Language Policy Unit
Policy Instruments

Dedicated websites

Language Policy Division: A brief history

Early programmes of international co-operation in Strasbourg focused on the democratisation of language learning for the mobility of persons and ideas, and on the promotion of the European heritage of cultural and linguistic diversity. Projects assisted member states in implementing reforms aimed at developing learners’ communication skills and encouraged innovation in language teaching and teacher training, with an emphasis on a learner-centred approach. While continuing to promote innovation for successful communication and intercultural skills, more recent projects have increasingly addressed the social and political dimensions of language learning, focusing on language education for democratic citizenship, diversification in language learning, improving coherence and transparency in language provision, and the language education rights of minorities. The European Year of Languages (2001) led to further initiatives to support member states in developing policy responses to the new challenges to social cohesion and integration.

The results of these projects have been embodied in a Resolution and a number of Recommendations of the Committee of Ministers and Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

Key moments in history


First intergovernmental conference on European co-operation in language teaching


Launch of first major Project on language teaching


Publication of first ‘Threshold Level’ specification


New member states begin to join intergovernmental projects


European Centre for Modern Languages established


European Year of Languages
Common European Framework of Reference for Languages
European Language Portfolio
European Day of Languages declared an annual event

Early initiatives (1963 – 1972)
Following initiatives to plan the development of modern language teaching in Europe in the late 1950s, the first major Project in Modern Languages (1963-1972) promoted international co-operation on audio-visual methods and the development of applied linguistics, including support for the founding of the International Association of Applied Linguistics (AILA).

Unit-credit scheme (1971 – 1977)
The feasibility of a unit-credit scheme for language learning in adult education was explored and this provided guiding principles for subsequent projects. A notional-functional model for specifying objectives was elaborated, and the concept was exemplified initially for English in Threshold Level in the mid-1970s. This was a specification in operational terms of what a learner should be able to do when using the language independently, and of the necessary knowledge and skills. The initial Threshold Level specification for English, together with the specification developed for French (Un Niveau-Seuil), provided the basic models which have been adapted for almost thirty other languages. The model has been extremely influential in the planning of language programmes, providing a basis for new national curricula, better textbooks, popular multimedia courses and more realistic and relevant forms of assessment. An intermediate objective (Waystage) and a higher level objective (Vantage) were developed in the 1990s.

Language Learning and Teaching for Communication (1981 –1988)
The guiding principles established in the first project were applied in a series of projects covering all sectors of education and Recommendation No. R(82) 18 served as a framework for the reform of curricula, methods and examinations throughout the 1980s. A schools interaction network played a major role in sharing expertise and experience between member states and in bringing innovation to classroom materials and methods. Teacher trainers were seen as key agents of this innovation and a series of international workshops on specific priority themes were hosted by countries for them and other multipliers.
Language learning for European Citizenship 1989 – 1997
This period witnessed the rapid enlargement of the Council of Europe and the enrichment of the programme by the participation of the newer member states from Central and Eastern Europe. A series of ‘new-style’ twinned workshops was organised on issues such as information and communication technologies, bilingual education, educational links and exchanges, learner autonomy, enriched models for specifying objectives. An initial co-ordinating workshop hosted by a member state launched a two year programme of development and the results were received, dissemination planned and recommendations made at a second follow-up workshop in a partner host country.
The results and the recommendations of a concluding conference in 1997 in Strasbourg led to Recommendation No. R (98) 6 of the Committee of Ministers concerning Modern Languages. This emphasises intercultural communication and plurilingualism as key policy goals and sets out concrete measures for each educational sector and for initial and in-service teacher education.

Language Policies for a Multilingual and Multicultural Europe’ (1997-2000)
The orientations of this medium term project took into account the priorities of the Council of Europe, in particular the follow-up to the Second Summit of the Council of Europe held in October 1997.
Activities aimed at helping national authorities to promote plurilingualism and pluriculturalism and increase public awareness of the part played by languages in forging a European identity; this objective was realised by the preparation of the European Year of Languages 2001.
Approaches and strategies were developed to foster further the diversification of language learning and teaching, which was promoted from the very start of schooling, to make every pupil aware of Europe's linguistic and cultural diversity; several countries have consequently modified their programmes accordingly.
Common European reference instruments for the planning and assessment of language learning, mutual recognition of qualifications and co-ordination of policies were developed and implemented further.
The European Year of Languages2001 closed this project with the offical launch of the Common European Framework of Reference and of the European Language Portfolio.