ERCIM News No.26 - July 1996

In Favour of Multilinguism

by Bernard Quemada

The linguistic unification of Europe is no longer a necessary requisite to overcome language barriers; the identity of Europe can only be represented adequately by respecting its diversity. And only the promotion of all its national languages will allow us to preserve the richness of the culture of which these languages are the privileged means of expression. The multilingual policy adopted by Europe is thus a critical test for the European Union.

In 1995, the European Council officially recognised the importance of multilinguality by twice taking a strong position in its favour. At Corfu, the importance of linguistic questions in the Information Society was underlined; in Cannes, the intention to support linguistic diversity and to promote multilinguality in all the strategic decisions and actions of the Union was confirmed. In this way, the Council explicitly recognised the separate identity, the intellectual resources and national heritage legitimately associated with each of the European languages. It was acknowledged that the cultural, economic, social and political values involved are so considerable that they cannot be ignored or neglected.

Faced with the need to provide means for standardization with respect to the worldwide diffusion of communications in the Information Society, the preservation of multilingualism is both a priority and a strategic objective. Although, it cannot be denied that a simplified version of English is currently used in most scientific, technical, financial, and commercial exchanges of information, the consequences must be evaluated. The apparent convenience does not and cannot compensate for the impoverishment of the quality of such exchanges and the constraints imposed on the intellectual products that result from this type of exchange. This kind of impoverishment increasingly concerns the whole world, not even the English language can be considered as immune ­p; its very identity is threatened by this tendency towards simplification. Immediate measures and a plan for action are now essential in order to safeguard, in the first place, the scientific and technical national languages which are those most severely threatened by this trend.

Paradoxically, the new information technologies are also being challenged by this situation; their impact on language will be even more important than that of printing during the last centuries. They represent both a danger for those languages which are unable to adopt them in time, while at the same time promise to be a means for their safeguard and promotion. The tools for automatic processing of natural language which are now being developed are certainly the best guarantee for the future of our languages.

In this spirit, a priority plan for action should be stipulated by the relevant national and European authorities, both public and private. In fact, although numerous programmes supported by the European Commission are already considering aspects of this question, the actions aimed at promoting multilinguism should be reinforced and coordinated with more consistency.

Here below, we give an indication of some of the main points to be borne in mind and objectives to be pursued:

Necessary conditions Multilinguality in special domains Valorisation of the cultural heritage Necessary actions for all languages

Within the framework of European and global cooperation: The European Union is unquestionably the authority that can make these actions become fully effective. But it is still necessary that for all European languages, widely used or not, in each member state, the decision makers are made aware of the importance of stakes and above all of the urgency. Time is short, very short.

Bernard Quemada
Vice-President du Conseil Supérieur de la Langue Française

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