The Brexit has created all sorts of problems. One that hasn’t yet been noticed: it shifts the linguistic equilibrium. The EU distinguishes between official languages and working languages. It has 24 official languages and 3 working languages, namely – in alphabetical order – English, French and German. Every resident of the EU can appear before its committees and institutions and speak in her own mother tongue without having to stumble around in a foreign language. I once gave a speech in German to the European Council and was simultaneously translated, by interpreters sitting in glass booths up above the auditorium, into the native languages of all those present. In providing this service the EU spares no expense, for no citizen of the EU may be discriminated against because of her or his native language. “Economic inequality” is bad enough and shouldn’t be made even worse through “linguistic inequality.” And the EU thereby not only guarantees language justice, it also provides many women well-paid employment, since most of its interpreters are female.
I can well remember the time when Helmut Kohl was compared to his worldly, urbane predecessor Helmut Schmidt and was mocked as a provincial “hick” because he couldn’t converse in English with the other “world leaders,” but instead stuck stolidly to his native German. I wasn’t especially fond of Kohl, but to denigrate him because of his language I found unjust – after all, Thatcher and Reagan never expressed themselves except in their mother tongue either, and they were hardly considered provincial.
I first considered the European language problem in 1992:
“The countries of Europe are growing together, but we have no common European language. German is the most widely spoken language in the EC (European Community), but English and French dominate in the various committees. Now German is going to be elevated to become the third EC language, according to news accounts….”
Of course, that problem has since been superceded.
After the Brexit, however, we must ask whether English should remain the third working language or whether some other language, say Italian, Spanish or Polish, should assume this privileged position. With the withdrawal of the UK the EU no longer has a member nation in which English is the first language. Besides Malta with its 0.4 million residents, Ireland with 4.6 million is the only EU country in which English is the (second) official language, to be sure a somewhat unpopular one, since it is the “language of conquerors.” This characteristic, by the way, applies not only to Ireland:
Most world languages arose through the military expansion of states in which a particular language was spoken, followed by their extended hegemony over the conquered regions. This is true for all regions of the world and for the world languages of antiquity as well as for the modern period and the present.
Thus the concept of a world language always includes some background of imperialism [.…] Many modern world languages were formerly colonial languages, whose spread to other continents took place primarily through conquest, colonisation and extermination. (German source here.)
It makes no sense that the recently rejected European Union should continue to privilege, as one of its three working languages, a language which has only 5 million (grudging) native speakers, or less than 1 per cent. Might not countries like Italy (with 60 M), Spain (46.5 M), Poland (38.5 M), Portugal (10.6 M) and Hungary (10 M) thereby feel unfairly demoted?
On the other hand, however, with 38% English is the most frequently studied language of the EU: It is still the case that the three working languages of the EU “are the most frequently spoken and the most frequently learned languages […]; namely German (18% as first language; 14% as a foreign language), English (13%; 38%), and French (14%; 14%) (in parentheses the percent share of the EU population that speaks this language as native and foreign language). Negotiations, conferences and all publications of the European institutions must be conducted and/or announced in these three languages.” (German source here.)
The Brits have saddled the EU with a paradoxical and complicated problem: the organization must now retain, as a working language, the mother tongue of the one country that has left it, simply because English is the most frequently learned second language within the Union.
I am curious to see how the EU will solve this problem. My recommendation: it should introduce a third category. In addition to official and working languages there should also be auxiliary or “helping” languages. Working languages would include the three languages that are spoken as a native language by the most members of the EU. At present that would be German, French and Italian. An auxiliary language would be one which is understood by the largest number of EU-citizens. Right now that is English, although after the Brexit barely one percent are left who speak it as their mother tongue.
One could also consider whether other EU languages might qualify as auxiliary languages, even though they are neither the most spoken nor the most frequently studied second languages, but do belong to the group of 12 world languages. That group would include Spanish and Portuguese – which, like English, were spread across the globe by dint of colonial conquest. Exactly what is meant by an auxiliary language, what its functions in the EU should be, would still need to be determined.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love the English language – among other things, its “non-European” grammatical structure is much easier to “de-patrify” (analogous to “de-nazify”) than the European languages with their gendered nouns. I’ve also always been an Anglophile: I studied English at university and wrote my dissertation about the English language; I’ve lived with a US-American woman for 30 years and spend four months out of the year in the U.S.
Through my close contacts with people in countries that speak the “World Language No. 1” (and therefore as a rule no other), I also have seen how the narrowing of vision that results from this linguistic hegemony doesn’t always benefit the monolinguals. Their one-dimensionality and navel-gazing can lead in the worst case scenario to behavior that is damaging to themselves and others, such as to the election of Donald Trump or the Brexit. It would be interesting to find out whether the followers of the many European right-wing populists are also largely monolinguals.
As the embodiment of multilingualism, the European Union can help monolinguals and “monoculturals” learn to understand more people than just themselves, by demoting the “World Language No. 1” a bit. It could make a start by avoiding the word “Brexit” and replacing it with “Braustritt” “Brortie” or “Bruscita.” These words sound so strange that any possible imitations, such as Fraustritt, Nuscita oder Dortie, would seem less appealing.
Trans. Joey Horsley
*For fellow native English speakers who are perhaps not yet adequately multilingual: French sortie, Italian uscita, German Austritt all mean “exit.” And don’t forget that Fr-ance, the N-etherlands and D-enmark all have active anti-EU movements. –J.H.