GLOBALISATION: Europe's English-speaking peoples

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Sep 11 15:50:18 UTC 2005

>>From the Daily Times (Pakistan),

GLOBALISATION: Europes English-speaking peoples
 Abram De Swaan

 Europe's language problem is well on its way to solving itself.
Throughout the EU as in much of the world, from the Indian subcontinent to
large parts of Africa English increasingly functions as the language of
international communication The European Union has a single currency, but
what about a single language? Since its inception, the EU has made each
member states language one of its official tongues. Recently, even Irish,
spoken at home by only a tiny minority, was granted full official status.

Treating all EU languages on the same footing is a direct consequence of
the formal equality of member states under the founding treaties. It is
also a matter of democratic principle that laws are written in the
language of every land where they apply. But the EUs posture as a
protector of linguistic diversity cannot hide the stampede towards English
that is underway. The more languages, it seems, the more English. Yet, the
European Commission still encourages young Europeans to learn as many
different languages as possible. It would be politically lethal to
acknowledge the real state of affairs, even if the official policy merely
increases the chances that Europeans, after all their efforts, still may
not understand each other.

Such an outcome is unlikely, but only because Europes language problem is
well on its way to solving itself. Throughout the EU, as in much of the
world, from the Indian subcontinent to large parts of Africa, English
increasingly functions as the language of international communication. To
be sure, in EU institutions public and ceremonial meetings, interpretation
and translation must be equally available, at least in principle, from
every language into every other. Each day, hundreds of interpreters
literally pay lip-service to this lofty precept, and millions of pages are
translated annually so that citizens may consult EU law in their own

The EU initially invested heavily in the development of machine
translation, but has essentially abandoned the project. As a result,
translation and interpretation increasingly proceed in two steps, from a
lesser-used language to half a dozen relay languages, and from those into
other, smaller languages. This saves resources, but it also implies a
considerable loss of meaning. Moreover, fewer languages are used in the
EUs smokeless backrooms when meetings are less formal and the participants
not all that prestigious.  When EU officials meet together or draft
internal documents, they use only the working languages: French and, more
often, English. German, the EUs most widely spoken native language, hardly
makes a dent. Representatives may demand interpretation into their home
language, but a proposal to limit each countrys translation budget is
likely to be accepted soon.

The predominance of English is even more pronounced in communications
among the EUs citizens, where it is the first foreign language in all
countries of the old Europe. Among the EUs new members, English is rapidly
replacing Russian as the most widely used foreign language. Indeed, nine
out of 10 schoolchildren in the EU now learn English. Roughly half as many
learn French, a quarter German and an eighth Spanish, and these numbers
are falling, despite the Commissions efforts, because people tend to
choose the foreign language that they believe is spoken and studied the
most by others.

The process resembles the selection of a standard in, say, consumer
electronics. People tend to opt for the standard (VHS, Windows, DVD) that
they believe will come out on top, and thus contribute to that victory.
English now seems to have reached the point of no return in its
accelerating global expansion, competing with national languages in such
diverse fields as popular music, transport, the Internet, banking, cinema
and television, science, and sports. But, while the presence and pressure
of English has a striking impact on the vocabulary of the home language,
it leaves the syntax, grammar, and pronunciation almost entirely
unaffected. Unlike the indigenous languages that were pushed aside by the
languages of the European colonisers, the official languages of the EU are
robust: they are equipped with grammars, dictionaries, archives,
libraries, and linguistics faculties. They have a centuries-old printed
literature, and, above all, they are closely guarded by strong states.

As a result, English will not so easily marginalise European languages,
even after a large majority of the population has learnt it. But English
and national languages can co-exist only if the state protects the
indigenous language and citizens do not allow English to take over all
prestigious domains. The diversity of Europe is indeed innate, but its
unity is yet to be achieved. The commitment to European integration
requires a common vernacular, and that is English. The challenge for
Europe is to use English as such an instrument, while avoiding submersion
in American and British culture. DT-PS-IHS

Abram de Swaan, author of Words of the World; the Global Language System,
is distinguished research professor at the University of Amsterdam,
chairman of the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research, and director
of the Academia Europea de Yuste (Spain)

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