to promote multilingualism in the institutions of the EU. Multilingualism is the most effective language regime to convey information to EU citizens. The percentage of people who would be excluded if English were the only official language of the EU ranges from 45% to 80% depending on the indicator and dataset used. A trilingual policy based on English, French and German would exclude 26% to 50% of adult residents in the EU. The percentage of excluded people is significantly higher in Southern and Eastern Europe. In addition, economically and socially disadvantaged individuals tend to be less likely to speak foreign languages, and therefore they are more likely to be adversely affected if the EU stops using their native language or primary language of education. In this perspective, multilingualism contributes to social cohesion. Note that it is not just a blanket reduction in the number of languages that would be exclusionary; even reducing the current domains of use of the official language entails analogous effects (e.g. in the webpages of the European Commission). The rates of linguistic exclusion associated with a monolingual and/or a trilingual policy are going to increase after the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. This emphasises the importance of adopting a multilingual approach towards the external communication of the EU.

To conclude on this point, the three objectives presented in the ESM are clearly relevant because they are consistent with the problems that the Strategy is supposed to tackle. Hence, the ESM is likely to bring several benefits to EU citizens and to the European economy. More could be done to relax the existing tension between mobility and inclusion.

The second part of this report analyses the measures adopted by the Commission to implement the ESM. There are three types of such measures. The first one consists of collecting very useful data on the foreign language competence of pupils and students (e.g. the First European Survey on Language Competences), and data on the language skills of adults (e.g. the Eurobarometer survey, and the Adult Education Survey). The second set of initiatives consists of publishing documents, websites and reports that aims at raising awareness of the benefits of language diversity and language learning in society and in the economy. The lack of explicit outcome indicators, nevertheless, prevents us from evaluating the final effects and the outreach of these initiatives. The third type of measures consists of direct financial support to language learning through the Lifelong Learning Programme and the European Social Fund. The Lifelong Learning Programme funded different projects dealing with language learning, but the lack of clear outcome indicators does not allow for an evaluation of the effectiveness and the cost-effectiveness of these projects. The European Social Fund has been used for language training aimed at improving employability and the integration of immigrants, but no precise figures have been published that quantify the amount of funding invested for this purpose and that estimate the effects obtained. Few initiatives have been undertaken to promote the external dimension of multilingualism.

Generally speaking, information about the costs and the effectiveness of EU programmes and actions undertaken to comply with the ESM is not complete. The indicators to assess the outcomes of language policy should be defined more explicitly. More attention should be paid to the evaluation of the final effects of programmes aimed at improving language skills of students and adults. Close attention should be paid to the consistency between the ESM and other EU policies that may have an impact on linguistic diversity and on the enforcement of the MT+2 formula, in particular in higher education.

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/573-460

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