[lg policy] Which language for Europe?

r.amirejibi-mullen at QMUL.AC.UK r.amirejibi-mullen at QMUL.AC.UK
Thu Jun 11 11:51:53 UTC 2009

Which language for Europe?

Daniele Archibugi, 10 - 06 - 2009

Can the multiplicity of languages explain the low interest of the  
European people for the European Parliament? Would a single official  
language increase the relevance of the European Parliament?
10 - 06 - 2009

More than half of Europe's citizens did not vote in the elections for  
the European Parliament, but the institution faces more challenges  
than those of credibility. One of the great challeges faced by the  
Parliament is the number of languages it uses: after the admission of  
Bulgaria and Romania these now total 23, practically one per European  
state. Etymologically, the word Parliament derives from a word  
actually meaning "speaking", but if the members of Parliament speak 23  
different languages, what kind of Parliament can this be?

The European Parliament is not the only one to use several languages:  
the Belgian parliament, for instance, has two and the Swiss use four.  
However the MPs of these individual countries are able to understand  
one another without the need for interpreters. (Despite its tremendous  
linguistic diversity, India's parliament has only two official  
procedural languages - English and Hindi. If they feel unable to  
address the assembly in either of the two languages, members are  
allowed to speak in any of the country's nearly two dozen languages,  
with translation provided.) This is not so in the European Parliament:  
the work of the Assembly and the Committees entail the MPs being  
assisted by a team of interpreters. The possible language combinations  
have increased with the growing number of languages. You need a  
calculator to work out how many they are - 23*22 - a total of 506!   
This requires the help of 403 full time interpreters and several  
thousand external collaborators so that Euro MPs can speak and listen  
in their own language.

It is no easy task, even for the European Parliament, to find  
translators from Finnish to Greek, or from Portuguese to Bulgarian.  
However, Eurocracy is ingenious, and to reduce costs it uses double  
translation: those who speak less widely known languages are first  
translated into the principal languages (English, French or German)  
and then retranslated into all the other less common languages. One  
wonders how much the substance of the MPs speeches is altered by the  
second or third translation.

Woe betide anyone trying to include a truly amusing joke in a  
parliamentary speech: it is nothing like the British House of Commons  
where the quips and the responses make the parliamentary debates more  
lively than a stage play. If an unwary MP cracks a joke in the  
European Parliament you first hear the roar of laughter of those  
following the speech in the original language and then one after the  
other of those listening in the first, second and umpteenth  
translation. However, the linguistic machine manages to work: the  
Parliament has only 403 interpreters, even if they are also helped by  
several thousand external collaborators; no one is prevented from  
speaking and listening in their own language.

But not even 23 official languages are enough to keep everyone happy.  
The linguistic minorities are also demanding to be able to use their  
own language. Among the more insistent are the Catalans, on the  
grounds that they alone make up nearly 10 million Europeans,  
practically twice as many as the Danes and Finns, four times more than  
the Slovenes and 25 times more than the Maltese. Similar demands are  
made by the Basques and the Corsicans. And then what about the  
approximately thirty million "third-country citizens" living in Europe  
and who speak all the languages of the planet?

It seems impossible that all these demands can be met. Some are now  
calling for the number of official languages to be reduced, or indeed  
to raise English to the status of sole official language of the  
Parliament. But to formally accord this privilege to the language of  
two states could lead to resentment being felt in all the other  
states. To tell the truth, even Ireland must be a little skeptical; it  
demanded successfully that Gaelic should become an official language.  
If we account that only a few Irish are able to understand and even  
fewer to speak Gaelic, it is clear that language policy, in this  
instance, has been used as an instrument of identity rather than of  
communication (for a further discussion of language and identity in  
the EU, see Patrizia Nanz, Europolis. Constitutional Patriotism Beyond  
the Nation State, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007; and  
Peter A. Kraus, A Union of Diversity. Language, Identity and  
Polity-Building in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

But a lingua franca is desperately needed. The Vatican newspaper,  
L'Osservatore Romano, has suggested reviving Latin , an idea that  
would place all the MPs in a condition of equality (and certainly of  
similar difficulty), although Latin would further alienate the people  
from European institutions.

Will English become the single official language of the European  
Parliament, defeating its many diplomatic resisters? After all,  
English is already the most popular second language in the world as  
well as in Europe (see Eurobarometer, Europeans and their Languages,  
February 2006). But it is one thing to use English in business,  
tourism and education, and quite another to grant a special political  
privilege to the language of one of the 27 member countries. To ask  
the Euro MPs to speak a foreign language would enormously restrict the  
number of those eligible for election. There would be a risk of  
creating an assembly of technocrats that is distant from the people's  
needs. And certainly it does not help that English is also the  
language of an EU member state with a large density of euro-skeptics  
and which has not adopted the European currency.

But the march of English as lingua franca is difficult to stop. Even  
in the Swiss Parliament it is increasingly common to hear MPs of the  
French and German cantons communicating in English.

Perhaps the European Parliament should try to be part of the solution  
rather than of the problem. If all European students would study  
English as a second language, then in a couple of generations, both  
the MPs and their electorate would finally be able to understand each  
other. This might well be the most far-sighted measure to propose to  
the new European Parliament to bring back to the European polls at  
least some of those who stayed at home.


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