Edith Cresson, the European commissioner responsible for education has warned against the hegemony of the English language and is backing a French proposal that all schools in the European Union should teach at least two foreign languages.
Speaking at a conference held by Europeans Throughout the World, she said: "More than 60 million students in the European Union have benefitted from programmes such as Erasmus and Lingua, which have a strong language element and Socrates will develop these aims. Also the initiative of the French presidency which aims to give all pupils access to two languages beyond their mother tongue is very important to avoid the hegemony of one language; English for example."
The French presidency of EU wants member states to agree a draft resolution on the compulsory teaching of at least two foreign languages.
The resolution is not binding. Many states already meet the terms of the French proposal, but a compulsory requirement from each member state would embarrass the Irish Republic which has extensive foreign language teaching but no compulsory element, and it would run counter to Germany's constitution.
Should the right form of words be found, the French would be the first of the Latin culture countries to benefit. Within the past 20 years French has lost its place as the first foreign language of Italian and Spanish pupils and is on the verge of losing out in Portugal. Germany would gain immediately in Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and the UK.
The idealistic case for linguistic pluralism will also be promoted during the French presidency by Jacques Toubon, the French culture minister who is universally known as "Jack Allgood" because of his perceived hostility to English. He says Europe must reap the benefits of its existing linguistic diversity instead of being constrained by "the same model, the same state of mind, the same aesthetic".
The British, however, could be the first to gain. Tony Male of the Central Bureau of Educational Visits and Exchanges said: "There is an awful sense of false security that comes from possessing the world's first language." But the proposal is unlikely to galvanise the British government.
Mme Cresson, speaking for the first time since being sworn in as commissioner, is the former chair of Europeans Throughout the World, and was sympathetic to the conference's contention that all children should have the right to learn in their mother tongue.
She said Socrates, the new education programme which provides money for student exchanges and school networks, also had a component concerned with the teaching of the children of travellers', migrant workers and of those working for embassies or multinational companies. She foresaw an increase in labour mobility between members states of skilled workers and said language policy is an essential element of mutual understanding. "If a language is lost then so is a culture," she said.