Towards a European lingua franca (English)

In European politics, multilingualism has been intractable problem. The needs of translation and interpretation in 22 languages are costly (the main reason the European Parliament is more expensive than national ones). The debates and speeches suffer, becoming stilted and bland. It contributes to the sense of “foreignness” of the Union as its representatives speak to their “compatriots” in tongues they don’t understand. Even the smallest national communities have the right to expression, the interpreters’ booths of the Parliament and DG translation of the Commission busying themselves with getting material into Estonian, Latvian, Maltese (despite the fact that most also speak either English or Italian) and even Irish (despite that fact almost all Irish, and certainly any Irish in Brussels, speak English).

In addition, the fate of so many genuinely multilingual states – Canada and Belgium come to mind – can make us genuinely pessimistic about the possibility of multilingual democracy. This is different than from countries where, though there are many languages, an undisputed linga franca dominates business and politics. Such is the case of Spain, South Africa and India, all successful democracies despite very great linguistic diversity.

So I was quite heartened to read this Eurobarometer report showing that a majority, 56%, of Europeans claimed to be able to have a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue. 38% of European citizens in 2005, excluding Brits and Irish, claim to be able to speak English, up from 32% in 2001. These numbers are vastly improved with each generation: the number of people speaking two foreign languages is consistently greater for each age cohort from 19% for over 55s to 40% for 15-24 year olds.

The report tries to put a nice spin on it – the official objective is for each European to know two foreign languages – but the hegemony of English is overwhelming, notwithstanding a small resurgence of German and the appearance of Russian to the 2004 enlargement in Eastern Europe. The most amazingly high numbers for English are to be found in Sweden (89%), Malta (88%) and the Netherlands (87%).

The trends are enough to make one optimistic about the future possibility of a pan-European politics with a genuinely pan-European public sphere. Already 51% of Europeans are either native speakers or can have a conversation in English. It is not unlikely within a few decades, we will have a genuine European lingua franca that will allow European politicians to engage with the whole continent, without the awkwardness and depersonalization of headsets and dubbing. It will be interesting to see if this can lead to the creation of a genuine European demos, at the least, it will have become a possibility.

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15 Responses to Towards a European lingua franca (English)

  1. Methinks the figures are far too generous.

    At the other end of the ranking, Ireland and the United Kingdom are found to have
    34% and 38% of citizens respectively knowing a language other than their mother
    tongue.

    Having spent many years in the UK, I don’t believe the 38% figure for a second. Perhaps 38% of Britons can dredge up a few token words of French or Spanish from the dark recesses of their minds that remember secondary school, but “able to hold a conversation”? No way. Perhaps 5% can. (And maybe 10% if you include the non-British migrants who can speak Urdu / Polish / Chinese).

    • You misread, although the passage is a little confusing. 38% of non-native English speakers claim to be able to hold a conversation in English.

      • Sorry, I was commenting on the Eurobarometer report, not your article. Forgot to clarify that.

        On pg.8, it says: “D48b-d Which languages do you speak well enough in order to be able to have a conversation, excluding your mother tongue?”

        56% of EU25 citizens claim to speak “at least one language”. The figure for the UK is 38%.

        If Britons exaggerate by 4x, then probably so do respondents from other countries, if not to the same extent.

  2. That’s a fairly disastrous..

  3. marknesop says:

    Agreed. Even in “genuinely multilingual states” like Canada, the figures on true bilingualism are distorted by the responses of people who THINK they can speak another language just because they can exchange pleasantries or basic courtesies in it. The Public Service Exam is the actual measure of bilingualism, and I venture not one in five who fancy themselves bilingual could pass it.

    But, despair not. Diplomats are supposed to be our best and brightest, and there are few who cannot speak English. There’s no real reason for a common European language, at least not where diplomacy and diplomatic exchanges are concerned. Those people most certainly should be able to speak English, but there’s no need for all the greengrocers to have that capability.

