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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 22:215–222.


The Price of a Common Language

Ideas and Data for the Most Economical and Non-discriminatory Language Policy within the European Union


On the basis of the so-called “Barcelona objectives” of the Council of Europe the staff of the European Commission elaborated a working paper entitled “Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity” (Brussels, November 13, 2002). Then, on May 06, 2003, a symposium was arranged in Brussels entitled “What Language Policies for a Multilingual European Union?” to discuss the relevant questions listed in the working paper, to which I myself contributed by a written proposal (Haszpra 2003) serving as a basis of the present article.

The Barcelona objectives – at least as summarized in the title of the working paper – are absolutely acceptable. Nevertheless, learning at least two or three languages recommended in the Barcelona objectives, and also in the working paper, cannot bring about the required results, but creates in practice not only political but also heavy economic discriminations among the nations with different mother tongues.

Therefore, in this paper, conserving the moral fundamentals of the Barcelona objectives, we try to summarize principles for an optimum language policy for the European Union which is politically and economically non-discriminatory and also maximally economical.


I. Basic Ideas of the Language Policy Principles within the EU

For promoting language learning and linguistic diversity in the European Union we would have to follow three basic ideas, which are in rather close accord with the widely disseminated ideas of the European Council:

– 1. the promotion of language learning to attain mutual understanding and increasing solidarity between the peoples of the present and future European Union,

– 2. the preservation of the present linguistic diversity and the support of the further development of the mother tongues and of the ethnic and national cultures of Europe, and

– 3. the preservation, further development and widening of the common European culture.

Additionally, wishing to promote a similar development not only within the EU but in the whole world, the following generalization, as a fourth basic idea, is needed as well:

– 4. The promotion of the above ideas on a larger scale for all the countries and peoples of the whole world.

On the basis of the above basic ideas, we now consider some important goals, tasks, and data concerning learning and preserving languages and cultures.


II. A Common Official EU-Language and Its Advantages

The European Union needs one single common official language for all EU citizens and institutions for the sake of maximal co-operation and solidarity among all citizens of the new common fatherland, the European Union, while not harming the continued feeling of historical solidarity within and between the nations and national minorities in the Member States, as well as in the linguistic regions or communities. This one single language ensures also direct individual and public verbal communication between any leader and any citizen (even the whole population) of the EU, independently of their mother tongues and without having to rely on interpreters.

Therefore, the European Union has to commit itself to the following:

1. ensure the initial and then the continuous teaching of the common official language of the EU on its whole territory, to each generation one after the other, while not damaging the use of the mother tongues, either official or not, in the Member States and in the linguistic regions,

2. support financially and protect politically the preservation, development and freedom of the private and public use of the mother tongues of all of its citizens, and also the official use of the mother tongues in all matters within the countries and lower level administrative territories (regions, districts, cities, villages, etc.), where their native speakers constitute a certain percentage of the total population, and

3. ensure the right of the citizens to learn and use, besides the official languages and the mother tongues, any language(s) according to their free election.


III. Selection Criteria for the Common Official Language of the EU

The common official language of the EU should fulfil the following requirements:

1. be applicable to any internationally necessary private, political, economic, scientific, technical and other communication on both a colloquial and professional level,

2. be easily (also economically) learnable for the individual citizens and the whole EU society, and

3. be the most widely acceptable alternative for becoming the common official language of the whole world in future.


IV. Two Realistic Alternatives for the Common Official Language of the EU

There are two, not official but realistic, candidates for the common official language of the EU (see Supplement II):

1. English, first of all because of the worldwide economic, industrial, scientific, technological, informatical, political and military power of the nations whose dominant mother tongue it is. Learning it – as in the case of any “natural” language – requires enormous effort, which in fact can be expressed in money, just as the direct financial costs of teaching. Its use results in heavy political and economic discrimination against those persons and nations whose native language is not English (see Supplement I/1–2).

2. Esperanto, first of all because of its linguistic qualities (applicability not only in political and business matters, but also in interpersonal and cultural contacts), political neutrality (not belonging to any nation or ethnic group) and easy learnability (requiring, as an average, one tenth of the time, needed by any natural language). Its use does not result in any economic or other discrimination against people or nations of different mother tongues (see Supplement I/2/3).


V. Conclusions

All the facts, statements and arguments, particularly the high natural and financial investments needed for language learning, briefly mentioned previously and presented in detail in the Supplements section, require a serious reconsideration of the whole language problem. Therefore all the ideas about linguistic communication in the EU, including the list of concrete questions (a) to (g), published in the Commission Staff Working Paper ”Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity – Consultation” (Brussels, November 13, 2002), must be fundamentally revised. It does not make any sense to answer them now.

