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Globalisation, Europeanization and the Importance of Transnational Linguistic Capital

Project Coordinator

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Gerhards

Research Questions

Beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, the world began to change in a fundamental way due to the process of globalisation. The extent, frequency, and speed of exchange between different nation states and different world regions have increased enormously over the last sixty years. This especially holds true for one region of the world – Europe. The political process of European integration opened the twenty-seven European Union member states to another through the creation of a single European market – the biggest internal market in the world.

Globalization and Europeanization of formerly isolated nation-state “containers” opens new opportunities for the European people. However, as different EU member states speak different languages, participation in globalization and Europeanization is dependent on Europeans ability to speak the languages of others. Possessing transnational linguistic capital is therefore a deciding factor in whether or not someone can participate in the process of globalization and Europeanization. The project tries to give an answer to the following questions:

  1. Who in the 27 member states of the European Union speaks how many foreign languages? And who is proficient in Europe’s most-widely spoken language, English?
  2. How can one explain that people in certain EU member states possess high levels of transnational linguistic capital and can speak English and why is this not the case in other countries?

Data and Methodological Procedure

We are using survey data conducted in the twenty-seven EU member states to analyze the respondents’ proficiencies in foreign languages (Eurobarometer 63.4). The results show that there are considerable differences both between and within the member states.  

In order to explain these differences we first present a general explanatory model for foreign language proficiency: opportunities for learning a foreign language, the costs associated with such learning, and the motivation to acquire a new language are the three central elements of the core model we use to explain foreign language learning. The societal conditions in which people are embedded affect these three dimensions and often determine who has access to building transnational linguistic capital and who does not. We create hypotheses from this explanatory model and then test them empirically.


  1. More than half of EU citizens do not speak a foreign language, and their chances to participate in Europeanization processes are therefore very limited. However, the results also show that foreign language proficiency varies dramatically both between and within countries: Whereas over ninety percent of people in the Netherlands speak a foreign language, only thirty percent of Hungarians do so. Similar results are found with regard to the most widely spoken foreign language in Europe: Almost half of Europeans speak English, but there are also vastly different levels of English proficiency between and within countries. In Bulgaria, for example, 84.6% of the population does not speak English; in the Netherlands, this number sinks to only 12.4%.
  2. We find that the size of a country and the prevalence of a respondent’s native language affect the motivation and the necessity of learning a foreign language negatively. A country’s level of modernization, especially its development of the educational system, has a positive influence on foreign language proficiency. Using Bourdieu’s theory on social class, we can show that a respondent’s socioeconomic class position and his/her level of education are important micro-level factors that help to increase a person’s transnational linguistic capital. We also look into the effect of the respondents’ age, immigrant status, and possible emotional connection to their native language.


2008 - 2010


The project is financed by research funds of the Excellence Cluster “Language of Emotion” promoted by DFG


  • Gerhards, Jürgen (2014): Transnational Linguistic Capital. Explaining Multilingualism and English Proficiency in 27 Countries.(forthcoming: International Sociology)
  • Gerhards, Jürgen (2012): From Babel to Brussels. European Integration and the Importance of Transnational Linguistic Capital. Berlin Studies on the Sociology of Europe (BSSE). No. 28. Berlin: Freie Universität Berlin. (English version of Gerhards 2010).
  • Gerhards, Jürgen (2012): Transnationales sprachliches Kapital als Ressource neuer Ungleichheit in einer globalisierten Welt [Transnational Linguistic Capital as a Central Resource of Inequality in a Globalised World]. In: Hans-Georg Soeffner (ed.): Transnationale Vergesellschaftungen. Verhandlungen des 35. Kongresses der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie in Frankfurt am Main 2010. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, S. 497-508.
  • Gerhards, Jürgen (2012): Sprachliche versus soziale Hegemonie: Die Bedeutung eines kleinen Unterschieds am Beispiel des Englischen [Linguistic versus Social Hegemony. A Difference which makes a Difference]. In: Hans-Georg Soeffner (ed.): Transnationale Vergesellschaftungen. Verhandlungen des 35. Kongresses der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie in Frankfurt am Main 2010. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag, S. 997-1001.
  • Gerhards, Jürgen (2012): Plädoyer für die Förderung der Lingua franca Englisch [Pleading for the Support of a Lingua franca English]. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte 2012/4: 51-57.
  • Gerhards, Jürgen (2011): Der Kult der Minderheitensprachen [The Cult of Minority Languages]. Leviathan 39: 165-189.
  • Gerhards, Jürgen (2010): Mehrsprachigkeit im vereinten Europa. Transnationales Kapital als Ressource in einer globalisierten Welt [Multilingualism in a Unified Europe. Transnational Linguistic Capital as a Resource in a Globalized World]. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag
  • Gerhards, Jürgen (2010): Kritik des „linguistic turn“ in der soziologischen Theoriebildung. Eine kleine - etwas verspätete – Anfrage [Critique of the „Linguistic Turn“ within Sociological Formation of Theories. A Small – Some Delayed – Query]. In: Anne Honer, Michael Meuser & Michaela Pfadenhauer (eds.): Fragile Sozialität. Inszenierungen, Sinnwelten, Existenzbastler. Ronald Hitzler zum 60. Geburtstag, edited. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, S. 409-432.
  • Gerhards, Jürgen (2010): Kultursoziologie diesseits des „Cultural Turn” [Cultural Sociology Beyond the Cultural Turn]. In: Monika Wohlrab-Sahr (ed.): Kultursoziologie. Paradigmen – Methoden – Fragestellungen. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, S. 277-308.
  • Gerhards, Jürgen (2010): Transnationales linguistisches Kapital der Bürger und der Prozess der europäischen Integration. In: Monika Eigmüller & Steffen Mau (eds.): Gesellschaftstheorie und Europapolitik. Sozialwissenschaftliche Ansätze zur Europaforschung. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.