The adoption of the European Commission's first-ever policy document on multilingualism may not win universal attention across the European Union. This attempt to boost contact with Europe's citizens, and between them, could easily be shrugged off as irrelevant by those who already master several languages, or are blessed with a widely-known native language.

But not everyone will dismiss it so lightly. Around seven out of every ten Hungarians can speak only Hungarian. More than six out of ten Portuguese can speak only Portuguese. And the same is true for Italians and Spaniards. Overall, half of the EU's population can use only one language. And in the new member states in particular, even where people speak a second language, it is frequently not a language widely spoken in Europe.

The consequence is a form of exclusion - social, economic, and democratic. The opportunities that the EU prides itself on offering, ranging from freedom of movement to access to the single market, and from information about jobs to participation in debates about Europe's future - are limited accordingly. So it is altogether appropriate that the EU should act to provide what remedies it can.

This is the real background to the Commission's initiative.

It will not solve all the problems. Enlargement continually multiplies the challenges: from 11 official languages in 2004, the EU now has 20, and...

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