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How multilingual do we really want the enlarged Union to be?

, by Kristijan Fidanovski

The rapid enlargement of the European Union in the first decade of this century expectedly raised numerous issues within it, varying from political and economic to purely sociological matters. The tenability of a federation that requires 28 states (some of which substantially differ in terms of both moral and legal codes) to follow the same principles is a formidable challenge for politicians. Establishing the same currency in 17 countries, all different in terms of resources and keeping the inevitable gap with the remaining 11 as narrow as possible is a very demanding task for economists. Although not even closely as present in the media across Europe in the incomplete decade since 2004, maintaining a common European identity simultaneously with 28 separate ones is undoubtedly a sociological counterpart.

The number of countries which joined the EU between 2004 and 2007 is bigger than the number of countries that had ever entered the Union in its 52 years of previous existence. If sociologists have never been unanimous on the exact meaning of the term European identity nor able to agree on its precise intersection points with the separate identities of 15 countries, then how are they supposed to deal with an almost doubled number? At the end of the day, why does it even matter? Why would someone bother maintaining something that has never even been fully agreed on, when there are conflicted systems and disparaged economies that deserve primary attention? Well, the answer could not be simpler. The briefest possible version of the EU motto states “United in diversity”. Not “Having the same system” or “Using the same currency”. A cultural heterogeneity of 28 equitable ingredients is a textbook example of it. It would be just too hypocritical to give up on a battle that exemplifies the very core of the EU mission.

One of the things that always go hand in hand with identity is the word language. Or even better, this word is a trademark of all kinds of identities. There are plenty of things that can be understood about a person just from the way he talks. It is the peculiar accent that distinguishes the Brit from hundreds of Americans, no less fluent in the language, and reveals his nationality right away. It is the level of eloquence that gives away the university professor without him even mentioning his degree. Moreover, language is a proven way of maintaining history and identifying with your origins. It is language that makes Greeks proud of what they are, as their speaking a version of a language that originated in the works of the very founders of rational thinking is the easiest way of relating to their glorious history. Last but not least, language might easily mean identifying with the past for every European people, should the idea of living in a European federation eventually come true. There are many similar examples, but only one conclusion – language must not be overlooked when speaking of a common European identity as a whole in relation to all the diverse ones. It is exactly the desirable level of multilingualism in the Union that this text will focus on.

In June 2012, a survey was requested and coordinated by the European Commission . The results provide a rather accurate and up - to - date image of the extent of multilingualism in the Union. In April 2013, the Federal Committee of the Young European Federalists (JEF) came up with a resolution on multilingualism in the EU , first submitted by Jacopo Barbati and later amended by Martin Fischer. Such efforts indicate an increasing awareness of the multilingualism issue and their timing is much more than a mere coincidence. 2004 is only the starting point of an ongoing and extremely tricky process of finding the right multilingual balance. The issue did certainly not appear as a by – product of the enlargement and it has indeed existed ever since more than one language started circulating through the official documents of the Union, but nowadays it is no longer a matter of aesthetics. As soon as it started to become related to both the cultural and the historical heritage of no less than 28 distinct territories, the Union inevitably got hold of a powerful weapon with two possible functions. If used appropriately, the Union and Europe itself can only benefit from having a well – functioning melting pot of 24 languages. If the balance is not found, the consequences of either one of them prevailing over the other might be frightening.

The current state of play is the following one: although the fluency in English across the Union has never been higher (36%), the Union keeps following its original norms and stays reluctant to introduce English as the only trade language. It insists that all official documents and new resolutions keep being compulsorily translated in all of the 24 recognized languages. Barbati and Fischer find this superfluous and argue that changing it would significantly reduce translation costs without endangering the work of translators, since their services would still be required. They would translate documents in the respective national language in order to make them available for all citizens, but only within the respective country and if demanded, by the people themselves. Not only do Barbati and Fischer find their reform harmless, but they expect it to have beneficial effects as it would further stimulate the desire for studying the trade language and open many opportunities for common European media understandable to the majority of the population of the member states. For Fischer, English is the obvious choice as the above mentioned percentage proves it as an already established lingua franca of the 21st century. Hence, turning it into the only trade language of the Union is a painless and logic step further.

At the same time, they call for the promotion of the European value of multilingualism and establishment of a European institute that would focus exclusively on preserving languages and dialects as integral elements of culture. The only problem here is that such an institute does not exist yet, and even if it did, it might need a couple of decades to specify all the forms of spoken expression across the Union that could be classified as languages or dialects. Merely accepting the existing numbers offered by the member states would be far from enough, as they might have easily had different criteria when attaching the labels. Moreover, migrations can change the exact number of spoken languages and dialects in no more than a few months which means that many numbers may not be accurate today, especially if taking in account the frequent migration within the Schengen area. Standardizing the criteria or, even worse, conducting new surveys might take decades. By that time European language diversity might have lose the battle against globalization.

