Social Policy in the European Union

EDUCATION IN LANGUAGES

A fatal accident took place this summer in Cantabria. A seventeen year old Dutch girl jumped to her death from a bridge while bungee jumping with a group of other young Belgian and Dutch kids. It appears that the Spanish instructor said to her "No jump. It's important. No jump", as the equipment was still being fixed to the bridge, a command she understood as "Now jump".

This unfortunate episode showcases rather dramatically one of the most flagrant obstacles to European integration, language barriers. Indeed, freedom of movement rarely comes with the necessary language tools to ensure the European traveler and the local can communicate with each other.

In this particular case, it seems that it was not the first time the Belgian company organizing the trip and the Spanish company organizing the activity worked together, in fact they had been doing so for five years. It is therefore rather worrying that two consolidated business partners operated without having someone on the ground that could communicate with these kids in their native language, especially considering the risky nature of the activities they were involved in. It is however even more alarming that this instructor, who at least occasionally had to look out for the safety of non-Spanish children, was allowed to do so having such a low level of English, the language in which people from different nationalities communicate nowadays.

This is no doubt a rather extreme case, but examples abound of problems and misunderstandings caused by the inability of fellow Europeans to communicate in a language other than their native tongue. As a lawyer specializing in the negotiation of contracts, I have seen a couple misunderstandings arise in cross-border transactions when Germans have used the word "until" instead of the word "before" when trying to define a term in which something has to take place. As a traveler, I've had run ins with the police because my Czech is extremely lacking and the subway ticket machines in Prague only had instructions in the local language. As the husband-to-be of an American, I've seen how poor the official translations of documents provided by the Spanish authorities are and how this unnecessarily complicates even the simplest of processes.

In the best of cases, trying to explain ourselves to our listener wastes valuable time, but in other cases it causes mistakes and -sometimes fatal- problems. In business, this translates to inefficiencies and productivity losses, which of course means money is lost or not earned.

We cannot compete with other countries to the full extent of our potential if we are not able to understand each other. We cannot shape the Union the way we want if its citizens cannot express their thoughts in a way that others will understand.

We cannot however impose a single official language in all the EU without delivering a fatal blow to our vast cultural heritage. The European Union is about diversity, a diversity which we understand and embrace while sharing many common values. The best way to embrace and understand that diversity is to be able to speak the same language. Language carries with it a certain frame of mind, a way of thinking, the nuances of which are sometimes lost in translation. It is therefore important that Europeans be able to speak several languages and hence better understand the way of thinking of different people. At the very least those they interact with on a more or less regular basis. Limiting ourselves to speaking our native language and fumbling through English will be increasingly insufficient in the future, not only as the Union tightens, but as globalization moves forward and the world becomes increasingly interconnected. We will live a richer, happier, more successful life if we are able to understand and be understood wherever we go and by whomever we meet.

A serious effort should be made in this respect to ensure that, from their very earliest age, Europeans become familiar with at least three languages, their mother tongue, English and a third European language of their choice. This will make Europeans one of the most international and cultivated people in the world, not to mention giving them a valuable competitive advantage over non-Europeans when entering the labor market, but, maybe more importantly, it will serve as a tribute to this poor unfortunate girl by making sure such a dreadful incident never happens again.

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