The main events and developments outlined in this history are the subject of the Milestones section, while language policy recommendations are collected in the Official texts section.

Council of Europe

The Council of Europe, founded in 1949 in Strasbourg as an organisation for intergovernmental co-operation, has the primary aim of creating a common democratic and legal area throughout the continent, by ensuring respect for the shared values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. All its work is shaped by these values and an enduring concern for social inclusion, social cohesion and respect for diversity. This includes access to quality education for all. In all its fields of activity, the Council of Europe embodies a European vision of public protection.

Modern languages: a priority for member states since 1962

The Council for Cultural Co-operation set up in 1962 adopted modern language teaching as a key objective. In 1965 a Modern Languages Section was established within the Council of Europe Secretariat.

In the field of education, the Council of Europe promotes linguistic diversity and language learning under the European Cultural Convention (1954), Article 2 of which calls on signatory states to promote reciprocal teaching and learning of their languages.

Each Contracting Party shall, insofar as may be possible:

a. encourage the study by its own nationals of the languages, history and civilisation of the other Contracting Parties and grant facilities to those Parties to promote such studies in its territory; and
b. endeavour to promote the study of its language or languages, history and civilisation in the territory of the other Contracting Parties and grant facilities to the nationals of those Parties to pursue such studies in its territory.

In keeping with this article, Council of Europe work in the area of language education policy has developed since 1962 in response to the changing needs and priorities of member states. Its Language Policy Programme has accordingly contributed to major advances in the field of language education at pan-European level.


The same approach has been adopted for all Language Policy Programme initiatives over the years: i) preliminary survey of member states to assess the situation, followed by ii) introduction of an initiative to develop the resources needed to meet needs identified in or by member states. This method has proved fruitful, as it has resulted in practical assistance for ministries and professional bodies through prior identification of needs. It has been applied to initiatives involving both foreign languages and languages of schooling and the linguistic integration of adult migrants (several surveys).

1959: the beginnings

As soon as the Cultural Convention came into force, a Committee of Cultural Experts (which in 1959 became the Council for Cultural Co-operation) was asked to actively explore the introduction of a coherent educational policy for Europe.

From 4 to 6 November 1959 the French Government, with Council of Europe participation, convened a conference of senior education officials from member states that led to an outline programme of co-operation in the field of secondary general and technical education. One of the four main points of concern was “the co-ordination of curricula and extension of language studies”, which was to be the subject of joint consideration by member states. Some days later the first meeting was held in the Hague of what subsequently became the Standing Conference of European Ministers of Education; the outline programme was officially endorsed in virtually the same wording.

In 1961 the Second Conference of European Ministers of Education adopted Resolution No. 6, which advocated a series of measures, among which were “each country should stimulate linguistic and psychological research, the object of which would be the improvement and expansion of modern-language teaching” and “further meetings of experts should be held under the auspices of the Council of Europe”.

Projects from 1962 to 1988: from applied linguistics to Threshold Levels

1962-1977: Project on adult education and language teaching/learning in school

As early as 1962, the first specific initiative was a survey of member states to gain an overview of the modern language teaching situation in schools.

Following attempts to plan the development of modern language teaching in Europe in the late 1950s, the first major project in the modern languages field (1963-1972) sought to encourage international co-operation on the use of audiovisual methods and the development of applied linguistics, in particular by supporting the establishment of an International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA).

An initiative for adult education launched in 1971 entailed a feasibility study for a “European unit/credit scheme”, a first attempt to harmonise language syllabuses in order to have comparable types of knowledge and a model for assessing language needs. The multi-author report Systems Development in Adult Education: The Threshold Level in a European Unit/credit System for Modern Language Learning by Adults (1973) was a milestone for the project. This approach was then extended to the school system. The idea of “language needs” was therefore present from the outset in the Council of Europe’s work.

A model for describing adults’ language needs and an analytical classification of the categories of adult needing to learn foreign languages led to a detailed specification of the minimum language requirements for communicating socially on straightforward everyday matters.

Models for specifying objectives were devised for English in The Threshold Level (1974) and soon afterwards for French in Un Niveau seuil. These were subsequently used as the basic models for versions in some thirty languages. Designed for practical use, these specifications described what learners must be able to do independently when using a foreign language together with the knowledge and skills needed to achieve this end.

1978-1981: Project 4, “Modern languages: improving and intensifying language learning as factors making for European understanding, co-operation and mobility”

The unit/credit scheme was never implemented, but the principles developed and formulated in the feasibility study were seen as being of general applicability. This project was intended to test their validity on a wider scale. The aim was to improve and broaden the learning of modern languages, making appropriate provision for all sections of the population.

1981-1988: Project 12, “Learning and teaching modern languages for communication”

The basic principles established in the earlier projects were applied in a series of projects covering all sectors of education.

Committee of Ministers: a Resolution and a Recommendation to member states

Resolution (69)2 remains a landmark in the history of language teaching in the twentieth century in a number of ways, for example by clearly proclaiming that the aim of language learning is to enable Europeans to communicate and co-operate freely with each other whilst maintaining the full diversity and vitality of their languages and cultures.