Yes, it is globalization that poses the biggest ever threat to language diversity. And yet, the EC research contains no notice of its incipient and powerful transmitter better known by the name of the United States of America. Indeed, they are geographically miles away but it is a common fact that their assets (mass culture channels mainly) had made an immense contribution to those 36% of fluent English speakers. Now let us at least try to foresee the linguistic power that English will grasp in the not so distant future by considering the following piece of statistics. The amount of money annually injected by the UK government directly into the British Council for popularization of the language is 220 million euro. This number is astonishingly twenty times higher than the 10.6 million annually allocated by France for the same purpose.

This might be comprehensible if French was inferior to English in the rankings, but the EC research rates this language as the second most popular with 12%, thus being one of the rare European hopes for eventual linguistic balance. If this ratio makes the word eventual sound impossible enough, just think of Uncle Sam’s growing global machinery for spreading his culture through everything that is visible or audible thus automatically spreading that very same language, which even without it has an enormous comparative advantage.

All of this definitely attracts one’s curiosity, but of what use is it in terms of the original issue here? Does it only confirm the utmost superiority of English which makes it a logical step for the Union to make it the trade language or is it only the first stage of a long term process of replacing the 24 seemingly equitable languages with a pure linguistic homogeneity that goes against every possible EU principle? There are two sides to every coin and no less than 24 to this one, so the only right way of tackling this issue would be to act in a utilitarian manner. Bentham and Stewart Mill’s idea of maximizing benefit and minimizing harm by calculating the impact that the proposed change would have on the member states might make sense. The reason is simple: A federation is unconditionally obliged to equally take all of its constituent blocks into consideration and then do nothing else but hope it had come to the best solution.

Let us take Germany and Austria as examples. The official language in both countries is German, the third most spoken foreign language according to the above mentioned European Commission survey with 11 percent of fluent speakers. The biggest “culprit” for this is the Goethe Institute which spends almost as much as the British Council (218 million annually). In a parallel line, the approach towards foreign languages in their education systems is among one of the highly valued in the continent, maybe even worldwide. They are rightfully considered by linguists to have one of the rare successful distinctions between studying the mother tongue and becoming fluent in foreign languages. The maxims mentioned in this research are only some of the well - functioning methods that contribute to their high rate of speaking foreign languages, an example which many countries strive to follow. With their famously proper way of passing it onto the posterity, their mother tongue is thought to be not only out of danger, but with all the prospects of maintaining and maybe even increasing its popularity abroad. It is also expected to become a fair rival of English in the rankings of popular foreign languages in the upcoming decades. So, their cultural identity is highly unlikely to be affected by the enforcement of the suggestions made by JEF, but the Union hardly ever consisted exclusively of economically flourishing countries. It is exactly situations like this issue that really challenge the European unity as they ask the member states to think as one.

The last time that unity was significantly challenged was the still ongoing economic crisis in Greece. The German people were outraged by the enormous amount of money approved by Chancellor Merkel for assisting the fellow member-state and the Union witnessed one of its most heated debates ever, as eurosceptics went as far as questioning the point of the powerful economic states staying in the Union if they’re required to support financially countries whose economies will never be able to pay back. As much as the linguistic issue may seem less significant, the state of play is more or less the same. The influential countries could only benefit from enforcing the proposed change, but that might bring the exact same country which they unconditionally saved from vanishing from the European map on the verge of a cultural disaster.

Nowadays, it seems that for Greece the worst has already passed, as the economy starts to bounce back having overcome its darkest years between 2009 and 2011 when the long - lasting uncontrolled expenditure had put the whole Eurozone in great danger. After many budget cuts the economy eventually survived, although the odds were quite unpromising. Nevertheless, a crisis of that extent inevitably brings huge long term harm, which is probably best illustrated by the fact that the country has the biggest unemployment rate in the Union by far, more than 14 per cent higher than the average one of 12.2. Foreigners have determinedly stopped investing in the marvelous islands that this country possesses, but much more concerning is the current tendency of Greeks leaving their homeland in fear for their bare existence.

Now let us consider the same situation from a linguistic angle. As much as linguistic gradation by importance and value should be avoided, it cannot be disregarded that the origins of Greek go back to an era which came centuries, if not millennia, before the inception of some of the other, in the Union equitable, 23 languages. The importance of preserving it to a full extent goes without saying, but the situation is rather challenging. It should not be forgotten that Greek comes under none of the established language groups in Europe, with no similar languages (in terms of grammar, lexicon, phonetics etc) not only within the Union, but also outside of it. Moreover, Greece has been traditionally one of the most common emigration countries . The biggest immigration wave occurred in the early 90s coinciding with the fall of the communist regimes and did not wane significantly until the beginning of the crisis. Demographic and thus linguistic mixing was unavoidable, as the number of immigrants in 2010 reached striking 10 percent.

