Thursday, 26 September 2013

How to say 'I like you' in 24 languages, and why a European consumer lawyer might care

Today, 26th September, the European Day of Languages is celebrated. The initiative was launched in 2001 by the Council of Europe and the European Union to celebrate Europe's linguistic diversity, with its 24 official languages, about 60 regional and minority languages, and more than 175 migrant languages. More information on events organised in celebration of this day (such as mini-courses on European languages) is available on the Council of Europe's website and in today's European Commission newsletter.

Eurostat, furthermore, published the following data:

'European Day of Languages - Two-thirds of working age adults in the EU28 in 2011 state they know a foreign language - English studied as a foreign language by 94% of upper secondary pupils.
In the EU28 in 2011, 83% of pupils at primary & lower secondary level and 94% of those in upper secondary level general programmes were studying English as a foreign language. The second most commonly studied foreign language at both primary & lower secondary level and upper secondary level was French (19% of pupils in primary & lower secondary level and 23% in upper secondary), followed by German (9% and 21%) and Spanish (6% and 18%). The importance of English as a foreign language in the EU is also confirmed amongst working age adults. In the EU28, English was declared to be the best-known foreign language in 2011 amongst the population aged 25 to 64. Among those stating English to be their best-known foreign language, 20% responded that they spoke it at a proficient level, 35% at a good level and 45% at a fair level. Considering all languages, two-thirds of the total population aged 25-64 stated they knew at least one foreign language.'

Why languages are important for European consumer law is perhaps best illustrated by the case law of the Court of Justice of the EU. A recent example concerns the Court's judgment in Asbeek Brusse v. Jahani (discussed by Candida on this blog), in which the comparison of different language versions of the Unfair Terms Directive was decisive for answering a preliminary question on the Directive's scope:

'25 There is, however, a degree of discrepancy between the various language versions of that provision. Thus, the Dutch version of Article 1(1) of the directive states that the purpose of the latter is to approximate the national provisions relating to unfair terms in contracts concluded between a ‘seller’ (‘verkoper’) and a consumer. The other language versions of that provision use, for their part, an expression which is wider in scope to designate the other party to the contract with the consumer. The French version of Article 1(1) of the directive refers to contracts concluded between a ‘professionnel’ and a consumer. That wider approach is found in the Spanish version (‘profesional’), the Danish version (‘erhvervsdrivende’), the German version (‘Gewerbetreibender’), the Greek version (‘επαγγελματίας’), the Italian version (‘professionista’) and the Portuguese version (‘profissional’). The English version uses the terms ‘seller or supplier’.

26 It is settled case‑law that the need for uniform application and, accordingly, for uniform interpretation of a European Union measure makes it impossible to consider one version of the text in isolation, but requires that that measure be interpreted on the basis of both the real intention of its author and the aim that the latter seeks to achieve, in the light, in particular, of the versions in all other official languages (see, inter alia, Case C‑569/08 Internetportal und Marketing [2010] ECR I‑4871, paragraph 35, and Case C‑52/10 Eleftheri tileorasi and Giannikos [2011] ECR I‑4973, paragraph 23).

27 It must be observed in this connection that the term ‘verkoper’, used in the Dutch version, is defined in Article 2(c) of the directive in the same way as in the other language versions, as designating ‘any natural or legal person who … is acting for purposes relating to his trade, business or profession, whether publicly owned or privately owned’.

28 It thus appears that, beyond the term used to designate the other party to the contract with the consumer, the legislature’s intention was not to restrict the scope of the directive solely to contracts concluded between a seller and a consumer.'

For more on the topic of languages and the law, please refer also to the Amsterdam Circle for Law & Language.

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