Languages and language services in Europe

With a GDP of over €12.89 trillion, the European Union is the largest economy in the world, and it now has 24 official languages. Europe is also the largest consumer of language services, accounting for 43% of the global total, or approximately $11 billion, in 2013.

In Europe, students begin the study of one or more foreign languages as early as the age of three. In addition, the study of a foreign language is required of all students in virtually all countries, with the exception of Scotland (UK) and Ireland. The emphasis placed on foreign language education across Europe stems from the core European Union (EU) value of multilingualism. This core value is visible in the language education policy of plurilingualism, or “mother tongue plus two.” Plurilingualism is an interesting concept, in that it implies the ability to use a foreign language rather than fluency or bilingualism.

Since multilingualism is a core value of the EU, a language policy has been developed and funding has been made available to promote foreign language education through programs and events such as the Erasmus program, which has offered the opportunity to study abroad within the EU since it began in 1987; the European Year of Languages (2001); and the European Day of Languages, held every year on September 26. In the first 20 years of the Erasmus program, over two million students participated.

In a Eurobarometer survey report on Europeans and their languages, 56% of the respondents confirmed that they were able to speak at least one foreign language, and 28% spoke at least two foreign languages. The most popular languages were English, French and German. However, despite a quarter century of European multilingualism, plurilingualism and widespread study abroad through the Erasmus program, almost half of Europeans do not claim proficiency in a second language. The highest rates of multilingualism were reported in Luxembourg, Slovakia and Latvia, with 99%, 97% and 95% of the respondents in these countries reporting the ability to speak at least one other language.

According to the same report, Europeans overwhelmingly believe that foreign language skills are important for themselves (88%) and for their children (98%). They generally (77%) support European multilingualism, the language policy of the EU, and its educational objective of plurilingualism (72%).

The cost of European multilingualism stands at half a billion euros each year. The EU has 24 official/working/treaty languages, three procedural languages — English, French and German — and five semi-official languages: Basque, Catalan, Galician, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh. The expense for all EU translation and interpreting costs each EU citizen just over two euros per year, with the cost of multilingualism adding up to less than 1% of the annual EU budget.

Opportunities for language careers in the EU have increased exponentially, with demand for translators, interpreters, lawyer linguists and so on. Two independent entities, the Directorate-General for Translation (DGT) and the Directorate-General for Interpretation (DGI) are responsible for recruitment, employment and the provision of language services. At present, 4,300 translators and 1,000 interpreters are employed by the EU, with the European Commission the major employer. Requirements for employment generally include EU citizenship, a language-related college degree, and, for interpreters, a master’s degree in conference interpreting. DGI is the largest interpreting service in the world. DGT employs approximately 2,500 translators and support staff, located primarily in Brussels and Luxembourg. Opportunities exist for contractors as well, who may be either contract staff or freelance translators.

Foreign language education in Europe

Language education in multilingual Europe is grounded in The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR). “Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe 2012,” published by the Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency, provides a wealth of data on language education practices and outcomes throughout the EU. English continues to be the language preferred by students across Europe, and the high motivation tends to result in more successful learning outcomes. Challenges include recruitment of qualified teachers and levels of funding in specific member states.

According to the 2012 First European Survey on Language Competences, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish are the most widely taught languages in the EU. The survey also found that improvement is still needed and that skills vary across countries. Only 42% of students were found to be competent in their first foreign language, and just 25% in their second.

At the college and university level, the Erasmus program promotes and facilitates study abroad and the resulting enhanced language and intercultural skills within the EU. The Erasmus program has been in existence since 1987 and over three million students have participated. The program currently serves approximately 230,000 students per year. The term “Erasmus generation” has been coined to describe the generation of transnational professionals able to follow career and professional options seamlessly throughout Europe. Employers can get involved by offering internships and placements to students in the Erasmus program.

Another parallel trend is the increasing use of English as the language of instruction in European colleges and universities. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, as part of the internationalization of higher education, well over 2,000 programs in Europe use English as the language of instruction. Along with the limitations of language skills, cultural differences in teaching and learning were discussed. According to the recently released EF English Proficiency Index 2012, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands were the top three countries in English language proficiency. By contrast, the largest economies within the EU are Germany, the United Kingdom and France, with Germany ranking #14 in English proficiency and France ranking #35.

However, in contrast to the popularity and achievement levels in English across Europe, a challenge for foreign language education in the EU remains the reluctance of English speakers in the United Kingdom and in Ireland to learn foreign languages, as they continue to lag behind the rest of the EU in foreign language skills, ranking lowest on all measures. In the United Kingdom, the British Council has just released a report, “Languages for the Future: Which Languages the UK Needs Most and Why,” and The Guardian has just concluded a series of articles, “The Case for Language Learning,” supported by the British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

In Ireland, already the worst in Europe in terms of foreign languages, the most recent government-sponsored program, The Modern Languages in Primary School Initiative, was suspended in 2012, and recently replaced by a grassroots One Voice for Languages movement.

