In the recent post ‘European agents are actually misusing English’ I discussed the role of the English within the European Institutions and the possibility that this could become the EU’s official language*. We received some interesting feedback on the article from Jeremy Gardner, the author of an EU report on the misuse of English in the European Institutions. Below he gives his opinion on the changing role of English and other European languages within the European Institutions:
“Joachim Gauck, the German President gave a speech on 22 February 2013, in which, among other things, he called for the acceptance of English as the European Union’s lingua franca. This has lead to a certain amount of more or less informed debate, including a recent article in the Guardian asking whether English should be the official language of the EU.
At the time of writing, the EU currently has 23 official languages and a large but probably indefinable number of other languages that, for one historical or political reason or another, are not classified as official, despite the fact that some have more speakers than many of the official languages. Catalan, for example, has no ‘official language’ status in the EU, despite having around nine million speakers, whereas Slovenian does have official status with only 2.5 million. Similarly the (non-official) Luxembourg national language has nearly twice as many speakers as (official) Irish. There is little or no likelihood of these being reduced to one ‘official’ language in the foreseeable or even distant future.
Within the European institutions themselves, the situation is actually not much simpler. Although French, German and English have traditionally enjoyed a higher procedural status, particularly at the Commission, which is the largest institution, the other languages are not excluded completely, so, at the European Parliament, for example, translation of working documents is provided for all official languages as required.
As for the three main languages, the balance between them has changed radically over the last twenty years. French, which used to be the dominant language in most contexts has retreated dramatically, except perhaps at the Court of Justice, where it has an official monopoly, English has taken over the spaces vacated by its traditional rival and German, quite frankly, is on life support.
The reasons for this are fairly simple. German never really had a fighting chance, despite having over 90 million speakers spread out over 11 of the 27 EU member countries. It is perceived as an almost impossibly difficult language and the German authorities have never made a concerted attempt to prop it up in this connection. French, on the other hand, has always enjoyed strong support from the French government and people, who, unlike the Germans, feel very strongly about this issue. It also benefits from the fact that all the main European institutions are located in largely or partly French speaking towns (Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg), meaning both that there have traditionally been a large number of locally recruited French speaking employees and that some knowledge of the language is important for the daily lives of EU staff and their families.
English, on the other hand, has a two-fold role in Europe. Aside from being one of the larger languages in terms of native speakers, it is also almost universally the second language of choice throughout the continent due to its status as a world language, meaning that newly recruited officials – including, these days, most French speakers – already come to Brussels or Luxembourg with a working knowledge of the language and only learn French and/or German afterwards, if at all.
All of this means that, if we decided to save money by reducing the number of languages employed in the EU’s everyday work, there would currently only one be language that could work – English – and this would be true even if the United Kingdom did decide to go its own way. Any of the other suggestions put forward (French, German, Esperanto, Latin etc) would flounder on demographics. Everything would grind to a halt because there are simply not enough people who speak – or could be made to speak – these languages sufficiently well to keep the machinery running (this is already a problem with English).
The question is: how much money would it actually save? Communications with member countries and the general public would still have to be conducted in a language that the other party understands, MEPs would still have to be able to speak in their own languages and legislation would still have to be translated. Although there may be scope for having this latter task being performed in the countries themselves, this is not as simple as it sounds: which version would be correct – the French one or the Belgian, the German or the Austrian?
In the end, what it may all boil down to is downgrading French to the status of the other languages, thus avoiding the translation of a certain amount of administrative documentation. One wonders if the comparatively insignificant savings that would be obtained by this somewhat churlish proposal would be worth the political damage that would ensue.”
*As you will read in Mr Gardner’s comment, this was inaccurate, as English is already one of the EU’s 23 official languages.