[lg policy] Britain may be leaving the EU, but English is going nowhere

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon Jul 4 11:00:50 EDT 2016

 * Britain may be leaving the EU, but English is going nowhere *
July 4, 2016 4.48am EDT

   1. Andrew Linn <http://theconversation.com/profiles/andrew-linn-125373>

   Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities,
   University of Westminster

[image: University of Westminster]

University of Westminster <http://theconversation.com/us/partners> provides
funding as a member of The Conversation UK.

Lingua franca. Socolov Alexandru/www.shutterstock.com

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After Brexit, there are various things that some in the EU hope to see and
hear less in the future. One is Nigel Farage
Another is the English language.

In the early hours of June 24, as the referendum outcome was becoming
clear, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left-wing MEP and French presidential candidate,
tweeted <https://twitter.com/JLMelenchon/status/746300956577505280> that
“English cannot be the third working language of the European parliament”.

This is not the first time that French and German opinion has weighed in
against alleged disproportionate use of English in EU business. In 2012,
for example, a similar point
was made about key eurozone recommendations from the European Commission
being published initially “in a language which [as far as the Euro goes] is
only spoken by less than 5m Irish”. With the number of native speakers of
English in the EU set to drop from 14% to around 1%
<http://languageknowledge.eu/> of the bloc’s total with the departure of
the UK, this point just got a bit sharper.
Translation overload

Official EU language policy is multilingualism with equal rights for all
languages used in member states. It recommends
that “every European citizen should master two other languages in addition
to their mother tongue” – Britain’s abject failure to achieve this should
make it skulk away in shame.

The EU recognises 24 “official and working” languages, a number that has
mushroomed from the original four (Dutch, French, German and Italian) as
more countries have joined. All EU citizens have a right to access EU
documents in any of those languages. This calls for a translation team
numbering around 2,500, not to mention a further 600 full-time
interpreters. In practice most day-to-day business is transacted in either
English, French or German and then translated, but it is true that English
dominates to a considerable extent.
Lots of work still to do. Etienne Ansotte/EPA

The preponderance of English has nothing to do with the influence of
Britain or even Britain’s membership of the EU. Historically, the expansion
of the British empire, the impact of the industrial revolution and the
emergence of the US as a world power have embedded English in the language
repertoire of speakers across the globe.

Unlike Latin, which outlived the Roman empire as the lingua franca of
medieval and renaissance Europe, English of course has native speakers (who
may be unfairly advantaged), but it is those who have learned English as a
foreign language – “Euro-English
or “English as a lingua franca
– who now constitute the majority of users.

According to the 2012 Special Eurobarometer on Europeans and their Languages
<http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf>, English
is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the member states where
it is not an official language. Across Europe, 38% of people speak English
well enough as a foreign language to have a conversation, compared to 12%
speaking French and 11% in German.

The report also found that 67% of Europeans consider English the most
useful foreign language, and that the numbers favouring German (17%) or
French (16%) have declined. As a result, 79% of Europeans want their
children to learn English, compared to 20% for French and German.
Too much invested in English

Huge sums have been invested in English teaching by both national
governments and private enterprise. As the demand for learning English has
increased, so has the supply. English language learning worldwide was
to be worth US$63.3 billion (£47.5 billion) in 2012, and it is expected
that this market will rise to US$193.2 billion (£145.6 billion) by 2017.
The value of English for speakers of other languages is not going to
diminish any time soon. There is simply too much invested in it.

Speakers of English as a second language outnumber first-language
English speakers
by 2:1 <https://www.ethnologue.com/language/eng> both in Europe and
globally. For many Europeans, and especially those employed in the EU,
English is a useful piece in a toolbox of languages to be pressed into
service when needed – a point which was evident in a recent project
<http://www.degruyter.com/view/product/433577> on whether the use of
English in Europe was an opportunity or a threat. So in the majority of
cases using English has precisely nothing to do with the UK or Britishness.
The EU needs practical solutions and English provides one.

English is unchallenged as the lingua franca of Europe. It has even been
suggested that in some countries of northern Europe it has become a second
rather than a foreign language. Jan Paternotte, D66 party leader in
Amsterdam, has proposed
that English should be decreed the official second language of that city.

English has not always held its current privileged status. French and
German have both functioned as common languages for high-profile fields
such as philosophy, science and technology, politics and diplomacy, not to
mention Church Slavonic, Russian, Portuguese and other languages in
different times and places.

We can assume that English will not maintain its privileged position
forever. Who benefits now, however, are not the predominantly monolingual
British, but European anglocrats whose multilingualism provides them with a
key to international education and employment.

Much about the EU may be about to change, but right now an anti-English
language policy so dramatically out of step with practice would simply make
the post-Brexit hangover more painful.

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