According to CNN, four EU economies rank among the top ten global economies in 2013: Germany, France, the United Kingdom and Italy. The same four EU economies rank among the top ten of the World Bank’s top 40 economies by GDP. It is not surprising, therefore, that the EU accounts for over 40% of the global language services industry, surpassing the United States since 2008, with 43% of the global total since 2008, according to the 2009 Ranking of Top 30 Language Services Companies from Common Sense Advisory. The global language services market was estimated at $22.5 billion in 2012, and a continued growth rate of over 10% was predicted over the subsequent five years. The top translation and language services companies are global in scope, with US-based companies still holding strong (see sidebar).


Americans and Europe

According to the 2000 US Census, the two largest groups by ancestry in the United States are German and Irish. From its earliest days, the transatlantic relationship has been fundamental to Americans, and to US history and development. The Declaration of Independence was greatly based on the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers in Europe. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were among the founding fathers who traveled to France — and spoke French, to varying degrees — to enlist French support for the American Revolution, and Marquis de Lafayette became one of the heroes of the American War of Independence.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Americans turned to Europe for culture and inspiration. Even in recent times, Peter Mayle’s stories of life in Provence, both fiction and nonfiction, have been best-sellers, for example. Mayle has even been awarded the Légion d’honneur for his work in bridging cultures. Today, David Sedaris makes his home in Paris, George Clooney lives in the Italian Lake District, and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt spend much of their time in Provence. Downton Abbey, countless British movies and music stars, and the British royal family continue to fascinate Americans. In 2013, France was the destination for almost 82 million tourists, making it the most popular tourist destination in the world.

Europe is by far America’s largest trading partner, with EU-US commerce coming in at $6.5 trillion per year and employing 15 million Europeans and Americans. Together, the EU and United States account for nearly half the global economy — $16 trillion in GDP. Companies headquartered in the EU have already invested $1.6 trillion in the United States and employ 3.5 million Americans. This works both ways, as US firms have already invested $2.1 trillion in Europe, far more than they have invested in China. Based on our common history, Europe and the United States  share many common values. To improve on the current situation, Europe and the United States are developing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which could benefit individuals and families on both sides of the Atlantic. Partnering on regulatory standards can also cut costs.

However, it is not at all certain if this soft power influence of Europe and its culture on Americans translates into real interest in and knowledge of Europe and its languages. According to a Gallup Poll, while about one in four Americans can hold a conversation in a second language, when recent immigrants and other heritage language speakers are excluded, only about 10% of Americans born in the United States speak another language.

While only 8% of college and university students are enrolled in a course in a language other than English, that figure was estimated at 1,682,627 in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available. The most popular languages at the college and university level are Spanish, French and German. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 18.5% of students in kindergarten through twelfth grade were enrolled in foreign language courses in 2007-2008, the most recent year for which figures are available. The most popular languages were also Spanish, French and German.

There has been a public conversation in the United States about foreign language for decades, which began in response to the precipitous decline in foreign language study in the 1970s and 1980s. While enrollments have since stabilized, foreign language study has never rebounded in proportion to the changes caused by globalization.

There are, of course, educational and a variety of government-supported programs in foreign languages in the United States. Middlebury College is generally considered the leader in US foreign language education, and offers programs in a variety of languages at a variety of levels. The programs include on-campus immersion programs and study abroad, ranging from beginners to the unique Doctorate in Modern Languages. The Middlebury Language Schools, founded in 1915 with the original German Language School, have been in existence for almost 100 years.

The need for foreign language skills for international business is addressed through the Centers for International Business Education and Research program, in operation since 1989. According to the report “New Initiatives and Themes, 2010-2014,” total federal funding stands at $12,757,000 per year, which is matched at each of the 34 current member institutions.

As for government programs and initiatives, there are many. Among them is the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap, a plan to improve foreign language skills among the US military, initially published in 2005. In existence for over 50 years, the Peace Corps is noteworthy for its commitment to foreign languages and to foreign language training for its volunteers. Nonetheless, the US foreign language deficit remains a challenge to the economic and national security of the United States.

Within the United States, career opportunities for those with foreign language skills exist in health care, education, customer service/hospitality, government, finance, information technology, social services and law enforcement. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, the 2010 median pay for an interpreter or translator was $43,300 per year, or $20.82 per hour, with 58,400 jobs available and the job outlook for 2010-2020 projected at a 42% increase, which was much faster than average. The entry-level education is generally a bachelor’s degree.


Future directions

With the addition of Croatian as the twenty-fourth language to the EU, there have been concerns voiced as to the cost of European multilingualism, which remains a core value of the EU. However, it is the rise of English as a global lingua franca and the expansion of its role as a language of instruction in European higher education that pose dual threats to European multilingualism. The situation is not without risks to English-speakers and to the English language itself, as discussed in the 2000 British Council report, “The Future of English?” and by David Crystal in his 1997 English as a Global Language.

Businesses, products, services and careers in the global English learning market would appear to be areas of opportunity. Very broad estimates would indicate a 1.5 billion pound market in the United Kingdom, with a higher than 470 million euro market in Asia. Among the English speakers of the United Kingdom, the British report “Languages for the Future” has highlighted the importance of foreign language skills. The report lists Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese as the most important. Currently, the most widely-spoken foreign language in the United Kingdom is French.

In early December 2013, however, British Prime Minister David Cameron made headlines at the conclusion of his visit to China, saying that the British should be learning Mandarin Chinese instead of European languages.