Recommendation No. R (82) 18 for its part provided the framework for reform of curricula and of teaching and assessment methods in the 1980s. Member states were able to pool their expertise and experience and introduce new media and methods to the classroom through a schools interaction network. Teacher trainers were seen as key players in this process of innovation. The Council of Europe therefore organised a major series of international workshops on specific priority topics in partnership with the member states that hosted these meetings.

From communicative teaching to plurilingualism: the 1990s

1990-1997: “Language learning for European citizenship”

This period was marked by rapid enlargement of the Council of Europe and by programme expansion through the participation of the new member states from Central and Eastern Europe. It also saw the decade-long development, following the Rüschlikon symposium in 1991, of what was to become a Council of Europe flagship: the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR).

A series of 31 workshops was held between 1990 and 1996, 26 of which were organised as 13 action programmes, or “new-style” workshops, in which a particular theme was proposed by two member states as the subject of a two-year programme of research and development (programme presented at Workshop A, findings collated and recommendations made at Workshop B, and the workshops’ output then published). The main themes of these workshops were information and communication technologies, bilingual education, educational links and exchanges, learner autonomy, vocationally oriented language teaching and expanded models for defining language-learning objectives.

In keeping with member states’ wishes, co-operation continued to revolve chiefly around foreign language teaching issues, to deliver high-quality teaching. But wider concerns were coming to the fore in the 1990s, as reflected in the recommendations of the final conference of the Project held in Strasbourg in 1997. These were the basis for the important Recommendation No. R (98) 6 of the Committee of Ministers to member states concerning modern languages, which emphasised the role of intercultural communication and plurilingualism as key policy objectives. It also specified practical measures to be taken in various areas of education and in initial and in-service teacher training.

This period was also marked by the setting-up in 1994 of a new body, the European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML), as an enlarged Partial Agreement of the Council of Europe, on the initiative of eight member states (33 now belong). While the Language Policy Programme’s work covered policy, practice and training, member states’ needs increased exponentially after 1989 and the establishment of the ECML provided a concrete response; the Programme in Strasbourg was therefore able to devote itself to language education policy and the ECML to educational practice and training of language teacher trainers, in this way actively complementing each other.

1997-2001: “Language Policies for a Multilingual and Multicultural Europe”

The approach followed by this medium-term project took account of Council of Europe priorities and particularly the follow-up to the Second Council of Europe Summit (October 1997). The activities were designed to assist national authorities in promoting plurilingualism and pluriculturalism among their citizens and increasing public awareness of the part played by languages in forging a European identity; these goals came to fruition in the preparations for the European Year of Languages 2001.

Considerable discussions took place on diversifying and optimising language teaching, and strategies were drawn up. Language learning was extensively promoted from the very start of schooling as a means of making every pupil aware of Europe’s linguistic and cultural diversity; a number of countries subsequently modified their curricula accordingly.

Development and implementation of common European reference tools for the planning and assessment of language learning, the mutual recognition of qualifications and the co-ordination of policies were continued: after ten years of preparation and testing, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR) was officially launched in 2001, together with the European Language Portfolio. In the late 1990s the CEFR was already circulating in provisional form, gaining a wide audience and considerable legitimacy.

The year 2001 was also the European Year of Languages. This campaign had a major impact on public awareness of the richness and scale of linguistic diversity in Europe, and the European Day of Languages (26 September) was made a permanent event by the Council of Europe.

Post-2001: promoting plurilingual and intercultural education

Developments relating to the CEFR

The dedicated website for the CEFR offers a wealth of resources and a range of related tools as well as a historical overview. Now available in 40 languages, Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR) has been adopted by most education systems in Europe and is widely used on other continents. A substantial range of tools, guides and studies for various categories of user has been developed over the years. In 2018 another important step was taken with the production of the CEFR Companion Volume, which provides additional descriptors to complement the original illustrative scales and also enlarges on fields such as mediation, sign language and young learners.

The CEFR is not intended to be prescriptive and states clearly that its purpose is not to promote any particular form of teaching or assessment. It is a policy instrument for plurilingualism. Its dissemination will help to promote a fuller interpretation of plurilingualism (and plurilingual and pluricultural competence) as an educational goal embodying the core values of the Council of Europe as far as languages are concerned.

Co-operation with the European Union – which adopted the CEFR in 2001 through a European Council resolution (14757/01) – has grown in practical ways with Europass, for example, and the European Indicator of Language Competence.

A major intergovernmental forum on “The CEFR and the development of language policies: challenges and responsibilities” was held in 2007 to discuss policy issues raised by the swift adoption of the CEFR in Europe and the increasingly widespread use of its proficiency levels, as well as member state responsibility for using a common reference tool. The Forum had significant consequences: in particular a recommendation from the Committee of Ministers to member states (CM/Rec(2008)7E) on the use of the CEFR.

