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Language and democracy, language and power, language and identity

April 2, 2021 3:33 pm Published by

GEM+ wanted to respond to the article published by Politico on 27 February 2021, “Brexit means … Euro-English?”. Here it is.

Madam, Sir,

We represent GEM+ (for Governance, for Europe and for Multilingualism), a non-profit organisation whose purpose is to take action to promote multilingualism in the European institutions and their environment.

We refer to your article published in Politico on February 27 entitled “Brexit means … Euro-English?”

In a nutshell, this article exposes two different points of view regarding the way English, as an alleged standard second language in the EU, should develop in the EU since the departure of the UK. Some believe that the EU should actively promote Euro English, some others British English. In the article, one of the supporters of British English points out that this is also a question of power and democracy because the European citizen wants to, can and does speak in English.. You then point out that “….English has become the lingua franca of civil servants’ meetings”. Finally, you have brushed aside the question of multilingualism by mentioning a linguist who said that “multilingualism” is not practical to communicate across the continent.

So, let us react on these statements which, in our view, do not raise the fundamental questions that underpin the future of languages in the EU, as they touch upon very important notions: democracy, power and (implicitly) identity.

Language and democracy

First of all, democracy. It is undisputed that English has become the most spoken second language in the EU. Statistics show that around 96% of pupils study English all around the EU. By contrast, this percentage goes down to 33,8% with regard to French, 23,1% for German and 13,6% for Spanish[1].

However, this does not mean that 96% of these pupils will necessarily speak English fluently once they become adults. Indeed, learning a foreign language is difficult and not everyone is equally skilled for it. Statistics show that in 2012 while 38% of EU citizens claimed to be able to speak English as a foreign language well enough to be able to hold a conversation[2], only 25% claimed to be able to understand it well enough to follow the news on radio or tv or to read newspapers or magazines[3]. If we add the Irish and the Maltese for whom English can mainly be considered their native language and considering the likely growth, since 2012, in the number of people who speak English fluently, this gives around 34% of EU citizens who may nowadays speak English fluently[4]. This percentage is similar to that of native and non- native EU citizens combined who claim to be able to speak either German (31%) or French (30%).

This percentage lowers to 15% who declare that their mother tongue is English or that they have a very good or good knowledge of English[5]. By contrast, German is the native language of around 20% of EU citizens, French of 16% of EU citizens and Italian of 15% of them. This means that each of these languages is better or equally spoken at proficiency level than English in the EU and that those three languages are the native languages of a slight majority of EU citizens (51%) whereas English is the native language of only 1% or 1.5% of EU citizens.

Moreover, according to data from the Italian Institute of Statistics, only 20% of those who claim to know English in Italy actually use it at work every day or at least once a week. In Germany, according to data from the German Institute for Economic Research, only 18% of working people who claim to know English use it often or always for work, while the remaining 82% never use it, or use it rarely or only sometimes[6].” This implies that among a substantial number of those who know English, the level of English probably deteriorates since they do not use it in their daily lives or do it only rarely.

Furthermore, even though English has become the most spoken second language in the EU, English is not everyone’s best spoken second language in the EU. Although there is a crucial lack of statistics on this issue, millions of Europeans live along the borders. A large number of those people’s second language is the one which is spoken on the other side of the border. This is also the case for those few millions of Europeans who have the citizenship of two EU Member States and who technically have two European mother tongues which are not English.

All this calls into question the statement that you quoted in your article, according to which learning to speak British English is, insofar as the EU is concerned, a question of democracy. For what are we talking about: about the need for EU civil servants to work in technical English in order to be understood by only those 15% of EU citizens who declare that their mother tongue is English or that they have a very good knowledge of it? Should not democracy rely upon the will and best interests of the majority? In this case, should not it be the contrary, i.e. that the EU civil servants work in more languages than only English, especially in those most spoken native languages in the EU in order to respect democracy and mirror the languages used by the citizens they are supposed to work for? Unless we consider that EU citizens should learn British English in order to understand their civil servants who work in English….?

