Sunday, November 14, 2010

The official EU languages

In 1958, the first EU language policy was passed. By then, the official EU languages were only four, being the working languages of the six Member States at that time: French, Italian, German and Dutch. As a result of the EU enlargement, the number of official languages has increased, accounting for 23 at present. Official EU languages have two main characteristics: any citizen or institution can send documents to the EU and receive a reply in any of these languages, and also EU regulations, legislative documents and the Official Journal are publish in all 23 official languages. However, due to time (translations may delay even more all EU paperwork) and budgetary constraints, most procedures are carried out just in three languages (English, French and German), which are the so-called procedural languages.
Obviously, there are many more than just 23 languages spoken in Europe. In fact, all Member States have al least two languages, but each Member State specifies which language is to be used as official language. Countries can propose the inclusion of any language spoken in its territory to the EU, so that it becomes an EU official language as well. When making this decision, such issues as the total number of speakers or the language majority within the State are not taken into account. For instance, Catalan language is not official in the EU but it has a larger number of speakers than nine of EU official languages (Danish, Slovak, Slovene, Estonian, Finnish, Irish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Maltese). Moreover, some EU official languages like Irish Gaelic are proportionately a minority language if compared to Catalan in its own country. Despite not being an official EU language, Catalan has been recognised as a communication language by the EU, that is, it can be used to issue EU information to the citizens (campaigns, publications, press releases, official web site, etc.).
With the future EU enlargement (there are 4 candidate countries adhering to the EU, namely Turkey, Croatia, Macedonia and Iceland, plus some more which have applied for it), the number of official languages will increase. This is considered to be a problem by some countries (curiously enough, by the countries with the most powerful languages). But if we take into account the data of the Eurobarometer survey on languages, 56% of EU inhabitants speak at least two languages and 28% speak at least three, so EU institutions should accept the obvious: we live in a multilingual continent.

  1. About the enlargement of the European Union:
  2. EU web page on official languages:
  3. Catalan language:
  4. Eurobarometer survey on EU languages (in English):
  5. Multilingualism:


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