Languages of the European Union

Languages of the European Union

The languages of the European Union are languages used by people within the member states of the European Union (EU).

The EU has 24 official languages, of which three (English, French and German) have the higher status of "procedural" languages[1] of the European Commission (whereas the European Parliament accepts all official languages as working languages[2]). One language (Irish) previously had the lower status of "treaty language" before being upgraded to an official and working language in 2007, although it has been temporarily derogated as a working language until 2021 due to difficulty finding qualified translators.[3][4] The three procedural languages are those used in the day-to-day workings of the institutions of the EU. The designation of Irish as a "treaty language" meant that only the treaties of the European Union were translated into Irish, whereas Legal Acts of the European Union adopted under the treaties (like Directives and Regulations) did not have to be. Luxembourgish and Turkish (which have official status in Luxembourg and Cyprus, respectively) are the only two national languages in the EU that are not official languages of the EU.

The EU asserts that it is in favour of linguistic diversity. This principle is enshrined in the EU Charter of fundamental rights (art. 22) and in the Treaty on European Union (art. 3(3) TEU).

In the European Union, language policy is the responsibility of member states and EU does not have a common language policy; European Union institutions play a supporting role in this field, based on the principle of "subsidiarity", they promote a European dimension in the member states' language policies. The EU encourages all its citizens to be multilingual; specifically, it encourages them to be able to speak two languages in addition to their native language.[5] Though the EU has very limited influence in this area as the content of educational systems is the responsibility of individual member states, a number of EU funding programmes actively promote language learning and linguistic diversity.[6]

The most widely spoken language in the EU is English, which is understood by 51% of all adults, while German is the most widely used mother tongue, spoken by 18%. All 24 official languages of the EU are accepted as working languages, but in practice only three – English, French, and German – are in wide general use, and of these English[7][8][9][10] is the more commonly used. French is an official language in all three of the cities that are political centres of the Union: Brussels (Belgium), Strasbourg (France) and Luxembourg City (Luxembourg).

Official EU languages

Sign in the entrance of the European Parliament building in Brussels written in all official languages used in the European Union.

As of 1 July 2013, the official languages of the European Union, as stipulated in the latest amendment of Regulation No 1 determining the languages to be used by the European Economic Community of 1958, are:[11][12]

Language Official in (de jure or de facto) Since
At national level At subnational level
Bulgarian Bulgaria 2007
Croatian Croatia Austria[nb 1] 2013
Czech Czech Republic Slovakia[nb 2] 2004
Danish Denmark Germany[nb 3] 1973
Dutch Belgium
English Ireland
Estonian Estonia 2004
Finnish Finland Sweden[nb 4] 1995
French Belgium
Italy[nb 5] 1958
German Austria
Denmark[nb 6]
Italy[nb 7]
Poland[nb 8]
Greek Cyprus
Hungarian Hungary Austria[nb 1]
Romania[nb 2]
Slovakia[nb 2]
Slovenia[nb 9]
Irish Ireland 2007
Italian Italy Croatia[nb 10]
Slovenia[nb 11]
Latvian Latvia 2004
Lithuanian Lithuania Poland[nb 12] 2004
Maltese Malta 2004
Polish Poland 2004
Portuguese Portugal 1986
Romanian Romania 2007
Slovak Slovakia Czech Republic[nb 13]
Hungary[nb 14]
Slovene Slovenia Austria[nb 15]
Hungary[nb 16]
Italy[nb 17]
Spanish Spain 1986
Swedish Sweden
  1. ^ a b Co-official status in certain municipalities in the State of Burgenland[13][14]
  2. ^ a b c Co-official status in the municipalities in which the size of the minority population meets the legal threshold of 20%.
  3. ^ State of Schleswig-Holstein
  4. ^ Recognized minority language.[15]
  5. ^ Region of Aosta Valley
  6. ^ Region of Southern Jutland
  7. ^ Region of South Tyrol
  8. ^ 22 gminas in Opole Voivodeship
  9. ^ Co-official in certain municipalities in the region of Prekmurje
  10. ^ in Istria County
  11. ^ Co-official in certain municipalities in the region of Slovenian Istria
  12. ^ Gmina Puńsk in Podlaskie Voivodeship
  13. ^ Co-official status in the Czech Republic under certain circumstances, which is defined by several laws.
  14. ^ Recognized minority language.
  15. ^ Co-official status in certain municipalities in the States of Carinthia and Styria[13]
  16. ^ County of Vas
  17. ^ Region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia

The number of member states exceeds the number of official languages, as several national languages are shared by two or more countries in the EU. Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, and Swedish are all official languages at the national level in multiple countries (see table above). In addition, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Slovak, and Slovene are official languages in multiple EU countries at the regional level.

Furthermore, not all national languages have been accorded the status of official EU languages. These include Luxembourgish, an official language of Luxembourg since 1984, and Turkish, an official language of Cyprus.

All languages of the EU are also working languages.[12] Documents which a member state or a person subject to the jurisdiction of a member state sends to institutions of the Community may be drafted in any one of the official languages selected by the sender. The reply is drafted in the same language. Regulations and other documents of general application are drafted in the twenty-four official languages. The Official Journal of the European Union is published in the twenty-four official languages.

Documents of major public importance or interest are produced in all official languages, but that accounts for a minority of the institutions′ work. Other documents—e.g., communications with the national authorities, decisions addressed to particular individuals or entities and correspondence—are translated only into the languages needed. For internal purposes the EU institutions are allowed by law to choose their own language arrangements. The European Commission, for example, conducts its internal business in three languages, English, French, and German (sometimes called "procedural languages"), and goes fully multilingual only for public information and communication purposes. The European Parliament, on the other hand, has members who need working documents in their own languages, so its document flow is fully multilingual from the outset.[16] Non-institutional EU bodies are not legally obliged to make language arrangement for all the 24 languages (Kik v. Case C-361/01, 2003 ECJ I-8283).

