At the outset in 1958, the first institutions of the European Union (EU) began operating in four languages—French, German, Italian and Dutch. With each successive enlargement of the EU, more languages gained official status. Today, the EU has no fewer than 23 official languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish.
There are fewer official languages than countries in the EU (27 in total) simply because several countries share common languages. For example, French is an official language in France, Belgium and Luxembourg.
The official status of European languages does not mean that all documents coming out of EU institutions are automatically translated into all the languages. However, the EU’s legislative documents and those of special interest are published in all official languages.
Of course, the number of languages spoken in the EU far exceeds the 23 official ones: however, with several candidate countries wanting to join the EU, other languages may be added to the list, including Icelandic, Turkish, Montenegrin, Macedonian and Croatian. Stay tuned!
The EU’s member countries include more than 60 regional or minority language communities, that is, groups that speak a language other than the one spoken by most people in their country. To protect and promote these languages, the Council of Europe has adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. To date, 25 countries have ratified the Charter. Eight more countries are expected to ratify in the near future.
The most widespread regional or minority language is Catalan, which is spoken by about 7 million people in Spain, France and Sardinia. But a number of regional or minority languages are spoken by very few people and are thus endangered, hence the need for the Charter.
Languages that will never be spoken
Every European language seems to have a sign language equivalent. The status of these languages varies from country to country. Of the EU’s 27 member countries,only Austria, Finland and Portugal recognize their national sign language in their constitutions.
Mother tongue plus two
The EU strives to promote multilingualism and has set itself an ambitious goal of ensuring that its citizens can speak two languages other than their mother tongue. In 2006, the Eurobarometer Survey showed that more than half of Europe’s citizens could speak a foreign language and that 28% could carry on a conversation in at least two other languages besides their mother tongue.
Luxembourgers are the European champions, with a bilingualism rate of 99%, followed by Slovaks (97%) and Latvians (95%). At the other end of the spectrum, the citizens with the lowest bilingualism rates live in Ireland (34%) and the United Kingdom (38%).
Freut Mich! (Pleased to meet you!)
With 90 million native speakers, German is by far the most spoken mother tongue in the EU. So if you speak German, you can communicate in the native language of a considerable number of people who live mainly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and also in Luxembourg, Lichtenstein and some regions of Italy, Belgium, France and Denmark. According to the 2006 Census of Canada, German is also the mother tongue of nearly half a million Canadians.
English: Lingua franca
While German is the most common mother tongue among EU citizens, English is the language spoken by the largest number of Europeans. Adding together native English speakers and those who have learned English as a second language, approximately half of the EU’s population can speak English!