  4. On the other hand: What proportion of Quebecois can speak English? It is not exactly the same as a Western Canadian refusing to learn French.. And more than just diplomats, but anyone involved in tourism, hotels, any vaguely international business is very likely to have some English too.

  5. Scowspi says:

    Re: “holding a conversation” – not a good measure of actual linguistic knowledge. “A conversation” can be everything from discussing the weather to giving an opinion on international trade policies. It takes in too much territory to be a useful indicator.

    Re: “genuinely multilingual states” – there are a few. Canada and Belgium are not among them. Few Anglo-Canadians can actually speak French to a reasonable standard; few Walloons can actually speak Dutch. Genuinely multilingual states include Ukraine (almost everyone speaks both Russian and Ukrainian, even tho’ only the latter is official), and Paraguay (almost everyone speaks both Spanish and Guarani).

    • I’d also add Sweden. When a friend was there, in the early 1990’s, he noted that even bus drivers spoke good English. The Netherlands and Norway also, in my (limited) experience, have majorities who can speak English.

      In continental European countries – and increasingly even in Russia – my (again limited) experience has been that many of the educated younger cohorts can speak English with some degree of fluency. (Since English is the language of today’s global culture, there really isn’t much of a choice.) But knowledge of English becomes much poorer amongst the middle-aged and especially elderly, as well as amongst youths who went to bad schools and/or didn’t go to university.

  6. marknesop says:

    I’d just suggest that official bilingualism is Canadian policy, however: it’s just difficult to enforce or measure. I’m not sure if that’s the case in other countries that view bilingualism as a “nice to have”.

    Scowspi is correct that few English Canadians can speak French at all, and fewer still at a functional level. A good part of the English community is proudly ignorant, believing that French is being “jammed down their throats”, when nothing of the kind is taking place. French-immersion schooling at the elementary school level, however, has seen a significant upswing in English-speaking provinces over the last few years.

    I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say a majority of Quebecois speak English because, as we’ve established, such figures are difficult to quantify. I will say, though, that many more Francos take the bilingualism requirement seriously than the Anglos, even though the French are every bit as proud of their language and culture and often just as resentful at being “forced” to learn English. Speaking English is often a courtesy they reserve for Anglos who attempt to speak French. Then an unspoken agreement will see the conversation proceed on the basis of language competency. Overall, I would say Quebec has many, many more bilingual citizens than any province, and only New Brunswick (which is also partly French) and parts of Nova Scotia are even close.

    • Scowspi says:

      “I will say, though, that many more Francos take the bilingualism requirement seriously than the Anglos”

      How much of that is just due to the fact that they’re a smallish speech community surrounded by 300+ million Anglophones? In such a situation, learning English is more a practical necessity than a bureaucractic requirement.

  7. marknesop says:

    Being a smallish speech community surrounded by 300+ million anglophones (I assume you included the USA here) is only making it a fair fight, as Francos see it. They’re certainly not intimidated into learning English. Part of it is pragmatism, because as students they aspire to work somewhere outside Quebec, or just want to broaden their options. But any province that unilaterally declares its namesake city “the Nation’s Capital” on road signs on all major routes entering the city is not scared of a few Anglos.

    That’s probably why they withhold the ability to speak English, based on the attitude of who they’re speaking with. If you act like a dink and say, or imply, “Speak English, you frog, you’re on a piece of an English country”, you can kiss cooperation goodbye. If you’re reasonable and make an effort to speak French, there’s a genuine exchange in kind.

    I like the French, and support their right to speak the language of their choice. You’re certainly correct that a good part of it is practicality, though, as Quebec City is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Everyone who expects to associate with the public can speak at least some English. There is no shortage, however, of small towns containing ancient residents who have never been more than a hundred miles outside town limits, and can’t speak or understand a word of English.

