From Babel to Brussels: European Integration and the Importance of Transnational Linguistic Capital

Berlin Studies on the Sociology of Europe (BSSE) Working Paper No. 28

222 Pages Posted: 4 Oct 2012

See all articles by Jürgen Gerhards

Jürgen Gerhards

Free University of Berlin (FUB) - Institute for Sociology

Date Written: September 1, 2012


Globalisation and the political process of European integration opened the European Union member states to one another. As different EU member states have different languages, participation in globalisation and the process of European integration is dependent on Europeans’ ability to speak the languages of others. Those who speak multiple languages can more easily come into contact with citizens of other countries, conduct business and diplomacy, cooperate academically, organise protests across national boundaries, or enter into romantic relations with them. In short, they can socialise transnationally in a number of different dimensions. Those who only speak their native language are, in contrast, tied to their home country and can only take slight advantage of the perks of a united Europe and a globalised world. Possessing transnational linguistic capital is a deciding factor in whether or not someone can participate in an emerging European society; it becomes a new measure of social inequality, a resource that can either lead to societal inclusion or exclusion.

The question central to our study is to what degree citizens in the twenty‐ seven EU member states possess transnational linguistic capital and how to explain the differences in multilingualism both between and within the member states. We present a general explanatory model for foreign language proficiency, create hypotheses from this model and test them empirically. Drawing on a survey conducted in twenty‐seven European countries it can be shown that the peoples’ ability to speak different languages can be very well predicted with the help of the different explanatory factors. We find that country size, the prevalence of a respondent’s native language, the linguistic difference between one’s mother tongue and the foreign language, and age affect language acquisition negatively, whereas a country’s level of education has a positive influence. Using Bourdieu’s theory of social class, we show that besides other factors a respondent’s social class position and the level of education are important micro‐level factors that help to increase a person’s transnational linguistic capital.

One must put these results in the context of the state of the art. The analysis of multilingualism is a major topic in linguistics, psychology, and education. The societal conditions in which language learners are embedded are hardly taken into account in these studies. This would not be worth discussing any further if sociology was not relevant to multilingualism; but the contrary seems to be true. Our analysis shows that the neglected societal conditions are actually of central importance in determining transnational linguistic capital.

Keywords: EU, European integration, globalisation, multilingualism, language politics, transnational linguistic capital

Suggested Citation

Gerhards, Jürgen, From Babel to Brussels: European Integration and the Importance of Transnational Linguistic Capital (September 1, 2012). Berlin Studies on the Sociology of Europe (BSSE) Working Paper No. 28, Available at SSRN: or

Jürgen Gerhards (Contact Author)

Free University of Berlin (FUB) - Institute for Sociology ( email )


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