The linguistic translations are expensive.[17] According to the EU's English-language website,[18] the cost of maintaining the institutions’ policy of multilingualism—i.e., the cost of translation and interpretation—was €1,123 million in 2005, which is 1% of the annual general budget of the EU, or €2.28 per person per year. The EU Parliament has made clear that its member states have autonomy for language education, which by treaty the European Community must respect.[19]

Language families

Language family tree of EU official languages

The vast majority of EU languages belong to the Indo-European family, the three dominant subfamilies being the Germanic, Romance, and Slavic. Germanic languages are spoken in central and northern Europe and include Danish, Dutch, English, German, and Swedish. Romance languages are spoken in western, southern European regions; they include French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish. The Slavic languages are to be found in the central Europe and the Balkans in southern Europe. They include Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Slovak, and Slovene. The Baltic languages, Latvian and Lithuanian; the Celtic languages, including Irish; and Greek are also Indo-European.

Outside the Indo-European family, Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian are Uralic languages while Maltese is the only Afroasiatic language with official status in the EU. The Basque language, a language isolate whose roots are unknown, is an official language in some parts of northern Spain, but not an official language of the EU.

Writing systems

10 euro note from the new Europa series written in Latin and Greek alphabets (EURO and ΕΥΡΩ, respectively), and also in the Cyrillic alphabet (ЕВРО), as a result of Bulgaria joining the European Union in 2007.

Most official EU languages are written in the Latin script. The two exceptions are Greek, which is written in the Greek script, and Bulgarian, which is written in Cyrillic script. With the accession of Bulgaria to the European Union on 1 January 2007, Cyrillic became the third official script of the European Union, following the Latin and Greek scripts.[20] The current design of euro banknotes has the word euro written in both the Latin and Greek (Ευρώ) alphabets; the Cyrillic spelling (Eвро) was added to the new Europa series of banknotes started in 2013 (see Linguistic issues concerning the euro).

Language-specific regulations


Although Maltese is an official language, the Council set a transitional period of three years from 1 May 2004, during which the institutions were not obliged to draft all acts in Maltese.[21] It was agreed that the Council could extend this transitional period by an additional year, but decided not to.[22] All new acts of the institutions were required to be adopted and published in Maltese from 30 April 2007.


When Ireland joined the EEC (now the EU) in 1973, Irish was accorded "Treaty Language" status. This meant that the founding EU Treaty was restated in Irish. Irish was also listed in that treaty and all subsequent EU treaties as one of the authentic languages of the treaties.[23] As a Treaty Language, Irish was an official procedural language of the European Court of Justice.[24] It was also possible to correspond in written Irish with the EU Institutions.

However, despite being the first official language of the Republic of Ireland and having been accorded minority-language status in the UK region of Northern Ireland, Irish was not made an official working language of the EU until 1 January 2007. On that date an EU Council Regulation making Irish an official working language of the EU came into effect.[25] This followed a unanimous decision on 13 June 2005 by EU foreign ministers that Irish would be made the 21st official language of the EU.[26] However, a derogation stipulates that not all documents have to be translated into Irish as is the case with the other official languages.[27][28]

The regulation means that legislation adopted by both the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers is translated into Irish, and interpretation from Irish is available at European Parliament plenary sessions and some Council meetings. The cost of translation, interpretation, publication, and legal services involved in making Irish an official EU language is estimated at just under €3.5 million a year.[29] On 3 December 2015, a new regulation passed by the Council has set a definitive schedule on the gradual reduction of the derogation of the Irish language. This new regulation outlines an actual schedule of gradual reduction spread across five years starting from 2016. If EU institutions have sufficient available translation capacity, and if no other Council regulations state otherwise, the derogation completely ends by January 2022.[30]

Irish is the only official language of the EU that is not the most widely spoken language in any member state. According to the 2006 Irish census figures, there are 1.66 million people in Ireland with some ability to speak Irish, out of a population of 4.6 million, though only 538,500 use Irish on a daily basis (counting those who use it mainly in the education system) and just over 72,000 use Irish as a daily language outside the education system.[31]

South-Slavic languages

Due to similarities between Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin, there were some unofficial proposals to accept only one hybrid language as an official EU language as opposed to four separate ones (as in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) in order to reduce translation costs. In negotiations with Croatia, however, it was agreed that Croatian would become a separate official EU language. The same issue may arise in the accession negotiations with North Macedonia whose official language is closely related to Bulgarian.[32]

Future of English in the EU

When the United Kingdom and Ireland joined the EU's predecessor in 1973, French was the dominant language of the institutions. With the addition of Sweden and Finland in the 1990s, and the Eastern European states in the 2000s, English slowly supplanted French as the dominant working language of the institutions. In 2015, it was estimated that 80% of legislative proposals were drafted first in English. The role of English as a lingua franca is believed to be likely to continue, given how heavily staff rely on it.[8][9]

The interpretation of the legal rules covering the use of Official Languages has been open to speculation following the result of the Brexit referendum. Danuta Hübner, the head of the European Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee, has claimed that, after Brexit, English will no longer be an official EU language.[9] However, this statement has been contradicted by the European Commission Representation in Ireland, whose spokesperson described Ms Hübner's claim as "incorrect",[33] as well as by President Jean-Claude Juncker in an answer to a Parliamentary Question on 9 August 2017.[34]

Other Languages
Bahasa Melayu: Bahasa Kesatuan Eropah
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Jezici Evropske unije