Could a new EU benchmark for language learning be a catalyst for increased European cohesion and identity

Picture of Michael Byram
Michael Byram

Dr Michael Byram is Emeritus Professor in the School of Education at Durham University

The European Commission’s project to establish a ‘European Education Area’ by 2025 includes several proposals, one of which is putting together a benchmark for (foreign) language learning at the end of upper secondary education.

As the project has fostering a sense of European identity and belonging as one of its goals, it seems natural that the improvement of language learning is a prominent element. But how exactly language learning is expected to help create and support this identity has not been specified.

In terms of language learning, the tentative suggestion is that young people should become ‘independent users’ of at least one of their two languages recommended as the minimal target by the European Union. This has been referred to as the ‘mother tongue plus two’ policy. ‘Independent user’ refers to the levels B1 and B2 of the Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, and the higher level includes the ability to speak to and understand native speakers ‘without strain for either party’.

Improving teaching efficacy is important, but has to be seen in the context of the amount of time needed by learners

This target is set against the fact that “one in two EU citizens can speak and understand only in their mother tongue”, and the EU project includes the aim of increasing the efficacy of language teaching and learning. It is clear enough that, if Europeans are to speak to each other, many more young people need to reach B2 level, and schools seem to be the best place to do so.

Is this a realistic goal, is the first question, however. Improving teaching efficacy is important, but has to be seen in the context of the amount of time needed by learners. Time needed depends on motivation and on which languages are being learnt by which learners.

Languages exist in ‘families’ and if the language to be learnt is in the same family as the learner’s mother tongue, less time is needed than for a language in a different but related family; even more time is needed for languages in unrelated families. European languages are, for the most part, in related families, but some are distant and others are close relations. To reach a benchmark will require different amounts of time in different school systems, even if other factors are equal.

Will a benchmark improve European cohesion? An independent user speaking with ‘fluency and spontaneity’ can live and work with other Europeans ‒ whether native speakers or other independent users ‒ ‘without strain’ and feel comfortable as a member of a social group. The potential for social cohesion thus exists. Other factors, such as common interests, have to be present too; simply learning a language does not create identification with speakers of the language, whether native or not. In fact the direction of cause and effect is the opposite: identifying with speakers of a language is the most effective motivation and success factor in language learning.

But will language learning help form a European identity? Just as there is no evidence that language learning creates identification with speakers of a language, equally there is no reason to think that language learning ‒ even with the EU ambition for citizens to speak two languages ‒ will create identification with Europe. Many language learners use their foreign language skills to express their own identities, ways of life or everyday culture.

If Brexit takes place, the irony of developing a European identity through the learning of English will be lost on nobody

Interaction with others without strain and with a sense of belonging does not, in short, depend only on language ability. It depends at least as much on understanding the ways of life of others. Yet language teaching does not pay sufficient attention to learners’ cultural competence ‒ and neither does the EU. Linguistic competence is the almost exclusive focus of attention in teaching and, importantly, in assessment. Setting a benchmark for linguistic competence and its assessment is an inadequate target. Only when competence in ‘language-and-culture’ or ‘languaculture’ is made central to language teaching will language learners be able to use their languages to truly interact with other Europeans with ease, identifying with them through common interests and perhaps acquiring a European identity.

And finally, there is the question of English. Although the EU mantra states that Europeans should learn ‘mother tongue plus two’, the reality is rather that young people want and are offered ‘mother tongue plus English and another language’. This does not in principle radically alter all that has been said above, were it not for Brexit. Although English will remain an official EU language as one of the languages of Ireland, it is associated above all with the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the strong status of English in the EU has been implicitly questioned by President Macron, who would like French to gain more influence in EU institutions. If Brexit takes place, the irony of developing a European identity through the learning of English will be lost on nobody.

However, whatever happens in Europe will be tempered by the growing recognition that English is an international language decreasingly associated with native speakers ‒ in the UK or elsewhere ‒ and by the fact that English provides opportunity to identify not only with other Europeans but with people throughout the world, and this surely is as desirable.

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