Linguistic diversity: Opportunities and pitfalls

‘Multilingualism’ is prone to contradictory interpretations, which presents serious challenges to policy makers in their quest for an integrated, knowledge-based European society. Linguistic diversity is promoted as valuable and positive by European policy makers; however while it can be culturally enriching, multilingualism is often perceived as an obstacle to social integration and cohesion. If Europe hopes to utilise the potential of its linguistic assets productively, policy makers should acknowledge the contentious nature of language diversity, and address it with coordinated and consistent education and integration measures.

That is just one of the many policy-relevant insights to have emerged so far from LINEE, an EU-sponsored research project investigating linguistic diversity in Europe. Combining the interdisciplinary strength of around 80 individual researchers at nine European universities, LINEE (Languages in a Network of European Excellence) has been examining language and multilingualism in four thematic categories: identity and culture, policy and planning, education and the economy. The researchers conducted studies at over 30 locations around Europe, gathering a broad empirical sample.

One of the fundamental conflicts identified by the researchers concerns two kinds of discourse being pursued simultaneously in Europe with respect to linguistic diversity. Official EU discourse champions human rights issues associated with non-discrimination, protection of minorities and cultural preservation. The focus of this discourse is clearly on ‘equality’ as a shared cultural value in Europe (consistent with the EU's official motto ‘unity in diversity’). Many people who are coping with Europe's linguistic diversity in their everyday lives, however, are engaged in a very different kind of discourse, one driven not by a quest for equality but by competition in the linguistic marketplace. Europeans are perfectly aware that ‘big’ languages (especially English as a Lingua Franca) have far greater economic value than languages spoken by relatively few people. While the human rights discourse regards all languages as equal and valuable, the economic discourse recognises that some languages are more valuable than others.

The LINEE researchers acknowledge that these two discourses cannot be easily reconciled, but they claim that misunderstandings could at least be avoided if greater effort is made to explain the meaning of the term ‘multilingualism’. That word, it turns out, is very complex, meaning different things to different people, depending on the context. For some interlocutors ‘multilingualism’ might refer to either or both of the discourses described above. Alternatively, some may employ the term when referring to the use of more than one language by a society. Others apply it to the use of more than one language by a single person. Still others feel ‘plurilingualism’ is the more precise term to describe the latter. Based on the findings of the project, the researchers suggest:

  • The meaning of the term ‘multilingualism’ needs to be made explicit in each context.

Education, particularly at the elementary level, is among the project's core concerns. The research partners consider that much work needs to be done if Europe is to avoid wasting its linguistic resources. The following policy recommendations are made:

  • Teachers should be trained to recognise the benefits of linguistic diversity for the learning process. To this end, teacher mobility should be promoted. Currently, many teachers seem to regard multilingualism among children as an obstacle to learning.
  • Education policy makers are further advised to advance an integrative approach to teaching languages and avoid the traditional tendency to treat them as separate objects of learning.

The LINEE consortium concludes that the fast pace of change in European society (including immigration) may demand that local authorities be given greater support in order to respond directly to changing linguistic conditions, for example when confronted with minority languages from outside Europe. In general, the project recommends:

  • A need to better coordinate cultural-linguistic policies through all tiers of governance.

On the basis of the project’s analysis, other key policy suggestions include:

  • “The recognition and promotion of the authenticity of non-native speaker English (English as Lingua Franca)” at a European level.
  • Policy makers are urged to create more opportunities to use foreign languages.
  • Promote the learning of a second or foreign language at a national level. The researchers describe this as a “distinctive necessity" for intercultural understanding and European citizenship.

LINEE - Languages in a Network of European Excellence (duration: 1/11/2006 - 31/10/2010) is a Network of Excellence funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 – Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.


Contact: Prof. Iwar Werlen,