It is clear, however, that the EU truly needs one common official language, modern, expressive, but very easy and cheap to learn, and non-discriminatory, politically or economically. Only such a language is fully suitable for the direct communication among language communities and for creating solidarity among the peoples of the EU, and at the same time encouraging all citizens to preserve and develop their mother tongues, i.e. the linguistic (and cultural) diversity of Europe. The only realistic alternative for such a language is Esperanto, which not only serves as a medium for international communication and has an extensive body of original and translated literature, but also facilitates the learning of other languages (e.g. learning English after Esperanto, the two languages together require less time than English alone, and, among others, after having learned Esperanto, the ethnic minorities can learn the official language of their country easier and more economically). In the author’s opinion, within ten years Esperanto can be spread among the whole population of the EU, first in everyday use, politics, literature, basic sciences (mathematics, physics etc.) and then on more specialized fields of science and technology.



I. Economic problems concerning the languages of the EU and their solution

1. Realizing the Barcelona objectives about learning at least two foreign languages: an economic judgment

What are the economic consequences of ensuring that “all citizens of the Member States” (= all citizens of the EU) ”are able to communicate in at least two languages in addition to their mother tongue(s)”? (All the data here are given in average round numbers and the calculations are much simplified for easier understanding, though the orders of magnitude are correct.)

Learning an ordinary foreign language requires, on average, about 2000 working hours/learner, i.e. one working year/learner (spent in courses, with private teachers, individually, etc.) to attain the ability to communicate well in speech, reading, understanding and writing, both in everyday matters and about topics of the user’s own profession. Learning a second, or third foreign language, however, requires less but still a considerable amount of time.

If only two such languages, a minimum requirement of the Barcelona Council, are learned, the total number of hours, needed by an average person to learn them is 2000 + 1600 = 3600 working hours/learner. The financial value of one hour – for the sake of simplicity and modesty – can be taken to be 10 EUR/hour, so the financial equivalent of the whole time will be 36000 EUR/learner. It must be noted, however, that in fact the learners lose the last one or two years of their active period before retirement (or an earlier death), when customarily the salary is highest and considerably higher than the mentioned 10 EUR/hour. (According to EUROSTAT the average salary in the 15-member EU in 2003 was 22,7 EUR/hour.)

After a transitional period the number of people each year who freshly attain the ability to use at least two foreign languages at the level required by the Barcelona objectives is about 6 million (= a one-year generation of the 450 million inhabitants of the EU). At 36 000 EUR/learner, the total cost is 216 billion EUR/year. Since most people do need courses and/or private teachers, this sum increases to about 240 billion EUR/year.

For learning three languages in 2000 + 1600 + 1400 = 5000 hours/learner, the financial equivalent of the whole learning + teaching would be 400 billion EUR/year.

For comparison: The defence budget of the NATO countries of Europe in 2000 was about 165 billion USD (A survey of the defence industry p. 4, Diagram 1. The Economist, July 20, 2002). The above costs of 240 and 400 billions are 145% and 242%, respectively, of this NATO budget (if we take 1 USD = 1 EUR).

The number of earners – people paid for their work and paying taxes – is about 40% of the 450 million inhabitants of the EU, i.e. 180 million. Since learning two languages takes roughly two working years, this number decreases to 168 million. Assume these learners are supported by an income tax imposed on the earners. If we suppose that the Union (the state) pays the learners the minimum wage, about 5 EUR/hour, the costs are 18000 EUR/learner, and 108 billion EUR/year, which require an average tax as high as 642 EUR/year/earner.

It is now clear that language learning by the whole population of the EU will require enormous individual and societal costs, to be covered each year ad infinitum (if the intention to keep the mother tongues alive is sincere). It is obvious now that the whole language problem must be thoroughly thought through again. Therefore, we now present a concise general survey aiming at a realistic – politically, linguistically and economically optimum – solution.

2. Economic comparison of learning the two alternatives for a single common official EU-language

a.) Learning English requires, on average, 2000 hours/learner, or 20.000 EUR/ learner. From among the 390 million citizens of the EU whose mother tongue is not English, the number of persons in a new generation is about 5 million/year. Their learning English requires 10 billion hours/year or 100 billion EUR/year. But because most people also need teachers, about 10 billion must be added, so the final sum is at least 110 billion EUR/year. (It is 67% of the cost of defence by NATO members Europe, but rather near to 100% of that by the non-English-speaking NATO-, EU-countries!) This sum is paid only by non-English-speaking countries. The UK and Ireland pay nothing.

The tax needed to support the learners of English at the minimum wage of 5 EUR/hour is obviously heavy: 50 billion EUR/year. The number of earners in the EU is about 180 million, without the United Kingdom and Ireland about 156 million, and without the language-learning generation only 151 million. Therefore, in the non-English-speaking countries an additional average income-tax must be paid, as high as 331 EUR/year/earner. Obviously, earners in the UK and Ireland pay nothing.

This tax can be avoided only, if the same number of hours devoted to language learning are taken from other studies, such as mathematics, physics, informatics, economics, other professional and cultural subjects, and the mother tongue. Therefore, the young people in the non-English-speaking countries of EU will possess a considerably lower level of knowledge, resulting in a considerable relative loss of GDP.

b.) Learning Esperanto requires, on average, 200 working hours/learner, equivalent to 2000 EUR/learner. A yearly young generation of the whole EU is about 6 million persons. Their learning of Esperanto requires 1.2 billion hours/year, or 12 billion EUR/year. Another 1.2 billion for teachers results in 13.2 billion EUR/year. It is only 8% of the defence cost by NATO Europe.

