The EU Poster Collection held in the archives at the University of Bath contains a number of posters which highlight multilingualism in the European Union. Today, in the Union, there are 24 officially recognised languages, over 60 recognised regional and local languages and many other languages brought to Europe by migrant communities. Linguistic diversity, promoting language learning and knowledge and communicating with its citizens in their own languages underpin the European project.
I have chosen this particular poster because it is a subject which is close to my heart. I have worked at the University of Bath for fourteen years and have spent much of this time working closely with students and staff on the Modern Languages and European Studies and Translating and Interpreting programmes in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies. In this Department, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Spanish and Russian are spoken daily using different accents, inflections and intonations. Both teaching and research are conducted in these languages. Outside my Department, students and staff of many nationalities attend and work at the University and numerous languages can be heard on campus.
There is no doubt that we operate in a multilingual environment and have become accustomed to hearing different languages spoken but I would argue that this is far from being a unique experience confined to a university campus. I am actively interested in the notion that we all operate in a multilingual environment - even if we do not speak or understand multiple languages. Sounds in this environment affect and shape us, provoking reactions and experiences that actively resist totalising drives toward uniformity in culture.
These ideas are very much embedded in topical questions about languages and how they are perceived in the United Kingdom today. The discipline of Modern Languages is considered a vulnerable area and this has raised questions about the way we learn and teach them. These discussions are often conducted in a context where speaking one language is considered the norm. But how many people actually live in a monolingual environment? I am very aware of the sharp decline in numbers of young people studying languages at school and hence at university in the United Kingdom. English is often seen as a global language and many English-speakers do not feel the need to learn other languages as they think they will understand and be understood everywhere. It is also important to engage critically with hierarchies in multilingualism itself: why would it be more acceptable in certain circles to be bilingual French-English than Urdu-English or Polish-English, for example?
I would like to challenge perceptions around multilingualism in the United Kingdom and to raise awareness about the importance of speaking other languages to understand other peoples and cultures, but also the richness and variety that these skills can bring to our own lives. The European Union strongly supports multilingualism through its ambitious aim of helping every EU citizen to be able to communicate in 2 languages other than their mother tongue. Many already do - let’s not get left behind.