EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

“English is our official language because it has been notified by the United Kingdom (UK). If we don’t have the UK, we don’t have English“.[1] The words of MEP Danuta Hubner are particularly resonant as the United Kingdom has, after Brexiting around for the last five years, finally left the European Union.

Since the separation has been effective, English has officially slipped from being the 3rd to being the 17th most spoken mother tongue in the EU. As noted by E. Kużelewska, there are now more Slovak than English native speakers.[2] Therefore, should English remain the European bridge language? Furthermore, as French used to be the most commonly used language in European institutions, could it revert to being the European lingua franca?

An eminently French concern

For the French, “language diversity” increasingly rhymes with “French superiority”. Even though other European observers and politicians also raised the question of the supremacy of English, the French have been very keen on addressing it. Since the Britons have opted for “Leave”, French newspapers and a few politicians have entertained the thought of seeing their language makes its great return as the European primary language.

French has been the language of diplomacy for centuries and it used to be the main language spoken in the institutions until the mid-1990s—when English became more prominent.[3] Indeed, whilst multilingualism is said to be key in the functioning of the EU, English has acquired primacy over the two other procedural languages, French[4], and German.[5]. This linguistic defeat has left the French sour. For instance, La Tribune states that English has “colonized the Union“ because of “our collective spinelessness”.[6]. Brexit is therefore seen as an opportunity to revive the status of the French language in European institutions.

Moreover, it should be noted no EU country considers English their EU official language, as Malta has nominated Maltese and that Ireland nominated Gaelic as their EU official language. Since Maltese and Irish citizens are mostly English-speaking, English should not be banned as an official language. However, one may imagine that since there are much fewer native English speakers, the European Council could consider dropping English as a procedural language of the EU. Therefore, the French could regain its lost status of European lingua franca.

Why French cannot metamorph into a bridge language anymore

First of all, fervent defenders of the French language have to consider that German is now the most prominent mother tongue in the EU. Besides, German has a growing prominence in the Brussels bubble.[7] If English was to be dropped as the European bridge language, French might be surpassed by its German neighbor.

However, neither German nor French languages can compete with the cultural prevalence of English. Furthermore, as the new generations are mostly taught English as their first foreign language, Shakespeare’s language is bound to unite more and more European citizens. In 2017, out of all the European pupils in the lower secondary education, 98% learned English as a foreign language, whereas only 33.4% studied French and 23.3% learned German.[8]

Moreover, the development of the Erasmus program—which allows European students to study for one or two semesters in another EU country—provides de facto support for learning English. Indeed, most of the universities taking part in the Erasmus program offer courses in the language of the host country but also many courses in English. For example, the Charles University of Prague offers a wide range of courses taught in English that are mostly directed at its visiting students of the Erasmus program. Indeed, English has widely penetrated upper education. However, let us not come to the alarming conclusion that English has removed any sense of linguistic diversity in the Union.

Indeed, multilingualism is heavily safeguarded by European treaties. It is therefore of utmost importance that the European institutions do not become a channel for language uniformity. If neither French nor German stands a chance in becoming the new lingua franca of the EU, one may have to consider alternative ways to reestablish a balance between the three procedural languages.

Maintaining language diversity in an English-speaking bubble

Brussels has become a language bubble to the extent that it has birthed a new pidgin dialect of English, the so-called Euro-English.[9] It is a reworking of English that is mainly shaped by the non-native speakers of the Brussels bubble. As anglicisms mushroom quicker than lobbying firms, the French Minister for European Affairs Clément Beaune suggests that a post-Brexit Europe that “would communicate only in one language would be a mistake and would lack buy-in, lack support, lack understanding”.[10] Indeed, how can the Union hope to make its functioning clearer and more transparent by using highly anglicized terms such as “level-playing field”?[11]

It is becoming relatively self-evident—albeit painful—that English is more practical to use as a working language than German or French. English is easier to learn and therefore more frequently used than the two others. Still, European decision-makers need to make the effort to continue translating the concepts that rule the Brussels institutional bubble. By translating these concepts to their native languages, they make the EU more accessible to its citizens.

Rose Hartwig-Peillon

 

[1] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-eu-language-idUSKCN0ZD2AC

[2] Kużelewska, E., 2020. Quo Vadis English? The Post-Brexit Position of English as a Working Language of the EU. International Journal for the Semiotics of Law.

[3] Ibid.

[4] R. Phillipson already comes to this conclusion in 2008.

Phillipson, R., 2008. Language Policy and Education in the European Union. In: Encyclopedia of language and education, New York, NY: Springer, pp. 254–265.

[5] https://www.politico.eu/article/french-english-language-brexit-european-parliament-ecj-commission-eu-next-waterloo/

[6] https://www.latribune.fr/opinions/tribunes/apres-le-brexit-l-anglais-ne-peut-plus-etre-la-langue-officielle-de-l-ue-871268.html

[7] https://www.politico.eu/article/we-will-all-be-speaking-german-soon-language-brussels/

[8] Data retrieved from the Eurostat data browser: See « Pupils by education level and modern foreign language studied» at (https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/databrowser/view/EDUC_UOE_LANG01__custom_798638/default/table?lang=en)

[9] https://www.politico.eu/article/english-language-of-the-eu/

[10] https://www.vie-publique.fr/discours/278118-clement-beaune-12012021-union-europeenne

[11] Ibid.

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