THE HAGUE – A consortium of universities and scholars in 18 European countries has begun a new multi-disciplinary research project with a view to developing policy recommendations on managing the growing challenges relating to multilingualism in an ever-expanding European Union.
Dr. László Marácz, a professor of linguistics in the Faculty of Humanities at the Department of European Studies of the University of Amsterdam, is first deputy coordinator of the new project, which also brings together scholars from institutions such as the University of Geneva, the University of Ljubliana, Universität Augsburg and many others.
In an interview with The Astana Times, Marácz spoke about the project, called “Mobility and Inclusion in Multilingual Europe” (MIME), the challenges of multilingualism in Europe and his views on the situation with language in Kazakhstan.
Why did the consortium of universities decide to do this type of study?
The management of multilingualism is really a challenge in Europe. We already have 24 official languages and more languages will have a similar status if more countries join the European Union, like Serbia, Albania and Iceland. Furthermore, 60 minority languages are recognised in European regions and, on top of that, in a number of European cities and megacities, recent immigrant languages are being spoken.
We need to develop a language policy based on serious research in the domain of political discourse, society, education, and transnational communication.
Language policy has been considered a traditional field of linguistics but more is needed to develop a language policy satisfying the linguistic needs of the 21st century.
With my colleague from the University of Geneva, Professor Francois Grin, an economist, we formed a European “dream team” of interdisciplinary researchers, including linguists, social and political scientists, economists and legal, educational and communication experts, among others, working at highly recognised European universities.
We were advised by the Swiss-based consultancy bureau SciProM, headed by Kirsten Leufgen, an expert in European tenders. We applied for the tender of the European Commission called “The multilingual challenge for the European citizen” in the beginning of 2013 and, to our surprise, won the competition.
We will have a budget of 5 million euros to spend on organisation and research by the consortium. The consortium will draft recommendations for fair and effective communication in Europe respecting linguistic human rights, the democratic equality of languages and developing a world free of conflicts caused by ethno-linguistic identities.
What is the time frame for MIME? When will its results be presented, and in how many languages?
The results of MIME will be presented in 2019. Of course, we take the issue of multilingualism very seriously in our consortium. Eighteen European countries are represented in it: Austria, Belgium, Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom and their languages. Although the lingua franca of our meetings is English, we are planning to publish in other European languages as well and our website will be multilingual. Our temporary website is www.mime-project.org but within a few weeks the official website will be operative and people will be able to follow our work there.
What is your view of the situation with multiculturalism in Europe generally? What about the grand idea of helping all Europeans learn to speak three languages? Is Europe moving toward this goal or not?
We have to study whether the European policy of 1+2 [the mother tongue plus two freely chosen languages] in education is a realistic objective. Most of the time, the first of the two “freely” chosen languages is English. But it takes a lot of time to reach an acceptable level in English and even then global English is not owned by anyone. So it will be hard to know what you can say precisely in global English. Anything goes is simply too liberal and will cause misunderstandings and miscommunication. Hence, I think Europe is moving toward this objective but the problems on the way to reaching it are immense.
How relevant do you think the MIME project could be for Kazakhstan?
It is highly relevant for Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is heading towards becoming a multilingual country with three official languages: Kazakh, Russian and English. Furthermore a number of indigenous languages and immigrant languages are also spoken in your country. The setting up of the research programme of the MIME consortium is based on general scientific principles. It can be applied to all countries that are facing the challenges of linguistic diversity in today’s world.
Have you done studies on similar issues in Kazakhstan? What are your assessments of the situation and the policies in this field, especially of the policy to promote the studies of three languages: Kazakh, Russian and English?
I am only setting the first steps into the domain of multilingualism in Kazakhstan. My first impression is that there is basically a 2+1 scheme. Kazakh and Russian are interwoven and display a functional distribution of domains. Russian is used in sciences and business; Kazakh in the informal domains. This can, of course, change. Both languages are joined by global English, whose status is debated. So, an interesting situation will develop and a language management policy will be unavoidable. But first we need to inventory the challenges. For example, an eventual changing of the script from Cyrillic into Latin for Kazakh will have a number of consequences that should be studied first before a rational decision can be taken.
Which institution would you partner with in Kazakhstan, if any?
What is needed is to form a Kazakh dream team consisting of top universities such as the Eurasian National University (ENU), Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU), Nazarbayev University (NU), etc. and researchers to take up this unique Kazakh multilingual challenge. The consortium could be coordinated by the Dean of the Philology Faculty of ENU, Professor Sholpan Zharkynbekova, who not only understands the challenges as a linguist but has excellent management qualities to steer such a group. I am sure myself and other colleagues of the MIME consortium will be glad to act as foreign partners of the Kazakh dream team.