Each year on 26 September, the European Day of Languages is celebrated across the continent. The aim of the day is threefold: to promote language learning and the range of languages learnt, to promote the linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe and to encourage lifelong language learning, both within and outwith formal education.
The Council of Europe established the day at the end of 2001, which was the European Year of Languages. The day is the perfect opportunity to take a second look at the languages of Europe and find out more about the true breadth of languages spoken across the continent.
Hidden linguistic diversity
With (still for now) 28 members of the European Union, there are 24 official languages used to varying extents within the organisation. These represent a mere fraction of the languages spoken across Europe, however, and of course not every European country is a member of the EU.
You don’t even have to leave the Indo-European language family to find incredible diversity.
While most languages spoken across Europe belong to the Indo-European language family – which includes tongues as diverse as Armenian, English, French, Greek, Hindi, Irish, Norwegian and Persian (Farsi) – there are significant pockets of languages that are completely unrelated to these. The most notable examples are Basque, spoken in the Basque Country on the northern Iberian peninsula, and of course the Finno-Ugric languages, a small family that includes Finnish, Estonian and (perhaps surprisingly) Hungarian.
However, you don’t even have to leave the Indo-European language family to find incredible diversity. In the British Isles, three indigenous Celtic languages (Irish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic) are spoken natively alongside English, and there are attempts to revive a further two, namely Cornish (spoken in Cornwall) and Manx (spoken on the Isle of Man). Add to that Scots, which is a Germanic language mutually intelligible with English, and you’ve got six languages before you’ve even counted English. And of course, migrants from all over the world have brought their native tongues with them.
It’s never too late to start learning
Although it’s true that learning a foreign language gets harder as you get older, it depends on your previous linguistic experience and is by no means impossible. There have never been more ways to learn a new language, with evening classes, online courses and apps like Duolingo and Memrise adding to the mix. Everyone has a different learning style, so it’s important to find what works for you and stick to it.
Duolingo is the totemic language-learning app of recent years. Its popularity is boosted by its gamified learning experience, which rewards learners for frequent practice. Although its effectiveness is perhaps debatable, it certainly sparks enthusiasm for language learning amongst a large segment of the population – something which cannot be valued too highly in the current climate.
For some, traditional language learning methods may work best.
It serves some languages better than others, however. It covers the three mainland Scandinavian languages – Danish, Norwegian and Swedish – although courses for Finnish and Icelandic are still lacking. It has shown some willingness to promote minority languages though, with a course for Welsh already live and one for Scottish Gaelic in the works.
For others, traditional learning methods may work best. Many colleges and universities across the United Kingdom offer evening classes in a wide range of languages for learners of all levels. These often offer the best environment you can get outside of the language’s home country, as you can practise your pronunciation and conversation skills with a teacher and other learners.
For the Nordic languages, the following evening classes are available at universities in cities across most of the country:
- Danish – England: Leicester, London; Scotland: Edinburgh
- Finnish – England: London (UCL), London (Westminster)
- Icelandic – England: London
- Norwegian – England: Durham, London; Scotland: Edinburgh, Glasgow
- Swedish – England: Durham, London (KCL), London (Westminster), Oxford; Northern Ireland: Belfast; Scotland: Edinburgh, Glasgow
Supporting language education at all levels
Modern languages and linguistics subjects are under threat at UK schools and universities: teaching is increasingly funded by foreign governments and in parts of England the numbers of students taking German and French have fallen between 30% and 50% since 2013. This has an obvious knock-on effect on the numbers of students who go on to study foreign languages and translation at university level, and universities across the United Kingdom have seen consolidation and cuts in language departments for many years.
The tangible and intangible benefits of learning a language are practically endless.
It’s important – perhaps now more than ever before – that we encourage young people to take up a foreign language. The tangible and intangible benefits are practically endless: as well as giving you an obvious practical ability to communicate with people abroad, learning any language gives you a view into another culture and makes you reflect on your own. This encourages open-mindedness and promotes tolerance and understanding of other cultures.
What’s more, if you’re a speaker of English and you learn a related or neighbouring language like French, German or even Icelandic, you gain insight into the history of your mother tongue. If you add a third or fourth language, then you can often draw parallels and differences between the languages and cultures you speak.
So this European Day of Languages, take the time to find out about the languages and dialects spoken around you – not just the predominant or official language of your region or country. Perhaps it’s also time to dust off that old German textbook or sign up for an evening class in Norwegian? However you celebrate, god fornøjelse, góða skemmtun or simply pidä hauskaa!