Fri, Dec 08, 2006 - Page 9 News List

English is the EU's lingua franca

While Britain may not be one of the EU's founding members, English is emerging as the union's common language, much to the chagrin of France

By John Tagliabue  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BRUSSELS

"We have about 500 in Brussels alone, though we cannot yet tell what the long-range effect will be," said Marc-Olivier Gendry, who is responsible at the French delegation for reinforcing the French presence.

France has budgeted about US$2.6 million for the classes. The French emphasis on the right to one's own language echoes throughout the EU, and it does not make life easy.

Two years ago, when the Mediterranean island of Malta became a member, Brussels launched a recruitment drive to find translators and interpreters for the Maltese language, which is spoken only by the island's 400,000 inhabitants, and found none.

"We organized classes in interpreting in London, where many Maltese live," said Frederic Vincent, EU spokesman for education, culture and languages.

In January, a new commissioner will take over, responsible for languages alone, he said, reflecting the importance the EU places on language.

"We have a legal obligation to translate," he said. "Any country -- Estonia, Hungary, Poland -- must be able to consult documents in their own language."

But Vincent, who is French, is an example of the spread of English. Among his colleagues, he said, are a Slovak, an Italian, a German and an Englishman.

"I speak French with the Italian, whose French is perfect," he said. "But when the others are together, we speak English, though they all speak some French."

English is a pivotal language for translation, he added, meaning that if no interpreter can be found to translate, say, from Latvian to Spanish, then someone will translate from Latvian into English and another from English into Spanish.

Dispassionate is probably the best way to describe the reaction to all this of Indrek Treufeldt, who for the last four years has been the correspondent of Estonian State Television at the EU.

Treufeldt works comfortably in English, French and German, he said over coffee in fluent English recently, in addition to his native Estonian, a Baltic language somewhat akin to Finnish. His Finnish is also quite good, he said, since in the old days, when Estonia was a Soviet republic, Estonians would often watch Finnish television.

"You know, Dallas in Finnish," he said. "It was our window to the West."

And at 37, he belongs to the last generation of Estonians to serve in the Soviet Army, so his Russian is good.

Languages, he said, are "specific tools" for seeing reality, and he believes that many are better than one.

"Nobody can force us to interpret reality in one, universal way," he said. "We had that experience with the Soviet Union."

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