European Day of Languages: reflecting on European identity, freedom of movement and the role of linguistic exchange

Post by Vittoria Moresco, PhD Student, University of Edinburgh

Photo by Lukas on Unsplash

Since 2001, when it was jointly introduced by the Council of Europe and the European Union, on 26th September of each year we celebrate the European Day of Languages. Involving institutions as well as the public from its 45 participating countries, it is a day dedicated to the celebration of Europe’s linguistic diversity and the endorsement of language learning and linguistic exchange.

It would feel somewhat contradictory to write about anything European without acknowledging that we find ourselves at a time when our “European identity” is undeniably more fractured than it has been since maybe World War II. If existing in a post-Brexit Europe wasn’t enough to intensify the national-vs-European dichotomy, the COVID-19 pandemic adds yet another layer to this divisive discourse that could tear us apart. In the midst of this crisis, we have seen a number of examples of national interests suppressing the concepts of European solidarity and collaboration our Union was founded on – from Germany’s denial of medical equipment shipments to Switzerland in March’s mask hysteria, to the EU’s reluctant response to Italy’s plight. Moreover, with the importance of freedom of movement being undermined and used as pawn in political negotiations after the Brexit referendum, the threat to our physical freedom has been made even more painfully tangible by the – albeit necessary – lockdown restrictions and isolation measures.

In this climate, raising awareness of the European linguistic landscape might seem to be irrelevant to the very poignant condition of Europe as a continent as well as a social construct. But as an organisation grounded on linguistic research, the idea that the languages you speak and interact with can shape your perspective and identity is a very familiar one. Research shows that learning foreign languages can boost one’s empathy, while also promoting communication skills by enhancing perspective taking. While your native language provides you the starting point to develop your identity through interaction, with linguistic exchange comes the possibility to broaden your horizons – both literally as well as socially – by facilitating the way in which you are able to see the world through many different lenses, some of which you might wish to make your own.

In an increasingly nationalistic environment, celebrating the European day of languages seems this year more important than ever, as it encourages an awareness of our diversity and the opportunities for growth that come with it. It encourages us to abandon fear-driven isolation tendencies within ourselves, as well as nationalistic and isolationist attitudes on a larger political and socio-economic scale, in favour of a supportive and collaborative exchange.

May you spend this day reflecting upon the joy and growth arising from your interaction with other languages and cultures in your own life, I know I will.






5. Fan, S. P., Liberman, Z., Keysar, B., Kinzler, K. D. (2015). ‘The Exposure Advantage: Early Exposure to a Multilingual Environment Promotes Effective Communication’, in Psychological Science, 26(7), 1090-1097.