Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2006/25 posted by hidden europe on

Language is one of those assets we take for granted. We speak it! Most of us somehow learn to get by in one or two other languages beyond our mother tongue. And occasionally we run across folk on our travels who have not had the chance to practice, still less to perfect, another language and remain sadly monolingual.

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Dear fellow travellers

Më 26 shtator 2006, Këshilli i Evropës do të shënojë për të 6-n herë Ditën Evropiane të Gjuhëve në 46 vendet anëtare. Or to put it another way, today the Council of Europe (CoE) marks the European Day of Languages in its 46 member states.

Language is one of those assets we take for granted. We speak it! Most of us somehow learn to get by in one or two other languages beyond our mother tongue. And occasionally we run across folk on our travels who have not had the chance to practice, still less to perfect, another language and remain sadly monolingual. Plus of course a fair number of diehards in some countries who elect to remain assertively and stubbornly monolingual for one reason or another. Les pauvres!

The European Day of Languages (EDL) had a kick start from the CoE in 2001, and since then has gone from strength to strength, giving schools and the adult learning community an annual reminder of the importance of at least trying to get to grips with some foreign languages. And for the policy community, EDL underlines efforts to promote Europe's rich linguistic diversity.

Of course, ideals are one thing, but the EDL message has not always permeated to every corner of European life. Passengers expecting the courtesy of a Polish language announcement on trains from Berlin to neighbouring Poland will usually wait in vain. And railway administrations do sometimes have a knack, it seems, of assigning some of their most magnificently and unswervingly monolingual staff to international ticket counters. A demonstrable ignorance of even basic European geography might possibly also feature in the job spec for such employment. Witness a recent encounter at San Remo on Italy's Ligurian coast where a hapless visitor from the New World was trying to buy a single ticket to Monaco, just a short hop away over the French border. Seemingly assured that the traveller was intent on a more serious journey, the ticket agent was keen to sell him a ticket to Monaco di Bavaria - the name by which Italians refer to Munich. Prompted more by our ability to identify the 'right' Monaco than by any Italian fluency, we intervened and sent the good man off in the direction he had planned to travel.

But this business of place names can be pretty tricky. The city we know as Bratislava in Slovakia becomes Pozsony at the Hungarian border. German road signs often still insist on referring to Szczecin as Stettin - a name the Polish city has not had for sixty years. Even country names occasionally mutate in the most confusing manner. The country English speakers know as Albania is known to most of its own inhabitants as Shqiperia. Hungary is Magyarország. And Armenia is Hayastan to its own people (when rendered in the Latin alphabet).

Language is a wonderful thing. So why not celebrate the European Day of Languages by getting your tongue round a few pharyngeal fricatives, find out what your home country is called in a dozen different European languages, and, then check out a few of Europe's threatened minority languages: Mirandesa, Kashubian, and Saterfriesisch are just three of the many we've come across over the past year - in Portugal, Poland and Germany respectively.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.