The European Language Portfolio (ELP) was developed alongside the CEFR. It is a tool designed to make the CEFR directly useful to learners for classroom or independent use. Over 140 models compiled in member states have been accredited or registered by the Council of Europe for a broad range of educational contexts.

The Reference Level Descriptions (language by language) is a further tool for implementation: for teachers and textbook writers, the CEFR specifications, which do not relate to any language in particular, might still have been too broad. Based on the CEFR, these descriptions have a status similar to the old Threshold Levels but derive from the common CEFR “model”, which is much more comprehensive than the Threshold Levels model.

Policy co-operation

Responsive to concerns of member states interested in an overall language teaching strategy geared to plurilingualism, the Council of Europe designed a form of individualised assistance: the Language Education Policy Profiles. The intention was to enable national, regional and local authorities to carry out self-assessment of their language education policies in consultation with Council of Europe experts (a different team for each Profile for a tailored assessment) and also involving practitioners and civil society.

The 18 Profiles completed between 2002 and 2017 illustrate a range of situations, various challenges and examples of good practice that could therefore be helpful for other language education policy-makers.

A Guide for the development of language education policies in Europe and 21 reference studies have been produced to support this approach, with the main aim of identifying the developments that are possible and desirable.

A platform for plurilingual and intercultural education

The plurilingual and intercultural approach to education – as a value and as a concept – has been embodied in a platform of resources and references for plurilingual and intercultural education. This is an open and dynamic system of definitions, points of reference, descriptions and descriptors, studies and good practice offering a wealth of resources to education authorities and professionals.

How can education provide pupils with learning options that allow them not only to achieve personal growth but also to become responsible social agents? How can links be made between school subjects? These are all aspects that reflect the complexities of the approach to languages of instruction and have to be taken into consideration, resulting in the establishment of this platform as part of the “Languages in Education, Languages for Education” project.

An intergovernmental language policy forum was held in Geneva in 2010 with the aim of raising awareness among all concerned and publicising the extensive work on languages of schooling, which constituted the focus of the platform for plurilingual and intercultural education.

Languages of schooling: the linchpin of plurilingual and intercultural education

Faced with the problem of early drop-out and underachievement in schools in Europe (over 10% in 2017 according to Eurostat), the Council of Europe started work as early as 2006 to help member states meet these major challenges. At that stage the field had been explored very little at intergovernmental level.

Knowledge is built up and exchanged in and through languages, and development of proficiency in the language(s) of schooling is essential to ensure that everyone has the right to education through equal access to curriculum content.

The resources assembled in this way, together with the outcomes of a series of 11 conferences and seminars held between 2007 and 2015, have given member states the tools to understand the challenges associated with languages of schooling.

Three guides for plurilingual and intercultural education

In addition to the Guide for the Development of Language Education Policies in Europe (revised in 2007), which was intended to facilitate better implementation of the values and principles of plurilingual and intercultural education in all language teaching, two other major tools complement the support provided to member states:

These two guides were the subject of wide consultation, including at the policy forum in Geneva (2010), and have subsequently been extensively supplemented. They both provide important support to education authorities and professionals through the wealth of resources offered, which can be used in practice.

Linguistic integration of adult migrants

The Council of Europe tackled the issue of integration as early as 1968 in Resolution (68)18 of the Committee of Ministers on the teaching of languages to migrant workers. The 1980s saw a modern languages project to explore migrant workers’ language needs.

But it was only in 2006 that a large-scale initiative was launched: the “Linguistic Integration of Adult Migrants” (LIAM) project. Based on the tools and instruments developed over the decades in the field of foreign language learning/teaching, the LIAM project seeks to develop resources meeting migrants’ many and specific needs. The general aim is to provide assistance to member states – to policy makers, trainers and people involved in assessment of proficiency in the host country language(s) – to facilitate migrant’s integration in civil society.

Since the materials needed in this field are not always available within the ministries concerned, various resources designed for different categories of users have been developed. They cover language policy, language training for adult migrants and assessment of learning outcomes to support the member states concerned, with the wider objective of social cohesion and full participation in democracy – shared Council of Europe values – since integration is a two-way process.

Member states have been involved in development of the project through three surveys followed by intergovernmental conferences. A broad range of resources has been produced, available on a dedicated website.

Language support for adult refugees: a Council of Europe toolkit

The year 2015 remains in our memory for the substantial influx into Europe of several million people seeking refuge from the situation in their countries of origin. The challenges were immense.

With its considerable experience in language training and the results of its LIAM project, the Language Policy Programme was duty-bound to offer a practical contribution to partners in charge of refugees, in particular associations and volunteers.

This gave rise to the idea of a “toolkit” for people offering language support to refugees, since “proper” language courses by professionals were often not an option.

This toolkit, launched in 2017, is to be found on a website available in 7 languages (English and French, Dutch, German, Greek, Italian and Turkish). Comprising 57 tools, usually in the form of directly applicable information sheets and many other very practical resources, it immediately met with a very warm reception, including by other international organisations.


The following publications offer detailed retrospective analyses: