European Language Policy and Research

Since 1954, under the European Cultural Convention, member states of the Council of Europe have followed a Language Education Policy, which has promoted plurilingualism and diversity from its member states (Council of Europe, 2018b)[8]. While this policy has evolved over the years, the intent of the policy has not changed. According to the Council of Europe’s Language Education Policy webpage, the policy and recommendations from the Council of Europe focuses “to secure and strengthen language rights, deepen mutual understanding, consolidate democratic citizenship and contribute to social cohesion”(Council of Europe, 2018b)[8].

According to Baetens Beardsmore (2009)[1] the language educational policies of the Council of Europe aim to promote five key areas: Plurilingualism, Linguistic Diversity, Mutual Understanding, Democratic Citizenship and Social Cohesion. Due to the growth in the number of member states since the 1990s, the Council of Europe has favored approaches which focus specifically in the areas of plurilingualism and interculturalism (Council of Europe, 2018b)[8]. These approaches align the tenets of the Language Education Policy and recent research.

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)


The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), launched in 2001, serves as an international standard of language ability, assessed on a six-point scale, from beginner to fluency. The descriptors specify progressive mastery of each skill (Basic User-A1, A2; Independent User-B1, B2; Proficient user-C1, C2). The CEFR grew out of the “Threshold Level” approach, which was considered a major turning point in assessing language acquisition, as it emphasized what users could do in the language. The other revolutionary aspect of the CEFR is that it can be adapted and used for multiple contexts and applied for all languages. The levels of corresponding letter/number sequence were created without reference to any specific language, which guarantees their relevance and across-the-board applicability. Due to the development in this field, the CEFR has been developed and expanded, adding three +(plus) levels, for example, and flexibly adapting to regional and minority languages. The CEFR is more than a set of standards for language acquisition, however, but as part of a strategy, as the Committee of Ministers wrote in 1982, to "ensure, as far as possible, that all sections of their populations have access to effective means of acquiring a knowledge of the languages of other member states" (cited in Council of Europe, 2001[6]).

Plurilingual and Intercultural Competence

The unification sought in the European policy goes beyond language competence, adding also Intercultural competence. "Plurilingual and Intercultural Competence" is defined by the Council of Europe as:

the ability to use a plural repertoire of linguistic and cultural resources to meet communication needs or interact with other people, and enrich that repertoire while doing so. Plurilingual competence refers to the repertoire of resources which individual learners acquire in all the languages they know or have learned, and which also relate to the cultures associated with those languages (languages of schooling, regional/minority and migration languages, modern or classical languages); pluriculturality denotes the ability to participate in different cultures, inter alia by acquiring several languages. Intercultural competence, for its part, is the ability to experience otherness and cultural diversity, to analyse that experience and to derive benefit from it. Once acquired, intercultural competence makes it easier to understand otherness, establish cognitive and affective links between past and new experiences of otherness, mediate between members of two (or more) social groups and their cultures, and question the assumptions of one’s own cultural group and environment (Beacco et al., 2016)[2].

The Guide for the development of curricula for plurilingual and intercultural education was first published in 2010 and was edited and revised in 2016 to take into account the feedback from those who had begun to implement the framework as well as the results from what the researchers deemed as a success of the the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) assessment tool. (Beacco et al., 2016, p. 5)[2].

In the lecture below from 2008, Dr. Michael Byram discusses competencies of language learning, teaching and assessment in the context of European Policy, Plurilingualism and Intercultural Competence. Dr. Byram is one of the authors of the Guide for the development of curricula for plurilingual and intercultural education. He is well known for his theory of Intercultural Communicative Competence (Byram, 1997)[3] which expands on Hymes' (1972)[14] and Canale and Swain's (1980)[5] construct of Communicative Competence, by adding the importance of the knowledge and skills involved when interacting with a culture that is not one's own.

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Council of Europe. (2018). Language Policy

Dr. Michael Byram addresses Plurilingual and Intercultural Competences[4]

Research behind the Guide for the development of curricula for plurilingual and intercultural education

The main research for the Language Education Policy and the Guide is a comprehensive study by Van den Akker, Fasoglio, and Mulder (2010) who offer what they term “a broad curriculum perspective” which they define as “comprehensive and ongoing improvement” (p. 5). [18] Van den Akker et al. (2010) explicate that:

In order to successfully address tasks of curriculum decision-making and enactment, a broader description of curriculum development is often most appropriate: usually a long and cyclic process with many stakeholders and participants, in which motives and needs for changing the curriculum are formulated, ideas are specified in programs and materials, and efforts are made to realize the intended changes in practice. (pp. 5-6). [18]

With this broad perspective/framework in mind Van Den Akker et al. (2010) identify 10 areas and questions about student learning that a broad curriculum in the context of the European Union would need to address:
Rationale Why are they learning?
Aims & objectves Toward which goals are they learning?
Content What are they learning?
Learning activities How are they learning?
Teacher role How is the teacher facilitating their learning?
Materials & resources With what are they learning?
Grouping With whom are they learning?
Location Where are they learning?
Time When are they learning?
Assessment How to assess their learning progress?

(Van den Akker et al., 2010, p. 7)[18]

Van den Akker et al. (2010) discuss in their research that because the CEFR assessment tools are based on descriptive and not a prescriptive character that a Top-Down prescriptive approach would not work in assisting countries to set up a curriculum (p.15)[18]. While they admit that teachers do indeed need assistance and guidelines, it should be up to the local entity on how those guidelines should be executed.

Furthermore, a second satellite study was involved in the development of the Guide for the development of curricula for plurilingual and intercultural education. Lenz and Berthele (2010) conducted a study on the best ways in which to assess a plurilingual and intercultural educational framework. One of the suggestions for assessment in this study refers to a “Polyglot Dialogue” which is "an interactional regime that allows for the use of two or more different languages or distant varieties in interpersonal interaction” (p. 21)[15]. This type of interaction echoes García (2009)[13] and her construct of translanguaging whereby there are no restrictions on the speaker to stay in one particular language for assessment. The speakers should be able to move between languages to express themselves as they would do in any interpersonal setting.

(Université du Luxembourg, 2017)[16]

European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

As well as adhering to the original European Cultural Commission (1954), the Council of Europe’s Language Division recognized that “Regional or minority languages are part of Europe’s cultural heritage and their protection and promotion contribute to the building of a Europe based on democracy and cultural diversity” (Council of Europe, 2018a)[7]. In order to give regional and minority languages higher status in educational and member state policies, the Council established the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. This charter was opened for signatures in 1992 and went into effect in 1998 (Council of Europe, 2018a)[7].

The main goal for this charter was to protect regional and minority languages from a cultural perspective; its intent was not to take a legal stance on linguistic minorities (Baetens Beardsmore, 2009, p. 203)[1]. The Charter focuses on a plurilingual and intercultural approach. It outlines the roles that regional and minority languages should play within the communities and states where they are located. To date, there are 25 ratifications/accessions to the Charter and eight countries who have signed but did not ratify, all of which can be found at

The European Commission of the EU

In 2018, the European Commission published a Staff Working document which outlines the key areas for a language aware school and identifies certain deficits throughout the European Union in language education (European Commission, 2018)[12]. According to the European Commission (2018) language aware schools are positive toward linguistic diversity, know which languages are spoken in their schools even if not one of the languages taught, integrate language learning across the curriculum in all areas, use technology to promote language awareness and boost motivation, and support teachers’ linguistic awareness who teach content areas other than modern languages (p. 3)[12].

The Commission also clearly identifies deficits in existing school programs. Areas which need attention across Europe are 1) assessing students in the practice of their language competency 2) broadening the scope of the languages which are taught. The commission recognizes that English is usually the first foreign language which is taught in Europe and they emphasize that there should be a shift in offering additional European languages.

According to the data (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2017)[11] 97.3% of students in secondary education study English as their foreign language (p. 72). Foreign Language education in certain countries is not mandatory (p. 39). Additionally, foreign languages other than English, French, German and Spanish are rarely studied (p. 75). This data led the European Commission to conclude that more rigorous approaches will be needed to fulfill foreign language competencies.

According to the Action plan on language learning and linguistic diversity (European Commission, 2003)[10], three areas (Life-Long Language Learning, Improving Language Teaching and Creating a language friendly environment) needed to be implemented between 2004-2006 across Europe in order to increase language learning and linguistic diversity. However, looking at the data (European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2017)[11] and the relevant deficits identified in the Staff Working paper on the teaching and learning of languages (European Commission, 2018)[11], it would seem that the Action plan failed to meet its goals by 2006.

