Jean-Claude Juncker thinks the English language is losing importance in Europe. Maybe the Commission president wanted to annoy Theresa May or maybe he really believes it. But he’s wrong either way.
In an ideal world, there is no hierarchy of languages. It doesn’t matter if one language is spoken by ten people and the other by a billion. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights goes some way towards protecting that notion.
But for all the EU talk about diversity, we don’t live in an ideal world so we need something to unite us, just so we can talk to each other.
Languages and multilingualism are all-important. But the day-to-day working of the European Union, a framework that covers 500 million people, over 60 languages and hundreds more dialects, needs a common relay language. English fits the bill.
And French is no longer the lingua franca of the Union. It’s no slight on French or its speakers to say that, it’s just the reality.
The recent enlargements of the EU have brought in countries that generally work more in English as a second language, so it’s just a matter of changing circumstances.
Once you factor in our addiction to American TV and cinema, it’s not hard to see why Europeans generally revert to English now.
Statistics back up this shift. An EU study published yesterday showed that 97.3% of students in the bloc studied English as a foreign language during high school. The number of children learning it in primary school increased by nearly 20% since 2005.
French is the second most common foreign language (33.7%) but the number of students learning the tongue has mostly either stayed the same in different member states or decreased.
The EU has launched a new recruitment drive too, under new rules about what assessment languages applicants can choose. Nearly 100% of aspiring EU officials recently chose English as one of their test languages. 52% chose French, 27% chose Spanish and 26% chose Italian.
A big fuss has been kicked up about what language to hold the Brexit negotiations in. In this case, it’s a non-issue. If Michel Barnier does insist on French then the talks will be simultaneously interpreted. Maybe a few jokes (if there are any) will get lost along the way. But that’s it.
Most interactions in Brussels and beyond are not plenary sessions, trialogues or committee meetings. They’re face-to-face. There’s no bloke in a booth to help out. That’s why English is here for the long haul.
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