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.