As true as it may be that the country has never been very keen on studying foreign languages and thus Greek is not really a frequent example of an endangered mother tongue, these simultaneously ongoing opposite tendencies of Greeks leaving the country and foreigners taking their place can still be frighteningly harmful in the distant future. Of course, no one could claim that implementing the JEF proposition would necessarily strengthen the language - wise side effects of the above mentioned trends, but that not so improbable scenario is definitely some food for thought. An already threatened language does not need further shakings. At least one thing is certain – no human being could live with the belief of having contributed, even to the slightest extent, to the eventual extinction of the language whose roots go back to Plato and Aristotle.

But can the mother tongue only be endangered in a politically and economically destabilized country? Not really. Going for Fischer’s suggestion might mean a significant change of the game rules in countries with a low rate of English speakers, but at the same time it would merely mean bringing the current tendency to the next level in other countries - the tendency of equalizing English with the respective mother tongue in many segments of society, starting from the very first grades of primary school. Education often serves as the best mirror of the politics of a given country and it does not take an expert to conclude that the current Scandinavian education systems are openly focused on making their citizens the most fluent non – native English speakers in the world. Just to make it clear, this is not to be denounced as the plan works very well with Scandinavians becoming more and more difficult to distinguish from native English speakers in any given international community. We are just looking at an example entirely different from what was mentioned above, as Sweden, Denmark and Finland had all entered the Union long before the rapid enlargement of the 2000s and none of them has an unemployment rate higher than 8.5 percent or deals with significant emigration/brain drain/language drain.

Here, it is the governments that wittingly encourage acquiring fluency in English no later than primary school justifying this as beneficial for the students’ career prospects. Proficiency in the most spoken foreign language obviously provides you with a significant advantage when applying to universities abroad and when seeking employment later in life. There is nothing wrong in this line of reasoning, but it inevitably brings a harmful domino effect in a multiethnic society like the Swedish one. English is gradually becoming the academic language, while the official language of the country is used by the media and is informally spoken among classmates, friends etc with accurate formal expression giving way to a slang full of contractions, neologisms, internationalisms etc.

And what about the minority languages? It often happens that the older generations of a minority wittingly decide not to pass their native language to the new generations because they think they are doing them a favor by blindly following the government’s line of reasoning. As right and practical as they might be, they are still irreversibly burying a part of their identity. What is the probability of a minority language becoming one of the 24 official languages of the Union? At the end of the day, what difference does it make? The Union keeps an open contact with the countries outside of it and if that contact means a life-saving migration opportunity for some people, should it necessarily mean leaving their language behind? Of course, this domino effect might be perceived as an exaggerated and improbable slippery slope by the governments which are, at the end of the day, only trying to do the best thing for their peoples, but it is certainly a peculiar situation that requires a considerable dose of cautiousness in the future. The trend is likely to be maintained and enforcing the JEF proposition in these countries may work perfectly well for the governments as another justification for their policy.

With 5 recognized candidates for membership and many more to come in the upcoming years, the number of official EU languages will only increase. Accordingly, suggestions like the one made by Fischer and Barbati will become ever more frequent. The multilingualism issue is undoubtedly an extremely sensitive one, as are all the issues that affect no less than 28 different parties. Getting the right dose of multilingualism will be one of the most formidable challenges for the EU in the years to come.

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  • On 20 July 2013 at 23:38, by Ben Burgers Replying to: How multilingual do we really want the enlarged Union to be?

    Multilingualism is perceived to ’a somewhat small and insignificant’ aspect of the European Union, but shouldn’t it be the starting point for everything that involves the European Union? If we want countries to join hands at every level, including state/provincial and local, they should at least understand each other first. Why not only English? Because English is one language like any other language. Every language has a different degree of effectiveness in terms of context, actors and environment. If there would be a perfect language for everyone, everyone would’ve already spoken it.

  • On 14 August 2013 at 13:41, by Bill Chapman Replying to: How multilingual do we really want the enlarged Union to be?

    There is a strong case for using Esperanto as an official language within the European Union. This would be a radical step, but no more radical than introducing the euro which a number of the 28 already use.

  • On 14 August 2013 at 23:00, by Brian Barker Replying to: How multilingual do we really want the enlarged Union to be?

    I regret that there is no mention of Esperanto here, nor of the decline of acceptance at an international measure. We should remember that not everyone speaks English worldwide - 3.7 billion people do not. More people now speak Mandarin Chinese and Spanish!

    The biggest air crash in the World was caused by the failure of English, as the language of air traffic control!

    The decline of English is also seen on the internet. When the world wide web began, 85% was in English. That percentage has now shrunk to 35%.

    We need a practical solution and Esperanto is the only sensible long-term one available.

    Check http://www.lernu.net as well, please.

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