All these statistics also invalidate the statement according to which ”It’s a question of democracy because the European citizen wants to, can and does speak in English. If the EU, which it could do, imposed any other language as its main official working language … it would lose its main line of communication to the European citizen”. There is no question of putting into doubt the EU citizens’ will to speak English. However, it is disputable to claim that they do it in order to get a line of communication with the EU institutions. The reality is most likely that they want to learn to speak good English in order to be able to have a good job, work in a multinational environment and travel all around the world -not only in the EU. Rather, we believe that they would prefer that the line of communication between them and the EU institutions be in their native language.

Moreover, monolingualism may look an efficient tool but, in the mid and long term, it may widen the gap between the EU and its citizens : by being unable to have a direct access to/contact with the EU Institutions and their decision-makers, most non-English native citizens (i.e. 99% of EU citizens, among whom 66% speak little or no English) usually learn about EU policies only through their national politicians and/or newspapers whose journalists may extrapolate and/or selectively share information. Hence, citizens cannot forge their own opinion about EU policies insofar as they usually only know about current events through an intermediary Body /person. The hegemony of one language in multilingual societies inevitably engenders frustration and may lead to tensions with those who reject it. This may sometimes materialize into violence (as for example in Quebec or Belgium) and contribute, in the most extreme cases, to the outbreak of war (as is the case today in Cameroon between the French-speaking majority and the English-speaking minority).  This suggests that the current expansion of English as the almost single working language inside the EU Institutions will likely sooner or later openly clash with the EU citizens’ need to live in a political area where their rights, most significantly, their rights to express themselves, to be heard and to be understood on an equal basis, will be respected.

Accordingly, rather than discussing about whether to opt for Euro English or British English, we believe that the priority of the EU Institutions should seriously be about strengthening multilingualism. Democracy requires that EU officials serve their citizens by working in their native languages rather than in their most common second language.

Language and power

Nonetheless, we acknowledge that English will likely grow and stay in the EU as the main second language for some time. This will somehow be useful for those EU citizens who do not speak each other’s language or do not share another common second language to understand each other – although in a limited way, since English is the native language of only 1% of them – . Since a language encapsulates a culture, a history, a mentality, quality of thinking and since language also means power, we at GEM+ would prefer British English rather than ”Euro-English” be the pattern for those EU citizens who want or feel the need to raise their level of English in order to use it inside the EU. Moreover, British English rather than Euro-English will provide a competitive advantage to those EU citizens who will embrace an international career and who will need to use English for this purpose.

Likewise, English will remain one of the working languages of the EU institutions.

However, it would be a major political mistake to try to make it become either the unique or the main working language in the EU institutions and even the unique second language across the EU, for English is not the mother tongue of any of its major Member States.

If we add the combined GDP of Germany, France, Austria, Italy, Belgium (at least 40% of it since the rest is made up by Flanders) and Luxembourg, these total 7830 billion Euros out of 13.286 billion euros for the whole 27 EU Member States[7]. This means that 60% of the EU’s GDP is generated on a territory whose inhabitants have German, French and Italian as their native language.

Can we seriously believe that the leaders of a political power-to-be like the EU should satisfy themselves with using exclusively a language that is not the mother tongue of any of its major Member States?

Moreover, the quality of thinking is not the same in a language in which one is proficient as in one’s native language. One thing is to use English as a working language in companies, which are private entities in which employees are supposed to sell their products and services and make money out of it; another thing is to think and discuss about the rules that will impact the daily lives of EU citizens. Legislation is rooted in philosophical and economic thoughts. This requires deep thinking which the use of a second language cannot fully match.

Furthermore, among the EU’s official languages, apart from English, four other languages (French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch) combined together happen to be official languages in all five continents of the planet. These four languages are notably official languages on the whole Central and Southern American territory. Moreover, French happens to be the only language, together with English, which is an official language across all five continents and is the official language of approximately half of the African countries. Since the EU institutions have exclusive competence in the field of trade, it is necessary that their officials have the skills to work in all these languages.

Finally, in the Power Language Index[8], which measures the power of languages on the basis of several criteria (geography, economy, communication, knowledge & media and diplomacy), French ranks 3d behind English and Mandarin; Spanish 4th; German 7th and Portuguese 9th.

