Multilingualism in the European Union


Marta Alina, who is currently completing a master’s in Comparative International Relations at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, wrote her BA thesis on how multilingualism works in the European Institutions, after being inspired by a visit to the European Parliament in Brussels. You can check out Marta’s article and thesis here.

Researching Multilingualism in the European Union

The point of view of the European Commission on English as a lingua franca

In 2016, while I was reaching the end of my Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Languages for Publishing at the University of Verona, I started to think thoroughly about my thesis; what I remember is that ever since my first year of enrolment, I had in mind to do something unique and special, that would not be confined only to university catalogues and that could enrich people’s minds. What inspired me to choose my topic was a two-days trip to Brussels, where I got the possibility to visit the European Parliament. Looking back at the moment I entered that huge building, I still feel the enormous emotion and excitement that crossed my entire body. In particular, I noticed people from so many countries, talking so many languages with each other that I soon wondered how communication was possible in a working reality like the European Institutions, with 28 member states, 24 official languages and 552 possible language combinations. In that moment I realized I wanted to dig into the role of Multilingualism in the European Union and discover if the so called “Global English” or “Euro-English” has really taken over as a lingua franca.

The research study “Multilingualism in the European Union: Unity in Diversity”  supervised by Prof. Facchinetti and Dr. Jessica Mariani, investigates the relationship between the EU language policy and the translation practices in the European Institutions and presents contrasting points of view collected among EU officials at the European Commission regarding the role of English as Lingua Franca. The aims of the study are to provide a clear overview of how communication works between the EU Institutions and find out which languages are the most utilized within the EU bodies, with a particular focus on the European Commission, who is responsible for proposing the European legislation. The study looks into whether English is still in the process of becoming a “Lingua Franca” in the EU Institutions or if this is already the case.

In the first part of the study, I have widely dealt with the linguistic challenge that the European Union faces on a daily basis, vacillating between the need to respect the linguistic diversity and achieve European integration. The European Union promotes multilingualism as a notable element of its heritage. However, working in 24 different languages may slow down
workload as communication in a multilingual EU requires efficiency, competence as well as rapidity. Moreover, I could notice that there is a slight difference between “official” and “working” languages in the EU Institutions; as I was told during one of interviews, “some languages are indeed more equal than others”. While official languages are used in external communication, working languages are circumscribed to an internal context. The cases in which a real legal obligation exists to use all official EU languages are essentially limited to legislation and direct communication with EU Member States and private persons. The choice of working languages in the EU bodies is a matter of practice and English is the most important language of wider communication, that goes beyond the EU boundaries.

By adopting a qualitative approach, I interviewed three experts working at the European Commission and the European Court of Justice in order to verify if they shared the same view about the role of English as a lingua franca in the EU Institutions. I came to the conclusion that English is indeed the lingua franca although experts surprisingly did not all agree on this issue; for instance, Mr. Konrad Fuhrmann, Policy Officer at DG Education and Culture of the European Commission, firmly claimed that “English is no lingua franca and will never be one”, while Mr. Ian Andersen, External Communication Adviser to DG Interpretation at the European Commission, stated that “the shared language of Europe is Le Bad English”: according to him “we don’t actually know whether English as Lingua Franca is more or less effective in terms of speed and understanding than native languages with interpretation”. Mr. Stefaan Van der Jeught, Officer at the Directorate Communication of the European Court of Justice, reported that “there’s no need to say that English is the lingua Franca, because this is already the case now and it does not eliminate language diversity. In fact, this proves that working documents, discussion papers, draft legislation etc., are mainly drafted in English only. It simply shows the strong position of English as a lingua franca in the Commission services”.

Now, if we think about it, throughout history Europe has always used a lingua franca, a common language enabling communities with different mother tongues to communicate: Greek in the ancient world, Latin in the Roman Empire and for centuries after its collapse, up until the 18th century when French became the language of politics and diplomacy. In contrast with the current situation, however, the necessity of a common language was felt only by a restricted group of people; what is therefore new is the scale of international communication today. The past few decades have witnessed unparalleled increases involving all EU citizens, underlining the need for one vehicular language that can overcome language barriers. Today, this role is mainly played by English and can scarcely be disputed.

The EU Institutions aim to operate with an efficient amount of workload, while preserving linguistic diversity. According to Mr. Van der Jeught, “it is very important to make a clear distinction between the protection of linguistic diversity, on the one hand, and efficient communication on the other. The latter inevitably requires a lingua franca”. Shall we consider linguistic diversity as a social boundary or a treasure? Mr. Andersen believes that “the language diversity in the EU is a given, not an option. Working in a single language, while convenient, especially for native speakers of that language, always contains a risk of group think or absence of diversity in the thinking. So, the answer is both: diversity is a boundary which you will need to overcome through interpretation and translation or through language learning”.

To conclude, as Umberto Eco said, “the language of Europe is Translation”. The EU considers translation as a fundamental concern, because of its importance in daily communication in Europe. The use of working languages in the EU saves a lot of translation efforts as it is not possible to translate all EU documentation into all the 24 official languages: the choice of English as the hypothetical official language for a future EU is still argued, but not yet rejected. On the one hand, using only English as an official and working language certainly would accelerate the work within the EU. On the other hand, this solution would reject the linguistic diversity. The funny thing about my text, is that I spent almost 8 months working on it, I presented it on the 22nd of June, 2016, and the following day, the United Kingdom voted for Brexit. I cannot hide my disappointment about it, and maybe this will make you smile as well. What will happen to English now?


  1. European Commission. 2012. Studies on Translation and Multilingualism. Language and Translation in International Law and EU Law, Publications Office of the European Union, Brussels
  2. Van der Jeught, Stefaan. 2015. EU Language Law, Europa Law Publishing, Brussels Presentation

Marta Alina holds a Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Languages for Publishing at the University of Verona, with a research thesis focused on Multilingualism in the European Institutions. She’s currently enrolled at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, studying Comparative International Relations, an English-thought Master’s course: she chose the Eastern European CV, and won a scholarship that will give her the opportunity to spend five months at the Saint Petersburg State University in Russia. She speaks Italian, Romanian, English, Portuguese and Russian. Marta Alina also works as a freelance interpreter at fairs and international events in Italy.