One /ring/ tongue to bind them

Article published on Feb. 28, 2009
community published
Article published on Feb. 28, 2009
Written by Eamonn Fitzgerald Of course the Bulgarians will debate ebulliently in Bulgarian, just as the Italians will campaign indefinitely in Italian. And the French will argue fervently in French, while right up to the end, the Finns will deliberate in Finnish. But when the MEPs come to Brussels, they will all speak one language. And it won’t be Romanian.
Sure, Commissioner Leonard Orban is all for multilingualism, and the full report of his imposingly-named “Group of Intellectuals for Intercultural Dialogue” concluded that “Promoting a ’second mother tongue’ strengthens multilingualism and intercultural dialogue,” but there is something called “reality” and it will certainly make its presence felt this year.

For one, the enormous costs of maintaining the EU’s translation and interpreting services will have to be questioned at a time when industries and countries are fighting for economic survival. Then, there’s the environmental aspect of generating so much paper-based documentation. Making it all digital would be a rational alternative, but it would not address the crux of the matter.

Enter English. And here is the proposition in favour of getting all MEPs to use the world’s lingua franca

The evidence points to the imminent collapse of the European Union’s official language policy, known as “mother tongue plus two”, in which citizens are encouraged to learn two foreign languages as well as their own (ie, please learn something besides English). Among Europeans born before the second world war, English, French and German are almost equally common. But according to a Eurobarometer survey, 15-to-24-year-olds are five times more likely to speak English as a foreign language than either German or French. Add native speakers to those who have learnt it, and some 60% of young Europeans speak English “well or very well”.

That’s Charlemagne in the 12 February edition of The Economist. Hard to argue with the logic of “English is coming“.

Quoting Philippe van Parijs, a Belgian academic, Charlemagne adds that “speakers at EU meetings automatically choose the language that excludes the fewest people in the room. They do not use the language best known, on average, by those present (which in some meetings will still be French). Instead, they seek the language that is understood, at least minimally, by all. Thanks to EU enlargement to the east (and poor language skills among British and Irish visitors to Brussels), this is almost always English.”

Yes, let’s learn as many languages as we can and, yes, let’s honour their diversity and beauty, but let’s not waste millions on denying the reality that one of the 23 official languages is, luckily for all of us, better suited to saving resources and money than the other 22. Especially when those resources and that money could be, should be, used more effectively and efficiently in a time of crisis.

The entry first posted here.