As the reality of Brexit approaches at a fast pace (at least, it seemed so by the time this article was written), the European Union faces many troubling issues to be solved. One of the less known – and arguably less important as well – is of linguistic nature: The EU´s most commonly used language will lose almost all of its native speakers. English will then be spoken as a first language only by most of the country´s 4.5 million Irishmen and around half a million Maltese. That is roughly one percent of the entire EU population.
With the EU having a colourful history of bitter disputes over its use of languages, this is a fact looking for trouble. Within days of the Brexit vote, politicians from continental Europe proposed to knock English out from the list of official languages. Theresa May, the current British Prime Minister even had to dismiss reports claiming that Brexit negotiations would be held entirely in French. Nonetheless, are these suggestions realistic motions or mere cravings for long lost power?
Today the European Union has 24 official languages, which can be used in parliament and for official correspondence. Three of them, English, French, and German, are used for work at the commission. In its day-to-day reality, however, they are not equal. German is barely spoken whereas English dominates being used in most meetings and for most reports.
That has not always been the case. Before the entrance of the UK to the European Economic Community, the EU´s predecessor, in 1973, only French and German had been the club´s official languages. Nonetheless, becoming an official language did not help much to stop the domination of French. Only in the 1990s, English started to become important with the admission of the Scandinavian countries. They have always been much closer culturally and linguistically to Great Britain than France, and therefore have a greater inclination to discuss in the corresponding language. The eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004 and 2007, as well as the growing global dominance of English, finally put it in the place it holds today in the union.
Is the exit of the UK likely to change this? Among the EU´s citizens, English is much more commonly used than the other contenders are. According to Eurobarometer, 51% of EU-citizens were able to converse in English in 2012. French, although frequently used by bureaucrats and diplomats, was spoken by only 26% of the EU total population, even below German’s 32%.
Anyway, the future seems to belong to English. Two thirds of EU-citizens deem English to be a useful language compared to only one sixth who hold this belief for German or French. Additionally, over 80% of primary school children are taught English whereas other languages are usually brought in much later, if at all. Part of the rise of English can be explained by the relatively few grammatical hurdles learners face in early stages. Setting up simple conversations is easier than in most other `natural` languages with plenty of conjugations and declinations. The more difficult parts come up only later, for example, the often seemingly arbitrary pronunciation. Nevertheless, if someone has already made it to that point she is unlikely to give up.
This, of course, does not have to imply that the Union’s parliament and administration follow these trends, especially because the Union has, from time to time, struggled to be seen as down-to-earth and close to its citizens. Still, the power balance in the EU has shifted in the last 30 years. The traditional Franco-German alliance has lost its clout due to the massive enlargement of the EU and the internal rifts. For example, during the Euro crisis when France `led` the southern alliance of Mediterranean countries, pushing for more spending and a devaluation of the Euro. On the opposite side, Germany represented the northern countries advocating for austerity measures. It is unlikely that other countries just let these two have their cake and eat it. Ireland and Malta want to protect ´their´ English and other large countries could seize the opportunity to advertise their national languages as well.
In fact, even within Germany and France, not everyone promotes their own language with absolute vigour. Although a supporter of the French language, Emmanuel Macron likes to spice it up with English terms such as `bottom-up`. Among the first ones to refute suggestions of using less English was the German commissioner Günther Oettinger. Ironically, when he was initially sent to Europe in 2010, his poor command of English was largely ridiculed by the German media.
Furthermore, the biggest advantage of English is not even internal but external. It is the language of a globalised world. It is the mostly spoken language worldwide, over half of all websites on the internet are in English, all aviation communication is conducted in English and all major economics journals are published in English. Even here at TSE most courses are taught in English. Considering this power, it is doubtful whether the EU can afford to rely on a rather inward looking language like German when the rest of the world uses one global language.
Finally, the loss of most of its native speakers does not have to be a bad thing for the significance of the English language in the EU. Instead, it could benefit from posing as a `neutral` language. If an Austrian and a Latvian speak German, the former is more likely to feel comfortable while doing so. If they instead speak English, no one can build on a natural advantage.
It could pose as a modern-day Esperanto. This language was designed in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century to promote understanding between different groups of the population by using a neutral language. It borrows from Romanic, Germanic, as well as Slavic languages, and uses straightforward declinations and conjugations without many irregularities. Estimates of speakers range from half a million to two millions. It is tough business to create a new language from scratch and compete against existing and deep-rooted contenders, so these figures should not necessarily be seen as failure.
Why did Esperanto never really take off? Like many international projects, it flourished before the first-world war and had a revival in the interwar period. Many 20th century regimes, however, did not like its cosmopolite sprit and therefore tried to suppress it. After the wars, it lacked the political and intellectual support required to reach the critical mass a language demands. Later, with the rise of global English, the need for an artificial international language has strongly deteriorated. At the beginning of the 21st century, Europe seems close to reach the goal of having a neutral language for international communication set by the Esperanto´s creator L.L. Zamenhof. Only that it is not Esperanto but English.
Being a neutral language also offers other opportunities. No longer under the watchful eyes of British language puritans, English could flourish and create its own style: Euro-English. Whereas a cynic might decry the downfall of culture and civilisation, one could also embrace these new developments. In reality, the first steps towards this new language have already been made. The term `handy`, for example, is recognised by eurocrats more often as the slightly bizarre German word for `mobile phone` rather than the original English meaning of `easy to use`.
Overall, we do not have to worry about the position of the English language in the EU after Brexit. It is likely to dominate further even though it might develop its own distinct style, as it is no longer being under the protection of the United Kingdom.
by Robert Lindner