Long-standing goals

At the end of the Second World War the determination to lay down strong foundations for a lasting peace between peoples led to the founding of the Council of Europe and this goal was the major priority for its programmes. In this spirit, mutual understanding between countries was to be encouraged, and learning their respective languages and cultures was thought to be one of the most effective measures.

Accordingly, under the European Cultural Convention, the Council of Europe has been promoting linguistic diversity and language learning in the field of education since 1954.
Article 2 of the Convention calls on the 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 the spirit of this article, Council of Europe activities in the area of language education policy have since developed in response to the changing needs and priorities of member states. The actions undertaken seek not only to promote language learning but also to secure and strengthen language rights, deepen mutual understanding, consolidate democratic citizenship and contribute to social cohesion.

In this context, protecting and encouraging plurilingualism and interculturalism are among the objectives pursued by the  European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, open for ratification by member states since 1992. In addition, the  Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which entered into force in 1998, considers that a pluralist and genuinely democratic society should respect the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of each person belonging to a national minority.

 Principle developments

There are a number of factors which have brought about major changes in Council of Europe approaches to language policy, particularly following a significant increase in the number of member states since the 1990s:

  • the demand for common European language reference tools for learning, teaching and assessment, making it possible to compare education systems in terms of foreign language teaching and language certification;
  • incorporation of the approach focusing on foreign language teaching into a broader educational project but one which continues to be based on linguistic and cultural plurality, as both end and means;
  • attention placed not only on social agents as individuals but also on social groups and in particular acknowledgement of vulnerable groups and the linguistic integration of adult migrants;
  • an increase in studies and debate on societal multilingualism and individual plurilingualism in national and international contexts typified by various forms of mobility as well as a complex relationship to otherness;
  • recognition of the importance of taking into account the language dimension in the teaching and learning of all school subjects in order to ensure access to education for all, together with the importance of the quality and fairness of education systems.

With these approaches, the concepts of plurilingualism and interculturalism have become considerably more important. They no longer concern just foreign languages but raise urgent questions about the role of languages of schooling as opportunities for accommodating and capitalising on learners’ first languages (whether regional, minority or migrant languages or varieties of the language of schooling) as a medium for all other types of learning. These concepts now take a holistic, integrated view – but not one that is in any way uniform or standardised – of the linguistic and cultural competences that make up individuals in society. Although variously represented in social, psychological, cognitive, identity and other terms, individual languages and cultures are not considered to be separate entities. In fact, the plurilingual and intercultural abilities of every social agent are put forward as constituting a complex whole – an entire repertoire of varied and, to varying degrees, disparate resources – whose diverse components interact with each other and may be used in different ways depending on the overall context and specific situation.

 Democratic citizenship and social cohesion

The early emphasis in Council of Europe projects on proficiency in communication skills, was prompted by the increasing opportunities for travel and interaction in Europe and underscored the latter’s unity in diversity. This approach is just as relevant today. However, globalisation and internationalisation raise new challenges for social cohesion, inclusion and integration. While language skills are obviously still important for employment and mobility, they are also necessary if people are to participate actively in the social and political processes that are part and parcel of democratic citizenship in the multilingual societies of member states.

This growing interest in language policies as a way of strengthening democratic citizenship and social cohesion reflects the Council of Europe’s emphasis on education for citizenship and intercultural dialogue in the 21st century, in which the key role of language proficiency is now self-evident.

 A range of tools and initiatives

Successive Council of Europe initiatives in the field of language education policy have led not only to preparation of recommendations adopted by its Committee of Ministers and Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) but above all to the provision of reference material, curriculum guides and directly usable tools for member states and other types of user (trainers, curriculum developers, textbook authors, teachers, national and international organisations, etc.). A great many resources are therefore available on dedicated websites. Moreover, at the request of states or regions, language education policy profiles have been drawn up nationally or more locally with the assistance of international teams set up by the Council of Europe.

Lastly, since its establishment in 1994 by the Council of Europe (through a Partial Agreement with the initial objectives of teacher training and implementing Council of Europe language policy), the European Centre for Modern Languages (ECML) in Graz (Austria) has made a key contribution to European co-operation in the languages field. Through its medium-term programmes, the ECML has facilitated the production and dissemination of innovative work and tools, the setting up of international communities of practice, and the creation of international networks of language professionals which have fostered exchanges in the fields of research and practice.

 Recognition within Europe

With the support and co-operation of its member states, the Council of Europe has over time conceived and shaped itself as one of the most active institutions working to establish a European area of language education. The latter is understood as an education in languages and through languages in societies profoundly characterised by a linguistic and cultural plurality that is gradually becoming broader. It does this to promote values that not only ensure that language education policies will contribute to high educational standards in terms of quality and fairness but also make these policies a fundamental part of democratic citizenship and living together in society.