Home Developing the Argument Scoping Document

Scoping Document

E-mail Print PDF

Overview and Rationale

Multilingualism has been described as an "asset for Europe and a shared commitment". This may, however, be more a vision of what might be than a description of reality. Reality is mediated not only by the vision (what people think), but by policy decisions (laws and regulations) and by performance (what we actually do).

We therefore want to identify the conditions which allow good ideas on multilingualism to develop into coherent policy and practice, and also the obstacles to that happening. By policy we mean explicit strategies at European, national and regional level which can promote or inhibit linguistic diversity in social and economic life – for example the European Commission's Action Plan or the English National Languages Strategy. We also mean implicit or unstated policies on languages – assumptions about social or educational priorities which have an impact on multilingualism, for example decisions about core subjects in school or the funding priorities for community cohesion. Finally we want to consider specific measures which may support linguistic diversity, such as the EU's Lifelong Learning Programme, the work of the ECML and national initiatives on language teaching.

Within this framework we will examine languages and language policy from two key perspectives, one of which takes as its starting point the needs of the individual and the community (Cohesion argument), and one which relates more to the priorities of states and societies (issues of Intercultural Communication). Although often viewed separately we do not think that these are alternative or opposing views of multilingualism. In fact taken together they underpin the aspiration to create a viable, democratic society based on principles of diversity, inclusiveness and mutual respect.


We must ask the question – Why is the policy and practice of Multilingualism so important now? Language has always been a crucial, evolutionary and often subversive determinant of humanity. It is by far the most important indicator of identity /identities; it is the means by which we access knowledge and it shapes our understanding of that knowledge; it is the main vehicle for communication and mutual understanding (or misunderstanding and deception). The impact of learning another language has long been recognised as revolutionary in terms of its effect on the way that people see the world and in the opportunities that it brings. So what is new?

The answers are well known – indeed almost a commonplace.

A shrinking world

We live in a period of unprecedented movement - of capital, of goods and of people. Contact between people and countries has never been easier or more frequent. Communication, information exchange and knowledge acquisition are all pervasive, not least through the power of the internet.

New power relations

Post war certainties (stable power blocks, US hegemony) are undermined by a rapidly changing world economy and new power relations. This is reflected in particular in the rise of Asian powers and the relative decline of the United States.

Mass mobility

For the whole of human history until our lifetime, real freedom of mobility was the preserve of the elite, even in the richest countries of the world. Most people travelled to other countries as a result of war or famine or in order to fight. In the 21st Century there is an extraordinary degree of people movement through choice – for work, study, leisure, curiosity, cultural enrichment and personal fulfilment.

International Communication and the Lingua Mundi

In such a changing and volatile world communication across and between cultures becomes very high stakes. Such communication is indispensible for international relations; it underpins wealth creation; it enables individual mobility and employment. Communication – the mass media – is itself a major economic and cultural activity. New technologies have facilitated collaborative working and information exchange – some would say overload. The development of English as the first effective lingua mundi has greatly facilitated this "communications revolution", while also posing key cultural, social and psychological challenges.

New perceptions of reality

As regional and national cultures interact more, inevitably they become less homogenous and more internationalised, more influenced by the mass media. Meanings and cultural realities are shared and there is a progressive shift from local and national to international and supra national realities

New identities

In such a complex world, simple indicators of identity – for example national citizenship or national culture - are challenged. People share allegiances to an ever widening range of social groups and cultural icons – local, national, religious, sporting, artistic... The combination of such allegiances, whether through choice or instinct – makes the concept of single identity increasingly redundant and complex identity the norm.

We have here identified some of the most significant (and sometimes it appears the most threatening) challenges to our contemporary society. In each case, language is a major factor. One obvious first question therefore is why language policy is not more central to national and international policy debates.


Our key issues

In seeking to answer this rather crucial question we will return to our doubtless slightly arbitrary distinction between language policy's effect on the individual and community (Social cohesion) and language policy's effect on the state and society (Intercultural Communication). At this stage we do not offer answers or solutions but rather seek to identify the key questions and issues for debate.


  • How do languages – and more specifically multilingualism – impact on Individual Identity?
  • What is the effect of multilingualism on communities and community cohesion? Are we seeing the emergence of new concepts of citizenship and social identity?
  • What is the importance of multilingualism as an intellectual and cultural resource both for individuals and societies?
  • Multilingualism/plurilingualism is not a single social phenomenon. There is (and has been for centuries) a multilingualism for the elite and a multilingualism of the "excluded". How do we understand the social stratification of multilingualism in 2009?
  • If there is multilingual elite, is there also a potentially excluded monolingual class? Why does this matter?
  • Are all languages equal – in practice and policy terms as well as in theory?
  • How can we and why should we support language maintenance among minorities?


  • Which languages particularly enhance intercultural communication? What does this mean for the relationships between languages and cultures?
  • What is the nature of multilingualism as an economic and social resource?
  • How do we best promote the multilingualism and intercultural competence which are indispensible for mobility (issues of language teaching and learning)?
  • Are there solutions to be found through "alternative" forms of communication – vivo ICT Bilingual?
  • If intercultural communication is so important, what effect does this have on people's access to wealth and opportunities?
  • What is the role of language in what has been described as the "educational arms race"?
  • How do languages impact on some of the key challenges for educational systems – quality, range, coherence, internationalism for example?

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 20 July 2010 13:48 )  

Multilingual Cities

Spotlight on London:
London as a Global City: Educating a community of multilingual international young people. Read more.
London Big Ben and Bus
Multilingual London: The facts about languages in our Capital.

Spotlight on Utrecht:
After Luxembourg Utrecht is the second multilingual hotspot in Europa. How can we make our city an interesting European laboratory in a globalizing world? This weblog will collect local and global inspirations for creating this laboratory.