Languages play an important role in the heritage mosaic of Europe – not just as a means of transmitting cultural traditions from one generation to the next, but as valuable expressions of identity and culture that are linked with particular peoples and regions. Yet this asset is extremely difficult to deal with and while Europe’s linguistic pluralism is celebrated in theory, it also poses serious challenges for policy makers (Nic Craith 2006). Collectively Europe’s languages form a crucial part of its cultural heritage but transnational institutions such as the European Union (EU) are barely able to cope with the challenge. With the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union in January 2007, the number of official languages in the Union rose from 21 to 23. The official languages of EU countries represent three different language families – Indo-European, Finno-Ugric and Semitic – and the Union has three alphabets – Latin, Greek and Cyrillic. Moreover, it is estimated that as many as 40 million citizens of the Union regularly speak an unofficial language that has been passed down from one generation to the next. More than 60 indigenous regional or minority language groups can be identified within the current boundaries of the EU. And then there is the issue of contested languages, dialects, non-European languages . . . Over the years many trans-national European institutions have affirmed their allegiance to Europe’s linguistic heritage and the commitment of organizations such as the Council of Europe to linguistic diversity on the continent is well established. Five years after its foundation in 1949, the Council of Europe pledged its commitment to the ‘common cultural heritage of Europe’. Article 2a of the European Cultural Convention drafted in Paris in 1954 stipulated that, where possible, each party would ‘encourage the study by its own nationals of the languages, history and civilization of the other Contracting Parties’. Part b was a reciprocal measure to ensure that parties would also ‘endeavour to promote the study of its language or languages, history and civilization in the territory of the other Contracting Parties’. Since then, there have been many endorsements of the linguistic dimension to Europe’s heritage. At a symposium in Luxembourg on the potential
of plurilingual education in the classroom in 2005, Mady Delvaux-Stehres, the then President of the Education Council of the European Union, ‘reaffirmed that Europe must safeguard its heritage and the diversity of the linguistic landscape that sets it apart’. In her view, the social cohesion of Europe could be guaranteed only if schools worked to safeguard their linguistic heritage. This view of linguistic heritage as a force for cohesion was re-affirmed in 2008 in a document initiated by the President of the European Commission, Mr José Manuel Durão Barroso, and the Commissioner for Multilingualism, Mr Leonard Orban. Proposals for intercultural dialogue were set out by a group of intellectuals chaired by Amin Maalouf. They suggested that:
Every language is the product of a unique historical experience, each is the carrier of a memory, a literary heritage, a specific skill, and is the legitimate basis of cultural identity. Languages are not interchangeable, none is dispensable, none is superfluous. To preserve all the languages of our heritage, including the ancestral European languages such as Latin and ancient Greek; to encourage, even for languages which are very much minority languages, their development in the rest of the continent, is inseparable from the very idea of a Europe of peace, culture, universality and prosperity.