Rhein on Energy and Climate

The European Union has presently 22 official languages. The Official Journal publishes every piece of EU legislation in each of these official languages. When the 27 European heads of government or the European Parliament meet, a host of interpreters enables them to listen and speak in their national language.

The Commission operates in three working languages: English, French and German. Foreign ministers generally work in English and French. EU working groups/committees operate under variable restrictive interpretation regimes.

Beyond the “official Brussels”, English has progressively become the unique working language. That functions, without anybody protesting. Interpretation/translation is too costly and cumbersome.

20 years ago this would have been unthinkable. French used to be the “lingua franca” in a city where French is the normal colloquial language; and it was against linguistic etiquette for French officials to express themselves in anything but French.

Subsequent waves of EU enlargement have put an end to the traditional French “linguistic dominance”. Young Poles or Czechs no longer master French as did their grandparents, let alone young Scandinavians.

Linguistic diversity has been reduced to a matter of national accents; but with so many young professionals having studied or worked in the UK or the USA even national accents are progressively getting blurred.

Today, the vast majority of “texts” produced by the Brussels machinery are drafted in English. Few of these are translated in all official languages. An increasing number of people prefer the original version to a translation.

Should we regret these developments? By no means.They are irreversible. In a linguistic Babel, there would be chaos without one working language. English has imposed itself as the easiest and most practical instrument of oral and written communication in science, economics, business and finance, world-wide.

From a purely utilitarian point of view, the EU is gaining a “competitive advantage” by espousing English as its de facto working language. Just imagine a world in which Chinese might one day be the dominant international language, forcing many Europeans to learn an extra, tough language. By embracing English as the EU working language we make such a nightmare less probable. We should have no regrets about the irresistible expansion of Shakespeare`s language in the EU.

This must not prevent us from cultivating linguistic diversity at home and across Europe. Vive l`Anglais!

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  1. Excellent article Eberhard demonstrating well the dominance of English in Brussels. However,the English spoken around in Brussels EU quarters is “Schuman English” – a degradation of British English. It’s a mix of English + another language (French, German, etc.). In terms of dialectic, it means that the dominant language – English – has been appropriated by dominaned languages. That’s why, in this case, I would not talk about an “irresistible expansion of Shakespeare`s language in the EU”.

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