The Politics and Policy of Multilingualism in the European Union

M. Gazzola, Rocco Walter Ronza

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For many political scientists today, multilingualism is not an important issue. It is assumed that the spread and disappearance of languages is a 'natural' phenomenon, similar to the changing seasons or to market price formation. It is a fatalistic vision that ignores the important role played by both language politics - that is, the balances and conflicts of interest between groups with differentiated access to different linguistic codes - and language policy - that is, the deliberate measures taken by States and other organizations to manage linguistic diversity in a certain territory. Languages do not spread on their own: they are spread, promoted or imposed through their use in education systems, in the media, in legal systems, and in public and private administrative systems. While the State can be neutral with respect to religious beliefs, it must necessarily use one language and therefore must privilege at least one language over the others. In addition, the micro-incentives incorporated into language policies in law or in fact generate situations of balance that can be assessed as more or less ‘fair’ - both in the sense of transfers of resources between groups involved and in their impact on the production of collective goods. It is precisely these political mechanisms and their effects that political and economic research has not yet been able to fully disentagle. The case of the European Union is interesting in this respect. The EU's language policy, enshrined in Regulation 1/1958, is based on the principle of equal languages. Although this principle is respected in official acts, it is not always applied in other areas in which preference is given to the use of only one language, English, or three major languages, namely English, French and German. The reason usually cited is linked to the costs of translation and interpretation services, but, after a careful analysis of the data, it appears to be based on a narrow view of the concept of cost and on a partial evaluation of the economic, social and cultural effects. This article shows that only a minority of European citizens know English, and those who do know it usually know it at elementary or intermediate level. It also suggests that extending the use of English could have a negative impact on the collective good of cultural and intellectual diversity, which the EU has reaffirmed as its distinctive identity, as it reduces the contribution that different national cultural stocks can contribute to a supranational debate. The European case shows that the advent of the global language also has disadvantages that must be taken into account. Reality of the facts shows that today English is mainly the vehicular language of the cosmopolitan elites most organically inserted in the web of economic interests and power relations of the global political-economic system built on the basis of the Anglo-American alliance after the Second World War and which became irresistible after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The privileged status acquired by English generates inequalities at different territorial levels and, in the EU, a dangerous increase in the distances between the population and the EU institutions which risks favouring the growth of the so-called populist movements.
Lingua originaleEnglish
pagine (da-a)55-66
Numero di pagine12
VolumeFall/Winter 2018
Stato di pubblicazionePubblicato - 2018
Pubblicato esternamente


  • Language policies
  • Multilingualism


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