[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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