For all of these reasons, we believe that other languages, especially those that are spoken in the larger Member States should be effectively used as working languages in the EU Institutions. Power indeed requires that European leaders work in the native language(s) shared by a majority of EU citizens’. Regarding the specific situation at the European Commission, where English has become hegemonic, the EU civil servants should first start reworking in French and German, which together with English are the other two so called “procedural” languages,  and then strive to include two or three other widely used languages such as Italian, Spanish and Polish. This means that the EU civil servants will have to adapt and improve their foreign language skills accordingly. This seems to be prima facie complicated but the reality is that most of them are already able to hold meetings in at least one or two other languages than their own native language and English. It is clear that in some circumstances, e.g. when no translation is available, English could be used as a common language. But because it is imperfectly mastered, including by those who speak it at proficiency level, English should remain a fall-back language rather than the main working language.

Language and identity

English is not only the EU’s main second language : it is actually the best known second language worldwide. This fact raises the question of the EU’s identity since language is intertwined with cultural and political identities : do we really believe that English, or some type of it, which is developing as the whole world’s main second language, will forge European identity? What would thus distinguish the EU’s project from globalisation?

Moreover, as we mentioned above, even though English has become the most spoken second language in the EU, English is not everyone’s best spoken second language in the EU and it is not used by EU citizens, on a daily basis, as much as one may think.

The EU was set up in 1957 (i.e. the European Economic Community). It is thus still at a very early stage of its existence. Its credibility as a political entity is fragile and its future uncertain. The management of the Covid pandemic has put the European Commission in the spotlight. The objective of keeping the EU population endorsing the EU as a political project could be impaired. Is not it ironic to think that whenever draft legislation is first issued in English or whenever an EU official speaks in English, all foreign English native speakers may read the text and understand the speech whereas only a minority of European citizens do? Does not this get the EU closer to foreigners than to its own citizens? Multilingualism is a major tool to bring the EU Institutions closer to EU citizens and to avoid diluting the EU project into globalisation.

We understand that most EU officials of the smaller Member States would disagree and would feel discriminated if only five or six of the most spoken languages in the EU get promoted but we believe that it would also be in their own interests from a political and economic standpoint:if they make the effort to also work in another EU language than English, they will feel more European. Moreover, they could either continue to use English which they may perceive as some sort of compensation or rely upon Artificial intelligence which now provides high-standard translation tools that enable EU officials to draft a text in their native language and get it automatically translated into the working language of their team.

Effective multilingualism in the EU institutions is imperative for EU’s democracy, power and identity.

 The Swiss Federal State works in three languages. Why should not the EU be able to work in five or six languages? German, French, Italian and Spanish together represent around 60% of the native languages of the EU 27 population. If we add Polish, this figure would increase to approximately 70%. We understand that the remaining 30% European citizens together with their compatriots who will work as EU officials would feel discriminated. They would be right. However, it is in their interest that several other EU officials get able to think and work in their own languages. We believe that it is also in their own interest to work in another EU language than English : this will forge their European identity. Moreover, since English will stay as a working language of the EU, those remaining EU officials whose native language is not among one of those 5 or 6 pre-selected languages will be able to use it in order to mitigate the linguistic gap they may feel toward their counterparts from the big Member States. Artificial intelligence would also allow them to initiate drafting texts in their native languages.

If we do not introduce effective multilingualism in the EU institutions, we fear that the trend towards English monolingualism will widen, not only in the EU institutions but, through a spill over effect, across all the EU. We believe that this could lead Europeans to increasingly perceive the EU as an undemocratic and a powerless project. European citizens will then cease to identify themselves with the EU project and may revert to nationalism. François Mitterrand once said : “nationalism is war”. In a similar manner, we believe that someday, monolingualism, be British English or Euro English, could irrevocably lead to war once again in Europe.

On behalf of GEM+

 Jean-Luc Laffineur, President


[2] Special Eurobarometer 386, 2012, p. 19.

[3] Same ibid. p.31 and 32.

[4] Source : 2014-Gerhards-Transnational-Linguistic-Capital.pdf

[5] Source : Ginsburg et al. Ranking languages in the European Union : before and after Brexit in European Economic review – February 2017.

[6] These statistics were quoted in an article published in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera on July 2nd, 2020 by Michele Gazzola, Professor at the School of Applied Political and Social Sciences, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. From these statistics, Mr. Gazzola concluded that “In short, there is a gap between the perception of English as an essential working tool and the simple reality of the data showing that Europeans continue to live and work largely in their national languages”.




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