Hold Your Tongue: English is here to stay

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current features, Features

The line-up of The State of the Union in Florence was studded with European stars, but one comment drew more than its fair share of media attention. When the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker took the stage in the Salone dei Cinquecento on 5 May, he announced that he would speak in French ‘because slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe.’

The comment, which was met with laughter from the audience, has been interpreted as both mischievous and misplaced. The explanation he gave, that he wanted to speak to the French people ahead of the impending election, was largely ignored by the media. Yet the experienced politician with a team of spokespeople and speechwriters behind him must have known the effect his provocation would have amongst British headline-writers. Although he then went on to diminish the address as ‘a chat, not a real speech,’ the jibe was intentional.

It also touched upon a long-standing disagreement about the use of official EU languages. Until the 1990s, French was dominant in Brussels circles. Yet the utility of English has increased in recent years, particularly after the eastern expansion of the European Union in 2004. The change may be recent but it is not fragile, for the proliferation and practicality of a language are mutually reinforcing.

According to the most recent ‘Europeans and their languages’ Eurobarometer, English is now the second language of 38% of Europeans. This goes far beyond 12% for French and 11% for German. Two-thirds of Europeans (67%) also consider English to be one of the two most useful languages. With this in mind, Mr Juncker’s prediction was correct only in a very narrow sense. Certainly, there will be fewer Anglophone diplomats and civil servants treading Brussels’ corridors of power in a few years, but English is not the language of the Brits alone. It is an official language of Ireland and Malta and, in practical terms, the tongue of many others.

The emerging hegemony of English is evident in academia, as well as politics. ‘English has become a vehicular language,’ said Nicola Owtram, Coordinator of the EUI’s Language Centre. The spread of English in scholarly circles has been purely practical, she explained. ‘It began in the hard sciences, then moved to the social sciences, and now the use of English is common even in the humanities,’ she said. Owtram acknowledges ‘the practicality’ yet she recognises that English as a lingua franca can create challenges for non-native speakers. ‘Most researchers will want to publish in English because it will take their career ahead. This is especially true of those at an early career stage,’ Owtram explained.  ‘Language choice in academic publishing is a very complex issue. But it’s true that for an international career, it is often of crucial importance to be able to write and speak in academic English’.

During his address at The State of the Union, the European Commission’s ‘Chief Brexit Negotiator’ Michel Barnier showed that he understood the benefits of sharing a common tongue. Despite giving a polite ‘bonjour’ to journalists gathered outside the speakers’ backstage room, Barnier received applause from the audience when he pointedly spoke in English. Just days after details of the Commission President’s Downing Street dinner with PM Theresa May were leaked, prompting accusations towards Juncker’s own staff, Barnier appeared the statesman when he stated that the EU-UK relationship ‘must be built on mutual trust’. Although the Frenchman prefers to speak in his native language, he understood his audience would understand his sensitive message more clearly if he spoke in English. His final words before departing the stage were professional, not provocative: ‘Let’s turn the page, in mutual respect, and find solutions.’

Solutions are easier to find when you speak the same language. It’s a simple question of comprehension. Yet, as the spat over Juncker’s comments showed, language choice is also a highly emotive issue. It caused a stir at The State of the Union because, like it or not, we are all tongue-tied to the places where we have lived and grown. European leaders could use the bond of a common language to create a European citizenry in sentiment as well as in name. As the language shared by more people than any other, English has the potential to help weld the still diffuse European people together as well as to the common European space.

According to Philippe Van Parijs, who had not planned to mention language during his speech to The State of the Union, but told EUI Times that he felt compelled to comment in response to Juncker’s remark, English is already Europe’s de facto lingua franca. After Brexit, when it will have shaken off its partisan associations to one member state, English will be definitely ‘the language most suitable for us European to speak to each other’ he said.

Recent data shows that Europeans want to speak to each other. The 2012 Eurobarometer survey showed that Europeans are widely in favour of people in the EU sharing a common language. Around seven in ten (69%) respondents agree and three in ten (31%) saying that they ‘totally agree’ that people in the EU should be able to speak a common language. In practice, the real European institutions also recognise the value of this communication. In recent months, the European Commission has been promoting ‘Citizens’ Dialogues,’ town-hall style forums where Commissioners answer the questions of the people whose lives they shape but who, in reality, they rarely meet face to face. ‘It’s about Europe, it’s about you. Let’s talk!’ the website exclaims.

To build this citizenry, EU leaders should celebrate rather than scorn the fact that many Europeans already have the skills and desire to communicate with each other. The dominance of English in academia is ‘firmly rooted’ says Owtram. ‘Of course, there are forums in which scholars can publish in their own language,’ she told EUI Times. ‘But the advantages are usually there to publish in English.’ So too in politics, where the utility of English as a tool of communication also appears firmly embedded. Francophones like Mr Juncker may regret the demise of their language in Brussels, but the people of Europe have spoken, and they have spoken in English.

feature image: Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563) (Google art project)




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