Realization of the Multilingual Policy of the EU

In order to realize the planned linguistic diversity, the European Union adopted the strategy for multilingualism as a developmental linguistic concept of the European Union. European strategy for multilingualism (2008) defines linguistic and cultural diversity as an inseparable segment of the European identity; it is at once a shared heritage, a wealth, a challenge and an asset for Europe. According to the strategy, multilingualism is a major cross-cutting theme encompassing the social, cultural, economic and therefore educational spheres. Linguistic diversity within Europe is defined as constituting an added value for the development of economic and cultural relations between the European Union and the rest of the world. This is why the European Union set the task of the promotion of less widely used European languages represents as an important contribution to multilingualism.
European strategy for multilingualism (2008) envisages a number of obligations of the EU member states in order to realize the planned goals of promotion of multilingualism.31 State members need to promote multilingualism with a view to strengthening social cohesion, intercultural dialogue and European construction; strengthen lifelong language learning; to promote EU languages across the world and better promote multilingualism as a factor in the European economy’s competitiveness and people’s mobility and employability. According to this we can conclude that the EU multilingualism policy has four aims: to encourage language learning and the promotion of linguistic diversity in society; to promote a healthy multilingual economy; to give citizens access to EU legislation, procedures and information in their own language; and to enable the
freedom of mobility and migration within the European Union.

Action programmes

Erasmus+ Programme

Erasmus+, which started in January 2014, is the EU programme for Education, Training, Youth and Sport for 2014-2020. The promotion of language learning and linguistic diversity is one of the programme’s specific objectives. The Erasmus+ Programme Guide states that ‘the opportunities put in place to offer linguistic support are aimed to make mobility more efficient and effective, to improve learning performance and therefore contribute to the specific objective of the Programme’ (p. 11). Linguistic support is offered via Erasmus+ Online Linguistic Support for participants in mobility actions in order to learn the language of the host country. Erasmus+ also encourages cooperation for innovation and exchange of good practices through strategic partnerships in the area of language teaching and learning. Furthermore, funding for linguistic support can be provided where necessary to beneficiaries of strategic partnerships who organise long-term training and teaching activities for staff, youth workers and learners. The Erasmus+ programme also funds numerous projects every year to support the teaching and learning of sign languages, and to promote linguistic diversity awareness and the protection of minority languages.

English and the EU after Brexit

The European Commission confirmed that English will remain an official language of the EU, or the “glue” that binds it together for 2021-27 despite Brexit. “Despite Britain’s decision to leave the EU, there’s currently no plan to reduce the use of English in the bloc…[and] [t]ranslation and interpretation services in the English language will also remain unaffected.” (Mohdin, 2018)[17]

English is one of the EU’s 24 official languages. Though the EU provides important information on policies in all its official languages, the Commission only has three working languages: English, French, and German. Once Britain leaves the EU in 2019, there will only be two member states—Ireland and Malta—where English is the official language. (That’s just 1% of the total EU population.).

1. Baetens Beardsmore, H. (2009). Language promotion by European supra-national institutions. In O. García (Author), Bilingual education in the 21st century: A global perspective (pp. 197-217). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Pub.
2. Beacco, J.-C., Byram, M., Cavalli, M., Coste, D., Cuenat, M. E., Goullier, F., & Panthier, J. (2016). Guide for the development and implementation of curricula for plurilingual and intercultural education. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Retrieved from:
3. Byram, M. (1997). Teaching and assessing intercultural communicative competence. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
4. Byram, M. (2008, November 6). Prof. Dr. Michael Byram. Plurilingual and intercultural competences: Two elements of a single European language policy. Lecture at Kyoto University. [Video file]. Retrieved from
5. Canale, M., & Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. Applied linguistics, 1(1), 1-47.
6. Council of Europe. (2001). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment. Retrieved from
7. Council of Europe. (2018a). The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Retrieved from
8. Council of Europe. (2018b). Language Education Policy. Retrieved from
9. Council of Europe. (2018c). Platform of resources and references for plurilingual and intercultural education. Retrieved from
10. European Commission. (2003). Action plan on language learning and linguistic diversity. Retrieved from
11. European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice. (2017). Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe – 2017 Edition. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union. Retrieved from
12. European Commission. (2018). Proposal for a Council Recommendation on a comprehensive approach to the teaching and learning of languages. Brussels: European Union. Retrieved from
13. García, O. (2009). Bilingual education in the 21st century : a global perspective. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell Pub.
14. Hymes, D. (1972). On communicative competence. In J.B. Pride and J. Holmes (Eds.), Sociolinguistics: Selected readings (pp. 269-293). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
15. Lenz, P., & Berthele, R. (2010). Assessment in plurilingual and intercultural education. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Retrieved from
16. Université du Luxembourg. (2017, December 12). Translanguaging and learning. [Video file]. Retrieved from
17. Mohdin, A. (2018, May 5). Even after Brexit, English will remain the language that holds the EU together. Quartz. Retrieved from
18. Van den Akker, J., Fasoglio, D., & Mulder, H. (2010). A curriculum perspective on plurilingual education. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Retrieved from
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