  8. Colinaro says:

    Faire l’Europe, c’est vouloir unir l’ensemble des nations européennes pour assurer leur indépendance et leur visibilité dans le monde. Si l’Europe devait parler anglais, c’est-à-dire parler la langue de la première puissance économique, militaire et culturelle du monde, alors ce qui a été le fondement de l’Union européenne, à savoir son indépendance et sa visibilité dans le monde à l’égard de tout empire, serait effacé. Autant alors, dans ces conditions, le dire franchement : l’UE n’est qu’un prétexte pour faire disparaître les nations européennes dans la perspective de les aligner toutes dans le Grand Marché transatlantique, voire de les englober dans un énième état américain.

    • Voilà un exemple typique et irréfléchi du réflexe anglophobe.

      Parler anglais, en soi, n’est pas positif ou négatif. Regardez les Scandinaves : des Etats providences bien supérieurs au français, difficile de les taxer de néolibéralisme, pourtant la majorité des gens sont anglophones. (Ils des émissions anglo-saxonnes et VO soutitré, voilà encore ton impérialisme culturel !)

      C’est triste.

  9. Colinaro says:

    Je constate que l’on critique sans arrêt les Français d’être nuls en langue (c’est à la mode), mais, comme un fait bizarre, on ne critique jamais les Américains qui, eux, contrairement à nous, n’ont aucune obligation d’apprendre une, ou des langues étrangères, durant leur cursus scolaire. Intéressant aussi, de constater que vous me faites le coup de comparer la France avec les pays scandinaves, les Scandinaves qui, avec leurs langues régionales sont forcément obligés de prendre une langue étrangère à portée internationale pour leur communication avec le monde. Ils ont pris l’anglais, car cette langue est proche de leurs langues, tout comme l’espagnol et l’italien sont proches du français. Et si les Scandinaves regardent les séries et les films américains en VO, c’est plus parce que ce n’est pas « rentable » de les postsynchroniser dans leurs langues, que d’assouvir leur envie folle de s’imbiber d’anglais. On ne devrait donc pas comparer la France et les pays scandinaves en ce qui concerne l’enseignement de l’anglais, car le français, n’en déplaise aux anglomaqués de tout bord, n’est pas une langue régionale comme les langues scandinaves, mais bien une langue internationale qui, comme l’anglais, est parlée sur les 5 continents. Le marché francophone existe (750 millions de locuteurs francophones d’ici 2050, selon l’UNESCO) et il est donc rentable de postsynchroniser en français les films étrangers et pas nécessaire, ce faisant, de baisser le pavillon et de la langue française et de la Francophonie.

    • 1) Je n’ai pas critiqué les Français parce qu’ils sont pourris en anglais. Je critique ceux qui, par pure anglophobie, soutiennent qu’être anglophone est en soi signe de complaisance avec l’hégémonie américaine, de néolibéralisme déréglé, voir de néoconservatisme. Les exemples scandinaves montrent que cela n’est tout simplement pas le cas. D’ailleurs, on peut être anglophone et socialiste, anglophone et pour une Europe plus indépendante vis-à-vis des Etats-Unis, etc.

      2) Les gens, à l’intérieur et l’extérieur des pays anglophones, se foutent régulièrement de la gueule des Britanniques et des Américains pour leurs faiblesses en langues étrangères. La différence, bien sûr, entre les Anglo-Saxons et les Français, c’est aussi que ces derniers ne comprennent pas toujours qu’il vaut mieux parler l’anglais dans le monde d’aujourd’hui si ils veulent participer à que des débats franco-français (voir franco-africaine). Il serait temps qu’ils mettent en pratique leur soit-disant vocation universelle en parlant avec quelques étrangers.. (Tout cela n’excuse pas pour autant l’esprit de clocher au Royaume-Uni et en Amérique du Nord.)

      3) Pour ma part, je préfère toujours regarder les films en VO, sous-titrés si je ne comprend pas la langue (allemand, russe..).

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