5th Dec 2021

EU to wrestle with 20 official languages

A committee room in the European Parliament is the perfect way to see the practical effects of European enlargement.

Here it is possible to realise just what it means to be a union of 25 member states operating in 20 official languages – as it will from 1 May.

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On any given day, MEPs hold forth on a pet subject, ranging from investment services to fisheries policy to trade issues, and all around them their words are being relayed into 19 other languages.

In the small translation booths at the sides of the room, the lips of interpreters move constantly, their faces a picture of concentration. In the committee room itself, the headsets emit a constant background chatter as MEPs listen to their colleague.

Without the interpreters nothing would function as parliamentarians often need to fall back on the familiarity of their own language to tackle complex and highly technical issues.

At the back of the rooms, lobbyists, journalists, and MEPs’ assistants clamber for the last available ‘public seats’ – if they miss them there is nothing they can do except watch in frustration as the debate wafts incomprehensibly by.

This is everyday working in the EU – in comparison the UN has just six official languages.

In the booths though, where interpreters work for 3 ½ hour slots, the interpreting goes on.

"It’s very stressful", said Estonian interpreter Hanna-Liisa Tamm. "Since you’re the only person who really understands, you have the responsibility to render it understandable to everyone else".

The 25-year old says that she is confronted with any range of subjects in a day. The most difficult task is, however, to translate back into a foreign language.

As hers is a ‘small’ language, it gets translated into English, French and German and then translated on into Hungarian, Polish, Portuguese, or Maltese.

And this means a time lag; part of the reason why debates in the European Parliament are so dull, is that by the time a Latvian joke has reached the ears of a Swede and the Swede ventures a laugh, the debate has generally moved on.

Interpretation costs

In all, there are 190 links. And they are obscure. There are simply not enough people who are proficient in both Lithuanian and Spanish.

At a seminar last month, Karl-Johan Loennroth, the head of the European Commission’s translation department said jokingly: "If you know anybody who can translate from Maltese to Finnish, please let us know".

Aside from the logistics of simply trying to find and train so many interpreters, there are also the costs involved.

After enlargement, the cost of the EU’s translation service is set to rise to around 800 million euro a year or about 2.55 euro per citizen.

And all this so a Maltese speaker, of which there are less than 400,000, can read an EU document in their own language.

Is it worth it? Very much so, argues Davyth Hicks editor of Eurolang, an office on minority languages in the EU.

"Lack of linguistic diversity has been compared to a decline in biodiversity. When you lose a language you lose a whole conceptualisation of the world".

He says it is unfair to use economic reasons for not granting the people the right to speak their own language. And certainly it is hard to argue against Slovaks being allowed to elect a monolingual MEP.

Rise and rise of English?

Enlargement will also boost the need for a common language that everyone can already speak.

And it is English, which is spoken by such as large number of people as a second language, that is becoming the lingua franca.

To the horror of the francophone.

In principle, the three working - as opposed to the 20 official - languages of the EU are French, German and English. Back in the days of Jacques Delors as Commission president, French was very much de rigueur.

But with Swedes, Finns and Austrians joining the EU in 1995, it was the start of a slippery slope.

The new member states will accentuate the trend. A eurobarometer survey carried out last year found that English is the most spoken foreign language in the new member states, followed by Russian and German.

But the fight for Francophonie has not been abandoned. The 10 new commissioners were treated to an intensive French course in a château near Avignon to make sure they learned at least the rudimentaries of the language of Molière before taking up office.

Similarly, German speakers are also fighting back. The Teutonic tongue is the most widely spoken native language in the EU. The lower house of the German parliament (Bundestag) recently called on the government to push for German as a third principle EU language.

But for all that, Europe is set to keep its Babel tower for the foreseeable future.

Europe’s Babel tower

From 1 May, the Germanic (German, English, Danish, Dutch, Swedish), Romance (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese) and Greek languages will be joined by the Slavic (Polish, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian) and Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian) tongues.

The Finns will at last get some Uralic company and no longer be the only one speaking a non Indo-European language – they will be joined by the Estonians and the Hungarians while the Maltese will sit in linguistic isolation with their Semitic tongue.

But that is not the end of it. In a few years, Bulgarian, Croatian and Romanian could be added to the list of official languages.

And what about ‘stateless languages’. Well that political can of worms has yet to be opened. But some, at least, are thinking about it.

"Good that Maltese with 300,000 speakers and Estonian with 1 million will be EU official languages, but why not Catalan with at least 7.3 million speakers, Basque with over 600,000 or Welsh with 550,000", asks Mr Hicks.

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