An educational option for Europe

Addressees: Experts, decision makers, teachers, advanced learners

Eurocomprehension is a term coined by the linguist Horst G. Klein in 1999. Klein believes that the formula of a “plurilingual competence minimum”, as defined by the Council of Europe in Barcelona in 2002: “knowing  at least two foreign languages apart from the mother tongue”, should be extended to a receptive competence including even more European languages. Given the geolinguistic situation, the development of such a competence seems feasible, as the European continent encompasses only three major linguistic families and that within each of them, languages are quite intercomprehensible.

A look back: Already in the 1980s, the Hombourg Recommendations present the concept of a “society in which (all) European citizens understand the languages of their European fellow citizens” (sprachenteilige Gesellschaft). Unlike traditional concepts, the new plurilingualism should not remain the privilege of a small elite. Thus, the  Recommendations outline an educational project for the entire school youth of the six countries that made up the European Community at the time. There are points of reference very close to those of the current guides of the Union (e.g. Beacco 2003). Let us only look at the key terms and some contents: (foreign) language encounter in pre-school contexts, early foreign language tuition, the “fundamental language” (first foreign language preparing for the learning of other languages), learning the neighbours’ languages, overall regular tuition of foreign language(s) in education systems, languages of openness towards a distant strangeness (entfernte Fremdheit), content and language integrated learning (CLIL). Openly or in nuce, the  Recommendations mention some concrete target languages; with regard to the German context these are: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Latin, Chinese without excluding other languages such as Dutch. All things considered, the Recommendations propose to learn at least three foreign languages throughout the school curriculum. It must not be forgotten that the authors were sensitive to the “intrinsic potential cultural violence” conveyed by languages, as Johan Galtung put it in 1993, and that in numerous publications, the authors pointed out that plurilingualism reduces the risks of one language’s global “hegemony”.

Obviously, in a European Union of 24 languages, the Hombourg model has become obsolete. But in a way, eurocomprehension is taking over on the basis of the European formula of the ‘plurilingual competence minimum’. In the eurocomprehension concept, the three major European language families replace the four languages of the Six, English in addition. At the same time, it includes all the languages of the Union (with the exception of Hungarian, Finnish and Basque). The formula for developing a broad and complete eurocomprehension: Starting from the linguistic minimum formula, fostering a diversified and gradated plurilinguisms. Foreign language teaching must teach more the teaching just one language.

Political impact

Eurocomprehension has an eminent political impact. “What Europe’s multilingualism really means for its democratic capacity and the deployment of a European identity in the multilingual political community (…) is probably the most basic of all the obstacles to the project of European democracy,” summed up political analyst Peter von Kielmansegg in 1992, pointing out that history has never seen a democracy in which most citizens could not understand each other. Of course, we know (mostly federal) plurilingual states such as Switzerland, Belgium, but also Spain, Finland, etc. In all these States, the proportions of citizens speaking and/or understanding the States’ main languages are very considerable. And, despite the multilingual obstacles, the peoples concerned have developed a common political identity, based on longue durée experiences and the will to live and remain together. This will has its pre-forged knowledge in a long-term, plurilingual communication in which the heterophone communities (and great parts of the citizens) use to participate despite language barriers. – But where is the European Union today? At the moment, the EU has been suffering, above all, painfully the fractions due to the selfishness of its Member States. The governments are elected democratically, but mainly on the basis of national discourses, broaching nearly exclusively national interests and short-term perspectives. In some countries, the idea of the European political unity even seems to be strongly questioned and faded out. Not to mention the national media factually brought into step in the Union’s “authoritarian democracies”. Even in liberal democracies, we look in vain for a broad common European discourse nourished by the citizens of different countries and languages. Sometimes, the Union’s fundamental guidelines (common values, criteria of the rule of law such as freedom of the press, separation of powers) are at stake. Therefore, the Union, which the United Kingdom has just left, is staggering and procrastinating between an international alliance and a united and stable Federation in a position to respond to future challenges.

In the perspective of facilitating the volonté générale building, the question arises: Does the Union need to revise its practical functioning? In order to participate in the formation of a common political will (which is more than the lowest common denominator of national egoisms), the citizens of the Union must be better enabled to follow each other in their various discourses in different languages. Therefore, eurocomprehension is crucial. To assess the political and social impact of eurocomprehension, it must be understood that political discourses (whether national or European) have imperceptible and far-reaching effects on emotions and attitudes that influence the sensitivities of citizens in the long run.

To put all things considered in a nutshell, the potential role of eurocomprehension in constructing a European identity must be analysed. In particular, what impact does receptive and diversified plurilingualism have on opinions, sensitivities and mutual empathies of European citizens? In regard to foreign language teaching and learning, the question is whether the decision making has understood the effects of foreign language acquisition on political education. – Of course, nobody will overestimate the potential of receptive plurilingualism for European identity construction. It is just one tiny tessera in a pretty rich mosaic display. But can we afford to miss the educational opportunities eurocomprehension offers?