Sun, Sep 11, 2005 - Page 9 News List

New language challenge for the EU: Stop the English advance

By Abram de Swaan

The EU has a single currency, but what about a single language? Since its inception, the EU has made each member state's language one of its official tongues. Recently, even Irish, spoken at home by only a tiny minority, was granted full official status.

Treating all EU languages on the same footing is a direct consequence of the formal equality of member states under the founding treaties. It is also a matter of democratic principle that laws are written in the language of every land where they apply.

But the EU's posture as a protector of linguistic diversity cannot hide the stampede toward English that is underway. The more languages, it seems, the more English. Yet, the European Commission still encourages young Europeans to learn as many different languages as possible. It would be politically lethal to acknowledge the real state of affairs, even if the official policy merely increases the chances that Europeans, after all their efforts, still may not understand each other.

Such an outcome is unlikely, but only because Europe's language problem is well on its way to solving itself. Throughout the EU, as in much of the world, from the Indian subcontinent to large parts of Africa, English increasingly functions as the language of international communication.

To be sure, in EU institutions' public and ceremonial meetings, interpretation and translation must be equally available, at least in principle, from every language into every other. Each day, hundreds of interpreters literally pay lip service to this lofty precept, and millions of pages are translated annually so that citizens may consult EU law in their own language.

The EU initially invested heavily in the development of machine translation, but has essentially abandoned the project. As a result, translation and interpretation increasingly proceed in two steps, from a lesser-used language to half a dozen "relay" languages, and from those into other, smaller languages. This saves resources, but it also implies a considerable loss of meaning.

Moreover, fewer languages are used in the EU's smokeless backrooms when meetings are less formal and the participants not all that prestigious. When EU officials meet together or draft internal documents, they use only the "working languages": French and, more often, English. German, the EU's most widely spoken native language, hardly makes a dent. Representatives may demand interpretation into their home language, but a proposal to limit each country's translation budget is likely to be accepted soon.

The predominance of English is even more pronounced in communications among the EU's citizens, where it is the first foreign language in all countries of the "old" Europe. Among the EU's new members, English is rapidly replacing Russian as the most widely used foreign language.

Indeed, nine out of 10 schoolchildren in the EU now learn English. Roughly half as many learn French, a quarter German and an eighth Spanish, and these numbers are falling, despite the commission's efforts, because people tend to choose the foreign language that they believe is spoken and studied the most by others.

The process resembles the selection of a standard in, say, consumer electronics. People tend to opt for the standard -- VHS, Windows, DVD -- that they believe will come out on top, and thus contribute to that victory. English now seems to have reached the point of no return in its accelerating global expansion, competing with national languages in such diverse fields as popular music, transport, the Internet, banking, cinema and television, science and sports.

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