The tax to support learners of Esperanto at 5 EUR/hour, or 1000 EUR/learner, is distributed among 179 million people, so it is only 33 EUR/year/ earner, to be paid in the whole EU without any national discrimination.

c.) If we accept the Barcelona objective about learning at least two languages, but one of them, to be learned first, is Esperanto, the costs of language learning can be calculated in the following way.

Esperanto as the common official language plus one (or two) national language(s), foreign in each respective Member State, without discrimination, would require 200 + 1600 (+ 1400) = 1800 (or 3200) working hours/learner. Its financial equivalent is 18000 (32000) EUR/learner. For 6 million learners, it is 108 (192) billion EUR/year. With the cost of teaching, the final result is 120 (210) billion EUR/year, distributed in the whole EU without any national discrimination.

To support the learners of the two (or three) languages at 5 EUR/hour, the roughly 173 (168) million earners will pay a tax of 312 (571) EUR/year/earner.

d.) The language cost of the present EU institutions is insignificant, a few hundred million EUR/year, i.e. easily covered by a tax of a few EUR/year/earner. For the language staff members, with their highly above average language talents, learning Esperanto for internal communication is not a problem. Nevertheless, the knowledge of the national languages of the EU here will always be necessary, since the various central decisions and laws of the EU must be translated into the languages of the Member States and vice versa. Also, people who do not know Esperanto sufficiently, will continue to have the right to deal with the EU in their own languages.

e.) With the introduction of Esperanto a great number of teachers will be needed. Nevertheless, the demand for teachers can be met very quickly from among the present language teachers. Language teachers have an above average talent for language learning and they have already learned the methodology of teaching languages. For them a 200-hour course of Esperanto is obviously more than enough to qualify them to teach it. After some introductory instruction they can even continue learning on their own without any further formal instruction.

As the experiences in Eastern Europe proved, after the change of the political system around 1990, many teachers of Russian learned another language and after a relatively short time they were able to teach English, or German, or French, etc. at the required level.

Finally, a teacher can teach Esperanto to about ten times more children than any other language because the necessary learning time is ten times shorter. The same applies to teaching Esperanto to adults (workers, engineers, scientists, bureaucrats etc.) who – though very busy with everyday work – can easily dedicate a limited period of their time to learning Esperanto, while they could hardly find enough time to learn a natural language.

II. Some characteristics of English and Esperanto

English: Old English is a member of the West-Germanic branch of the Indo-European languages. It has evolved into modern English in a spontaneous (”natural”) way and was strongly influenced by other Indo-European languages, especially French, Scandinavian, Latin and Greek.

It is the native language of nearly 400 million people (about 6% of the 6,4 billion inhabitants of the world), mostly concentrated in the English speaking countries (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States, etc.) Of these 60 million live in Europe. About the level of mastery of its non-native speakers, there are no reliable statistics. However, it is widely used in international economy, science and politics by an increasing linguistic elite.

Its grammar is relatively simple, but there are a lot of exceptions. The spelling is highly irregular. The many idioms are rather unique, several of its sounds are pronounceable and distinguishable only with difficulty by non-native speakers, for whom being able to understand the spoken language takes a very long time.

Its literature is one of the greatest in the world. Nowadays English is the dominant language of science and technology.

To use English effectively in everyday communication and in one’s own profession, a person with average talent for language learning needs about 2000 hours of training. Even with additional training very few non-native speakers attain the expressive capacity of comparably educated native speakers.

Esperanto: It is a consciously and intentionally (“artificially”) simplified modern offspring of the Indo-European languages, mainly based on Latin-Greek, French, English, German and Russian. Since its initiation in 1887, it has been developed by the Esperanto society itself, in both a spontaneous and a regulated way, as all modern languages, while preserving its logical, simple and highly expressive character.

It is mostly a learned language, although there are several hundred native speakers as well. Esperanto speakers can be found on each continent and in most countries, with the highest concentration in Europe. Each year a World Congress and thousands of local and about 300 international meetings, conferences, cultural events take place. Private and public contacts and literary communication are extensive through the internet, too.

Its grammar is very simple, but powerful, with no exceptions. The spelling is unambiguous for the clearly distinguishable phonemes. It has well defined affixes for word creation. Esperanto can be more or less understood without learning – particularly in written form – by the speakers of its source languages and many others.

Its literature contains translations of thousands of poetic and prosaic works from the five thousand years of the world literature, from the Sumer-Akkadian Gilgamesh epics to Umberto Eco. The original Esperanto literature is comparable to that of minor nations, but its authors represent cultures of five continents. The applicability of Esperanto to sciences and technology has also been proved.

Learning Esperanto at the same level of competency, as mentioned for English, requires about 200 working hours, i.e. one tenth of the time needed for English.



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