[lg policy] A ‘one-language’ EU policy would foster elitism and hit disproportionately the least advantaged

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Aug 20 11:05:28 EDT 2016


A ‘one-language’ EU policy would foster elitism and hit disproportionately
the least advantaged <http://www.democraticaudit.com/?p=24172>

*In an increasingly anglo-centric world, is multilingualism still needed in
the European Union? The answer is a resounding yes, according to a study by
Michele Gazzola. Analysing Eurostat data, he finds that making English the
only official language of the EU would exclude approximately four out of
five EU citizens from having a deep understanding of official information.
This would in turn foster inequality in the access to EU tenders, and
likely end up further fuelling Euroscepticism. As he argues, the 0.0087% of
the EU’s GDP invested in multilingualism is a price well worth paying to
ensure linguistic inclusion.*
[image: Being an interpreter at the European Parliament. Credits: Pietro
Naj Oleari / European Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]

Being an interpreter at the European Parliament. Credits: Pietro Naj Oleari
<https://www.flickr.com/photos/european_parliament/3389786116> / European
Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

During a speech addressed to the European Parliament the 26th October 2004,
Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands said:

If we had to name something that is most intimately our own, we would
probably say our mother tongue. Every member state accordingly attaches
great importance to the recognition of its language in the European Union.
For that reason, I am addressing you today in Dutch. At the same time, I am
convinced that cooperation in Europe will increasingly demand concessions
of us in this field. Unless we want to turn the EU into a Tower of Babel,
we shall have to make every effort to understand each other as clearly as
possible.

In recent years, a number of observers have argued that the EU should
finally acknowledge the role of English as Europe’s lingua franca – take
the bull by the horns, and make English the only official language of the
EU. Less radical commentators have argued in favour of a trilingual policy
based on English, French and German.

This proposal is, however, not without controversies. Replacing the 24
official languages of the EU with only English or with three languages
(English, French and German) would not only disadvantage the citizens of
some European countries more than others; it would also adversely affect
economically and socially disadvantaged individuals, thereby increasing the
distance between EU institutions and its citizens.

The results of a recently published study
<http://eup.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/07/28/1465116516657672.abstract>
reject the idea that reducing the number of the official languages of the
EU would be more effective and inclusive. Using data collected by Eurostat
on almost 170,000 residents and their language skills in 25 EU countries,
the article shows that if English were the only official language of the
Union, 45% of residents in the countries examined would have no access to
legal documents, Internet webpages of EU institutions, and to the debates
carried out at the European Parliament and broadcasted though the Internet,
because they do not understand this language. In other words, they would be
linguistically excluded, and this can be viewed as a form of political
disenfranchisement.

It would be risky, nevertheless, to put on the same level native speakers
of a language and people who have just fair or intermediate skills in such
a language. When looking at EU residents who are neither native speakers
nor proficient in English, the proportion of residents who would have
difficulties in understanding political and legal EU documents increases to
79%. Four Europeans out of five. Thus, contrary to what is commonly
believed, proficiency in English is not a basic skill in Europe, not even
among the younger adults.

Only 30% of respondents aged 25-34 have no knowledge of English, which is
lower than the average (45%), but 74% of respondents in that age class do
not speak English at a proficient or native level. This value is quite
close to the average for the whole population (79%). In other words, the
young are more likely to speak foreign languages than the older generation,
but they do not master them much better. This result is consistent with the
recent results of the European Survey on Language Competences
<http://www.surveylang.org/> of pupils. A language policy based on English,
French and German would be highly exclusionary too, because it would
disenfranchise 26% to 49% of residents, depending on the indicator used,
and these percentages are going to increase considerably after the
withdrawal of the UK from the EU.

This is not the end of the story, though. Multilingualism is not only the
most effective policy to convey information about the EU to Europeans. It
is also the only one that is truly inclusive at a relatively reasonable
cost (0.0087% of the EU’s GDP, 1% of the budget of the EU bodies). A
drastic reduction of the official languages of the EU would have regressive
effects, because it would make the access to information published by the
EU particularly difficult for the least educated people, those with the
lowest income status, the unemployed, the retired, the permanently disabled
and residents fulfilling domestic tasks.

For example, 17% of respondents who have successfully completed a tertiary
level of education have no knowledge of English, whereas this percentage is
47% among those who have achieved only an upper secondary level of
education. 21% of respondents holding a job have no knowledge of English,
French or German, either as a foreign or native language, but this
percentage is 41% among the unemployed. Residents with a relatively higher
income are more likely to speak foreign languages than those who have a
relatively lower higher income, and therefore they are less likely to be
linguistically excluded if the EU stops using their mother tongue or
primary language of education.

It is not just a blanket reduction in the number of languages that would be
exclusionary. Even reducing the current domains of use of the official
language entails similar effects. In 2014, for example, 14
Directorates-General (DG) of the European Commission out of 33 published
their home pages only in English, eight DGs published them in English,
French and German, one DG in 11 languages, and 10 DGs in 24 or 23 official
languages. These webpages often contain material that has strategic
importance for economic actors such as small and medium enterprises,
associations and NGOs that compete for calls for tenders, funding
programmes or procurement procedures. As a result, competition among actors
may turn out to be biased because of lack of adequate multilingual
information.

Translation and interpretation are far better ways to build social cohesion
in the EU by allowing them to take part in all societal processes. By
contrast, a nineteenth century-style ‘one state, one language’ language
policy would exclude too many Europeans from EU business, and would be
disproportionate against the people who are the least advantaged. Perhaps
it has never been as urgent as now for the EU to be close to its citizens
by using their native languages, and to prevent further fuelling
Eurosceptic movements. Avoiding the elitist temptation is therefore of
crucial importance, including in the field of language policy.

—

*The findings discussed in this blog post are based on a recently published
**article*
<http://eup.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/07/28/1465116516657672.abstract>*
in European Union Politics. The post represents the views of the author and
not the position of the Democratic Audit blog, or of the LSE.*

—

*Michele Gazzola* is post-doc research fellow at Humboldt-Universität zu
Berlin, Germany, research fellow at the Institute for ethnic
studies (“Inštitut za narodnostna vprašanja”) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and
teacher at the Università della Svizzera italiana, Lugano. He is currently
working on a research project on language policy, mobility and inclusion
the European Union (project “MIME <http://www.mime-project.org/>“).

http://www.democraticaudit.com/?p=24172


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