Celebrating linguistic diversity

Linguistic diversity is a tool for achieving greater intercultural understanding and a key element in the rich cultural heritage of our continent.

Map showing the approximate current distributi...
Map showing the approximate current distribution of languages in Europe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

European Day of Languages

In many parts of Europe we celebrated the European Day of Languages last week. In 2001, the Council of Europe established to celebrate a European Day of Languages every 26th of September in order to emphasise the value of language learning as a life long process and to raise the awareness of the European linguistic diversity.

Multilingual Europe

In Europe we count about 225 indigenous languages – excluding the dialects and regional variants – in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. The most spoken languages by number of mother tongue speakers are Russian, German, English, French and Italian. People often forget that in many parts of Europe multilingualism is the norm. The following countries are officially multilingual, or have a number of traditionally spoken minority or regional languages: Andorra, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Finland, France, Germany, Gibraltar, Hungary, Ireland, Italy,  Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Carpathian Ruthenia (Ukraine) and the United Kingdom.

Due to the massive influx of migrants and refugees from all over the world, Europe has become increasingly multilingual, adding many more languages from all over the world to the indigenous European languages. Just to make an example, London has more than 300 languages spoken as a home language: “The most common languages include Arabic, Berber Turkish, Kurdish, Hindi, Punjabi and Chinese“.

But multilingualism at a community level doesn’t imply multilingualism at a personal level. Multilingual countries can have a superiority of monolinguals and officially monolingual countries can have considerable multilingual population.

Learning another language is a sign of respect

Learning another language “reflects an attitude of respect for the identity and culture of others and tolerance of diversity” (cfr. Neil Madden).

Each language has its own way of seeing the world and is the product of its own particular history. All languages have their individual identity and value, and all are equally adequate as modes of expression for the people who use them. Even if some statistics try to demonstrate some hierarchy among the languages, no language is intrinsically more difficult than another. Each learner is different. All depends on how close the new language is to the native language or other languages we have already acquired, how many hours per week we can devote to learning the language, the language learning resources and our motivation.

To quote the writer and cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson: “An encounter with other cultures can lead to openness only if one suspends the assumption of superiority – less of an explorer or colonizer, but of an adopted child”. In fact, the “childlike openness and humility are vital to the fluid acquisition of any language. The sooner one is shorn of the notion of cultural preeminence, the sooner one is open to absorbing the languages (spoken and unspoken) of any person or culture. Pride keeps us locked up and fearful. – Language, then, can be an act of supreme love” (comment to my post by Melissa Dalton-Bradford).

It is never too late

Many adults believe that if they missed – or wasted – the opportunity to acquire a new language during their years of formal education, it is too late to restart the process. It is not. Our language abilities can be improved at any age if we overcome the “language fear factor”. As Laura-Ann Petitto, a Cognitive Neuroscientist and a Developmental Cognitive Neuroscientist widely known for her discoveries about the biological foundations of language, says in an interview  about language and learning:

The human vocabulary  stays open to work for life.

The brain is not biologically set to learn only one language.

In the 1960s, a television programme on the Italian national channel RAI called “Non è mai troppo tardi”  (It is never too late) aimed to teach Italian to the illiterate (the respective rate was very high at that time in Italy). It was a huge success. It not only helped to lower the rate of illiteracy in the country, but it was often the only help expats had during those years to learn the local language.

How to promote a minority language

Many families who live in an other country face the dilemma of teaching their mother tongue or the language of their passport countries to their children. In many countries, minority languages are not supported at school. Therefore daily, informal, oral interaction between parents and children is crucial to the survival of the language in those families and communities. There is no language one should be ashamed of speaking! Every language is worth to be spoken.

How can we promote the minority language:

1)    First of all by being positive when we talk about this language. We need to promote a positive attitude towards it.

2)    We should speak the language with our children, with friends etc.. And we should use all the medias – books, computer programmes, CD’s, DVD’s, TV, music and contact via skype (i.e. to family members, friends) etc. – in order to provide a regular linguistic input for your children.

3)    Create opportunities to talk the language outside the family: “Cultivate relationships and situations that will enable your children to interact with other minority-language kids on an ongoing basis“.

We have to create a regular social environment that endorses the minority language. Children should feel that the language is necessary to communicate with family and peers.

4)    Nurture pride. We need to convey the feeling that knowing the language is useful: it helps to interact with family, friends and to understand locals while visiting the country where the language is spoken. – We should make our children feel proud of speaking the language. In monolingual societies, knowing another language can cause language denial and language denial can lead to language loss.

It may be on a personal or familial level, which is often the case with immigrant communities in the United States, or the entire language may be lost when it ceases to be spoken at all. (Erin Haynes, University of California, Berkeley)


On the official homepage of the European Day of Languages you can learn some interesting “language fun and facts“, do a “Language Quiz“, find some “Idioms of the world” (where you can participate in adding some translations in the languages you know at the bottom of the page!), have some fun with the “tongue twisters“, learn about “sign languages” and find some useful teaching materials.

Days like the European Day of Languages celebrate linguistic diversity in Europe. – Would it be too far-reaching to hope that in a few years we will celebrate a “World Day of Languages”?

Rosetta Stone detail at the British Museum
Rosetta Stone detail at the British Museum (Photo credit: Chris Devers)


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Ute is a multilingual language consultant and intercultural communication trainer and guides families through the stages of international life at "Ute's International Lounge" (www.UtesInternationalLounge.com). – She lives in the Netherlands with her Swiss-german husband, three children (a son and two twin-daughters) and dog. As an "expat-since-birth", she has spent her whole life living out of her passport country. She raises her multilingual children abroad too and writes about being expat/international, international childhood, parenting multilingual and multicultural children and more... at www.expatsincebirth.com.

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5 thoughts on “Celebrating linguistic diversity”

  1. I really love your focus on the benefits of language learning that you describe in this post and totally agree with what you say. When it comes to the European Day of Languages, it’d be great to see it become a World Day of Languages. From my own standpoint as someone who teaches foreign languages in the UK, I’d love to see it become a bigger event here and one that is backed up by concrete measures (…such as re-introducing the requirement that all schoolkids have to learn a foreign language up to the age of at least 16).

    1. Thank you, Jonathan. I’m glad you liked the post. I went to a school where the first foreign language was introduced in Year 1 – and I already was bilingual – and the second in Year 7. In my own experience I can only tell about the benefits of growing up multilingual in a long run. Of course, it can be hard sometimes when, compared to monolinguals or mother tongue speakers, we seem to be “behind” in our language development, but I think this attitude towards multilinguals is already changing. What people need to understand is, that it is not only about learning the language, it’s also about learning about the other cultures, the way the world is perceived (and expressed!) by these other cultures. – And you really end up being much more flexible. Not only languagewise.

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  3. A very nice post Ute… Your focus on promoting & showing respect to the new language & culture emphasizes how diversity is excersized in multilingualism! I have experienced this being a multilingual & am also practicing those effects with my kids as well!

    Very well done!

    1. Thank you, Nehad. I’m glad you liked, and yes: I think respect towards other cultures and their languages is crucial when you lead a global life. I would like to know more about your multicultural and multilingual journey, and how your children are coping with this. Anyway: you’re doing a brilliant job! Tot de volgende keer! 😉

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