Soon, Europe Will Speak in 23 Tongues

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Dec 6 18:15:31 UTC 2006

>>From the NyTimes, December 6, 2006

Soon, Europe Will Speak in 23 Tongues

BRUSSELS At the European Unions daily news conference recently, the names
of the 20 languages into which questions and answers would be translated
shone in red lights on an elevated board, like the departure information
for flights to exotic places. At the top, the mundane English, French and
German; at the bottom, Lithuanian, Hungarian and Slovenian. As the union
has grown, so, too, has the number of its official languages.  One side
effect is that English is emerging increasingly as the unions lingua
franca, much to the chagrin of the French, once the guardians of the
groups foremost tongue. It was not always this way. When the union was
born in the 1950s, Britain was not among the founding nations and French
was the accepted language of diplomacy and international affairs.

When Britain did join, in 1973, President Georges Pompidou of France
elicited a commitment from London that all civil servants sent to work at
the unions capital in Brussels would be fluent French speakers. Today, the
British continue to comply, but everyone else around them seems to be
speaking English. The weight of English grows each year, said Nicolas de
la Grandville, the spokesman for the French permanent delegation. The
scales tipped further in favor of English in 1995, he said, with the
entrance of Sweden, Finland and Austria, where English, not French, is the
common second language. And the language situation is set to become more
complicated yet, probably reinforcing the dominance of English. In
January, Bulgaria and Romania will enter the union, and Gaelic will be
formally recognized as one of Irelands official languages, alongside
English. With Bulgarias entry another alphabet, Cyrillic, will go into use
in Brussels along with the Latin and Greek alphabets. Moreover, Spain has
obtained the right to have the regional languages Basque, Catalan and
Galician recognized as semiofficial languages.

This will bring the number of official union languages to 23. That means
that all official documents, including 90,000 pages of past treaties and
agreements, will have to be translated into all those languages. The cost
is immense: the union budgets $1.3 billion a year and employs about 3,000
people for translating and interpreting. Little wonder, then, that most
officials and others working here tend to use English to the point at
times of making the French want to scream, in any language. In March, when
a French business leader, Ernst-Antoine Seillire, addressed a gathering of
European leaders in Brussels, he announced beforehand that he would speak
not in French, but in English, the language of business.

The French president, Jacques Chirac, who attended the event with several
government ministers, jumped to his feet and stormed out, his entourage in
tow. Mr. Chirac later explained that he was determined to defend the
presence of French against the growing weight of English not just in the
European Union but also at the Olympic Games and the United Nations. The
French are not taking the spread of English lying down. For one thing,
they obtained a commitment several years ago that all European Union
officials in Brussels must be fluent in at least two languages other than
their mother tongue, on the assumption, usually correct, that the first
will be English and the second French. They have also begun offering a
program of free French classes for union officials in Brussels and for
more senior bureaucrats at Avignon, in the sunny south of France.

We have about 500 in Brussels alone, though we cannot yet tell what the
long-range effect will be, said Marc-Olivier Gendry, who is responsible at
the French delegation for reinforcing the French presence. France has
budgeted about $2.6 million for the classes. The French emphasis on the
right to ones own language echoes throughout the European Union, and it
does not make life easy. Two years ago, when the Mediterranean island of
Malta became a member, Brussels began a recruitment drive to find
translators and interpreters for the Maltese language, which is spoken
only by the islands 400,000 inhabitants, and found none. We organized
classes in interpreting in London, where many Maltese live, said Frdric
Vincent, the unions spokesman for education, culture and languages.

In January, a new commissioner will take over, responsible for languages
alone, he said, reflecting the importance the union places on language. We
have a legal obligation to translate, he said. Any country Estonia,
Hungary, Poland must be able to consult documents in their own language.
But Mr. Vincent, who is French, is an example of the spread of English.
Among his colleagues, he said, are a Slovak, an Italian, a German and an
Englishman. I speak French with the Italian, whose French is perfect, he
said. But when the others are together, we speak English, though they all
speak some French. English is a pivotal language for translation, he
added, meaning that if no interpreter can be found to translate, say, from
Latvian to Spanish, then someone will translate from Latvian into English
and another from English into Spanish.

Dispassionate is probably the best way to describe the reaction to all
this of Indrek Treufeldt, who for the last four years has been the
correspondent of Estonian State Television at the European Union. Mr.
Treufeldt works comfortably in English, French and German, he said over
coffee in fluent English recently, in addition to his native Estonian, a
Baltic language somewhat akin to Finnish. His Finnish is also quite good,
he said, since in the old days, when Estonia was a Soviet republic,
Estonians would often watch Finnish television. You know, Dallas in
Finnish, he said. It was our window to the West. And at 37, he belongs to
the last generation of Estonians to serve in the Soviet Army, so his
Russian is good.

Languages, he said, are specific tools for seeing reality, and he believes
that many are better than one. Nobody can force us to interpret reality in
one, universal way, he said.  We had that experience with the Soviet


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