Adopting a common European second language

, by Hubert Balaguy

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Adopting a common European second language
Teaching English to everyone would bring with it more equality, as elites with access to bilingual education in today’s world would lose their competitive advantage. © Wikimedia Commons

Adopting English as the common second language for all Europeans would bring people together and boost the economy. We are moving towards a world of international “super-languages” existing alongside national languages, and it is time to embrace the change.

Briefly, why/why not?

A single common language would allow half a billion people to communicate more easily, hence to exchange, travel, trade, work, gather information, learn, think, and create more easily. It would confer a growing sense of unity among its speakers and bring them into a shared culture. Taught to everybody, it would bridge the gap between the happy few raised in bilingual families or taught in international schools and the vast majority of the population.

Which language?

Which of the twenty-four European beauties to choose? Actually, some sort of preselection has already been done. Only three languages benefit from the much envied status of working language of the European Commission. However, if we look at the use of each as a foreign language, English unquestionably exerts an ever-growing supremacy over the two others, French and German.

How exactly would it work?

Having a single official language would be hugely beneficial from an institutional point of view. Communication would become much easier within institutions, as well as between European politicians and citizens. Elections could be held at a European level instead of a national level, for instance. The economic benefits would be significant as well, as Europe spends billions of euros every year on translation and interpretation.

This would not mean the negation of people’s native languages, just widespread knowledge of a common second language, promoting cross-border communication and collaboration. Our efforts should focus on teaching English across Europe, and this should be financed and promoted at a European level.

Either we leave the institutional status quo unchanged, whereby there are three working languages, and the institutions – mainly the European Parliament – are obliged to translate all documents into 24 languages. Or we could alleviate the burden of translation and interpretation without too much of an overhaul of existing rules. The Swiss Confederation provides an interesting model whereby all citizens can expect the institutions to interact with them in their native language, but only two languages are used within the institutions. This sort of evolution could be the first step in the wider process.

How do Europeans really feel about such an idea?

According to the Special Eurobarometer 386 from 2012, “Europeans are also widely in favour of people in the EU being able to speak a common language, with around seven in ten (69%) respondents agreeing with this viewpoint”. “Two thirds of Europeans (67%) consider English is one of the two most useful languages, and less than one in five mention German (17%), French (16%) and Spanish (14%)”. What’s more, “there has been a decrease since 2005 in the proportion of Europeans that think that French and German are important (-9 percentage points and -5 points respectively)”.

“Almost every European (98%) thinks that foreign languages are useful for children to learn for their future. Again, English is perceived to be the most useful language in this regard, with eight in ten Europeans (79%) thinking this. One in five mention French and German (20% each). […] The proportion of Europeans who think that French and German are important for children to learn has dropped since 2005 (-13 percentage points and -8 points respectively)”.

The wish of a large majority of Europeans is clear enough. English should become Europe’s common and shared language.

How would this affect other European languages?

This is uncertain; it would depend very much on the linguistic policies pursued at a national level. Their preservation is clearly a priority, but the teaching of English would be complementary, and arm Europeans with the skills to live and work abroad. We may assume that this would accelerate the pace at which French loses ground as an international language. To a lesser extent, German as an international language would be affected too.

How would this affect national cultures/politics?

This, too, would depend very much on national policy. We hope that this would stimulate the emergence of more of a shared European culture.

How would this change the EU’s relationship with Britain?

We believe that with less of a language barrier, the relationship would improve, perhaps more between citizens than governments. They’re not all hard-line Brexiteers, you know.

Would this change the image of the EU?

The EU would certainly be – and appear to be – more integrated and united than other leading powers. The focus on whether or not the EU would somehow look weak by adopting English during the Brexit process is far too short-sighted. This is the way the world is going, we can either prepare for it and embrace the change by preparing Europeans for a world of national languages and international ‘super-languages,’ or do nothing and see our competitiveness decrease. This is about preparing the next generation of Europeans for the future; it’s far bigger than Brexit.

How would this impact EU law?

It is a sensitive issue as there have been fierce disputes between proponents of continental and British law since the UK joined the EU. Keeping French as one of the official languages of the European Court of Justice might be an option. It should be down to law experts to debate and decide what status English should be granted in the field of European law.

What would be the greatest benefit of the adoption of a second common language?

It would confer a growing sense of unity among its speakers and bring them into a shared culture. The economic benefits – like further integration into trade exchanges, a decrease in unemployment, increased mobility, and improved competitiveness – would be very useful as well, especially in countries like Italy where unemployment is relatively high and bilingualism is less common than elsewhere in Europe.

What would be the biggest disadvantage?

The elites would lose a decisive competitive advantage over other social classes, who previously didn’t have access to bilingual education.

If English is destined to be the common European language anyway, is such intervention necessary?

Europeans may choose to let economic trends progressively shape their cultural environment. However, they may also decide to use English as a common second language in order to speed up European economic and political integration, a necessary step if Europeans want to increase their economic and political influence in a changing and hostile world.

This piece is courtesy of thepaneuropean.eu, a website publishing news and opinion from around Europe. For a related article published on the site, see https://thepaneuropean.eu/2017/01/11/lets-speak-european/.

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