Proposal: "Official languages" vs. "working languages"

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Sep 23 12:28:37 UTC 2005

Equality, not quantity
Dr Davyth Hicks - Bruxelles - 22.9.2005

September 26 marks the 5th European Day of Languages. But this celebration
of Europes linguistic diversity cannot hide the fact that the EU needs to
reassess its language policy. Since enlargement, the EU has been operating
in 20 official languages - with Irish to be added to the count in 2007.
While most accept that Europes many languages enrich it, there are
logistical problems faced by the institutions in dealing with so many
working languages. Meanwhile, the EUs proclamation that all European
languages are equal is sounding increasingly hollow as certain languages
are being wiped out.

Cultural genocide

Earlier this month, Patrick le Lay, the Breton chief of the main French TV
channel TF1, accused the French government of cultural genocide against
the Breton people. Why? Because France has pursued language policies
designed to eradicate Breton and all the other languages found within its
territory for the reason of egalit, an equality where you only have
language rights as a French speaker. And how, in these days of supposed
linguistic diversity, can this be happening? While some language
communities, stateless nations and regions have a high level of language
rights, others have virtually zero. This is reflected at the EU
institution level, where there are huge discrepancies over language use.
Basque, Catalan and Galician are now co-official within the Spanish state;
Irish will be an EU official and working language in just over a year; and
the UK has passed Language Acts designed to regenerate Welsh and Scottish
Gaelic. However, other languages do not fare so well; Sorbian is having a
constant battle in Germany against spending cuts, while the effect of
government policies in France and Greece act to eliminate all other
languages within their territories.

Lingua franca?

The EU, on the whole, has been admirable in its efforts to put into
practice meaningful linguistic diversity and making multilingualism a
cornerstone of policy. Critics complain that one language is needed to
make work easier but this is hardly fair for Europes citizens. Currently,
English - which was labelled a killer language by Danish academic Tove
Skutnabb Kangas in a recent interview with Eurolang is the de facto lingua
franca as it is the preferred second language of 85% of those in the EU
institutions. Change is needed to protect linguistic diversity and a
proper language policy must be developed - that much is obvious. But how
is this to be achieved in fairness to all the citizens of Europe? At the
moment there is an unrefined approach, devised in 1958, where most
documents are translated into all official languages. Fine for the
original EU of 6, but not for one of 25 member states. For example, do we
need to have all documentation applicable only to Malta translated into
Danish and Hungarian?

Linguistic equality

One solution, conceived by Irish speakers in the 1990s and revived in
Catalonia by academics in 2003, originates from the lesser-used language
communities themselves. Simply, the idea is that all European languages
are made official, but that this designation is distinguished from actual
working languages, and that there are only 3-4 working languages - these
being English, French, German and possibly Spanish. The thrust of the idea
is that the savings made by having fewer working languages would offset by
far the costs incurred of making all languages official. This proposal
allows for a fluid, flexible system where lesser-used languages can be
used at the EU level, where the everyday internal business of the
institutions is conducted in three or four languages, allowing for
meetings to be in less widely used languages according to who is in
attendance. Through the heart of the proposal run the themes of democratic
representativeness and accessibility to the citizen, key to bringing
Europe closer to its peoples.

Dr Davyth Hicks will be one of the guest speakers at a caf babel debate
held in Brussels on September 26 to coincide with the European Day of
European Day of Languages 2005
Patrick le Lay, condemns cultural genocide (Eurolang)
Language policy in France
The Welsh Language Act
Sorbian Language in education in Germany
Linguistic proposals for the future of Europe

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