At the EU's daily news conference recently, the names of the 20 languages into which questions and answers would be translated shone in red lights on an elevated board, like the departure information for flights to exotic places. At the top, the mundane English, French and German; at the bottom, Lithuanian, Hungarian and Slovenian.
As the EU has grown, so too has the number of its official languages. One side effect is that English is emerging increasingly as the EU's lingua franca, much to the chagrin of the French, once the guardians of the group's foremost tongue.
It was not always this way. When the EU was born in the 1950s, Britain was not among the founding nations and French was the accepted language of diplomacy and international affairs.
When Britain did join, in 1973, French president Georges Pompidou elicited a commitment from London that all civil servants sent to work at the EU's capital in Brussels would be fluent French speakers. Today, the British continue to comply, but everyone else around them seems to be speaking English.
"The weight of English grows each year," said Nicolas de la Grandville, the spokesman for the French permanent delegation.
The scales tipped further in favor of English in 1995, he said, with the entrance of Sweden, Finland and Austria, where English, not French, is the common second language. And the language situation is set to become more complicated yet, probably reinforcing the dominance of English.
In January, Bulgaria and Romania will enter the EU, and Gaelic will be formally recognized as one of Ireland's official languages, alongside English.
With Bulgaria's entry another alphabet, Cyrillic, will go into use in Brussels along with the Latin and Greek alphabets. Moreover, Spain has obtained the right to have the regional languages Basque, Catalan and Galician recognized as "semiofficial" languages.
This will bring the number of official EU languages to 23. That means that all official documents, including 90,000 pages of past treaties and agreements, will have to be translated into all of those languages.
The cost is immense: the EU budgets US$1.3 billion a year and employs about 3,000 people for translating and interpreting. Little wonder, then, that most officials and others working here tend to use English -- to the point at times of making the French want to scream, in any language.
In March, when French business leader Ernst-Antoine Seilliere addressed a gathering of European leaders in Brussels, he announced beforehand that he would speak not in French, but in English, "the language of business."
French President Jacques Chirac, who attended the event with several government ministers, jumped to his feet and stormed out, his entourage in tow. Chirac later explained that he was determined to defend the presence of French against the growing weight of English -- not just in the EU but also at the Olympic Games and the UN.
The French are not taking the spread of English lying down. For one thing, they obtained a commitment several years ago that all EU officials in Brussels must be fluent in at least two languages other than their mother tongue, on the assumption, usually correct, that the first will be English and the second French.
They have also begun offering a program of free French classes for EU officials in Brussels and for more senior bureaucrats at Avignon, in the sunny south of France.
"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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