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Minority language?


An aspect of Britain’s forthcoming departure from the European Union (‘Brexit’) that does not seem to have received much attention – but one that particularly interests me as a linguist – is the future status of English in the EU.

Consider the history of the Union and its forerunner, the European Communities (EC). Until Britain and Ireland finally joined in 1973 (General de Gaulle and his veto on British membership – which in retrospect may have been justified – were safely out of the way), English was not one of its official languages, since it was not used in any of the then just six member states: the founding members Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Italy and Luxembourg. The already vast body of EC legislation (the acquis communautaire) had not even been translated into English; this now had to be done in a rush, and the results weren’t always too good. A good deal of the legislation had been thought out in French, in which the process of bringing the members’ national laws and regulations more into line with each other was known as rapprochement – a term already familiar from politics (the whole European project was initially the result of political rapprochement between France and Germany), but hitherto seldom used in the context of legislation. In any case, as they encountered the strange term again and again in the titles of EC ‘directives’ (itself a literal translation from French), the translators looked in vain for an equivalent English noun – whereas a noun construction was not in fact the best way to deal with such titles. And what they came up with was, unfortunately, approximation, which means something quite different (things can be rapproché, brought closer together, but not approximated), and inevitably sounded strange to English-speakers. Directive on the approximation of the laws…. was just the first in a series of clumsy translations that would give ‘EC (later EU) jargon’ a bad name. Another example was the publication in which the newly ‘approximated’ EC legislation was announced to the world. Known in French as the Journal Officiel, it should have been called the Official Gazette (or something else) in English – but not the Official Journal, for again the English word journal means something quite different. Yet, unfortunately, this is the name by which the publication is known to this day.

In any case, from then on EC legislation would be translated into English as a matter of course. Over time the quality of the translations improved; and today English is the language with the second-largest proportion of native speakers in the EU (14-15%), behind German but ahead of Italian and French – the figures vary slightly, but these four are clearly at the top of the list. The next-nearest languages, Spanish and Polish, each account for just 8% of the total; and the rest (starting with Romanian) 5% or less. The EU has a well-established body of native-speaking English translators and conference interpreters, all of whom are presumably nationals of member states – which in practice means Britain and Ireland. Although English is co-official in the small island state of Malta alongside Maltese, not all Maltese actually speak it, and their often Italian-influenced version of it can hardly be considered native. In the only other member state where English was an official language in the past, the scarcely larger island state of Cyprus, it no longer is.

But now we have Brexit (‘we have lift-off!’). Assuming that (despite having clearly voted to remain rather than leave) Scotland and Northern Ireland fail to stay within the Union, the bulk of Europe’s native English-speakers will in 2019 cease to be EU citizens. Those left – in Ireland – will account for less than 1% of the total: behind Slovak, Danish, Finnish and Croatian, and ahead only of Lithuanian, Slovene, Estonian, Latvian and Maltese. In other words, from being a leading majority language within the EU English will decline overnight to a minority language so marginal as to be negligible. And even if Scotland and Northern Ireland managed to break free from Brexit, the number of native English-speakers in the Union would still only be on a par with the figures for Hungarian, Greek and Portuguese (just over 10 million people), and well behind the top seven: German, Italian, French, Spanish, Polish, Romanian and Dutch.

Of course, this is only one – perhaps pedantic – way of looking at the situation. At least for the foreseeable future, English is going to be the leading world language, for its native speakers outnumber those of all but Standard Chinese and Spanish, and it is used far more widely than either of these as a second language. It is the main language of global trade, technology and diplomacy; and the same is surely true within the EU, where citizens with a fair-to-native command of English account for over 50% of the total, well ahead of German (just over 30%) and French (just over 25%). English is the most commonly used working language within EU institutions, where its only rival is in practice French (whose status is slowly but surely dwindling, a process perhaps only braked by the fact that all three cities where the institutions have their headquarters are French-speaking, so you need the language as soon as you leave the building, if not actually inside it); and politicians and officials from different member states regularly use it as their best means of communication.

And yet, 45 years ago, when there were no English-speaking member states at all, the role of English within the EC was minimal; and it will presumably only remain an official language of the Union because of Ireland’s continuing membership (which admittedly is scarcely in doubt).

On the other hand, in today’s world it is hard to imagine a time when EU documents would no longer be translated, and EU meetings no longer interpreted, into English – for the Union needs to communicate with the rest of the world, and to do so it needs the world language. But where are the translators and interpreters to come from, once almost all the EU’s English native-speakers cease to be its citizens? The UK government’s short-sighted decision back in 2004 to make the teaching of all foreign languages optional from the age 14 onwards has had the following predictable effects: British schoolchildren have dropped languages en masse; few now leave school with the qualifications they would need to study languages at university; and that means few can now acquire the knowledge they need to find jobs as translators, interpreters or even language teachers (so even the pupils who might want to continue to learning languages will have a good deal more trouble finding someone to teach them). To cap all this, Brexit will probably have left even more young Brits inclined to turn their backs on the non-English-speaking world, and to expect foreigners to communicate with them either in English or not at all.

The EU could, of course, decide to recruit professional translators and interpreters from non-member states – a new precedent, but, as the Dutch say, nood breekt wet (‘necessity trumps the law’ or, if you like, ‘…. is the mother of invention’). However, as I have just pointed out, the only country – Britain – that was turning such people out in sufficient numbers is already no longer doing so. Member state Ireland is probably too small to fill the gap (there simply aren’t the numbers); and other English-speaking countries around the world do not go out of their way to teach European languages to a high standard (Australia, for instance, now concentrates on Chinese and Japanese). Perhaps Canada, with its bicultural French-English heritage; or perhaps multilingual South Africa (although there most of the languages are African – and only this week a local politician refused to speak English rather than her native Zulu on a live radio programme). But then you would need to persuade Canadians and South Africans to move more or less permanently to a different geographical hemisphere: Europe.

Then again, in today’s world their physical presence in Brussels, Strasbourg or Luxembourg may no longer even be necessary. The Internet, video-conferencing and other technologies could provide the answer – perhaps not the ideal one, but nood breekt wet.

The risk in all this is that English will continue to be used – but increasingly by non-native speakers, and even as translators and interpreters. Since there aren’t enough native English-speakers with a good command of Dutch to meet the demand, a lot of English translation in Holland has long been done by native Dutch-speakers; and, with all due respect, they seldom if ever achieve what I would consider the required standard. If the same thing were to happen in EU institutions, the quality of the written and spoken English produced by the Union would inevitably decrease. But, in today’s world, there may not be that many people left who care, or would notice the difference.

This week a friend suggested I should offer to help fill the gap, since I’m a native speaker of English, but also an EU (Dutch) citizen. But in two months’ time I turn 65, and I slowly but surely want to cut down on the amount of work I do – like so many of my colleagues here.

We’re a dying breed.

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