How many official languages would you expect an organisation of twenty-seven member states to have?
With 29 members, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has two official languages: English and French. The United Nations lists over 190 members, but uses six languages for official purposes: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. However, as you’ve learned in the Introduction section, the European Union is unlike any other regional or international organisation. Currently, there are 24 official EU languages (Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, and Swedish are national or administrative languages in more than one member state).
Certainly, maintaining official documents and offering interpretation in 24 different languages is no small task.The EU employs 4300 translators and 800 interpreters as part of its permanent staff. The EU estimates that the cost of translation and interpretation adds up to less than 1% of their annual budget, or about €2 per EU citizen per year. However, unlike other organisations with a smaller number of official languages, the EU has made multilingualism an official policy. Making its institutions accessible to all the EU’s citizens is designed to increase the transparency and legitimacy of the European Union.
As enlargement continues in the EU (currently, five countries are official candidates), we can expect the number of official languages to grow as well. What challenges will translating and interpreting at least 29 European languages pose in the future? Could English, French and German (the most common working languages) eventually become the EU’s only official languages? How might citizens from the Netherlands, Malta or Latvia react to such a change? Such questions will be increasingly important for the European Union.
Interested in learning more about the languages of the European Union? We’ve created pages on the five most commonly used languages of the EU in 2005 (after English). Visit each page to find out background on the language, useful expressions, language resources, and cultural links.
- French (Learn more about French at Carleton)
- German (Learn more about German at Carleton)
- Italian (Learn more about Italian at Carleton)
- Spanish (Learn more about Spanish at Carleton)
DID YOU KNOW…
That, in Canada, although the Constitution Act of 1867 provided for the use of English and French, both languages were first given official status in 1969? Click HERE | FR to learn more about bilingualism in Canada.
Click HERE to read a news article about Irish becoming an official language of the EU in January 2007.