18th Feb 2019

Linguists call for more diversity at EU level

The European Commission should consider adopting a Slavic working language, such as Polish, alongside the current Germanic and Romance trio of English, French and German, according to French linguist Claude Hagège.

The eminent Collège de France professor made the remarks at an international communications conference organised by the College of Europe at Warsaw’s Radisson Hotel on May 8.

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  • English language education is booming across Europe (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission currently issues all of its internal communications in the three main tongues, while community legislation and other formal documents are published in the 20 official languages of the EU.

The rules for the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Court of Justice vary slightly.

Proffesor Hagège added that of the two Germanic working languages, English leans more toward the North American cultural sphere, while German has a more deep-rooted European "vocation".

Meanwhile, the Swiss economist, François Grin, noted that the current system fosters a "completely unfair" situation in which the majority of member states are forced to pay for English, French and German language education in order to compete in the language skills marketplace.

He noted that some recent calls from the commission and member states for further linguistic convergence on the grounds of translation and interpretation costs fall foul of economic arguments.

"The cost of education is totally overlooked", proffesor Grin told the EUobserver. "Languages have to be learned. If English is to be the only working language, then the UK should subsidise English language learning in Europe. If English, French and German are to be the only working languages, then these three countries should subsidise the rest".

He calculated that the commission currently pays €2.30 per citizen per year to meet the costs of its multilingual regime, but that the cost would rise to a modest €5.50 per citizen per year if all 20 official languages were used as working languages.

The University of Geneva expert also pointed out that more and more people are keen to learn several European languages, as basic English skills become banal and lose value.

"In the UK, monolingual Brits are losing jobs to other EU citizens with more than one language", he remarked.

One working language better

But the ideas faced criticism from Polish liberal MEP Bronislaw Geremek, who felt it would be more economical to have just one working language and that other Slavic countries would not stomach preferential treatment for Polish, according to Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza.

The Commission is already finding it tough to keep up with its translation commitments – particularly for complicated legal texts.

If the EU takes on Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Croatia in the next few years, the number of official languages will swell to 24.

Meanwhile, Eurydice, the EU’s Brussels-based education research body confirmed that English is the most widely taught second language in both primary and secondary European education, with the exception of Belgium, Luxembourg and Romania.

The popularity of English language teaching shot up between 1998 and 2002, while just five languages (English, French, German, Spanish and Russian) account for 95 per cent of the foreign languages taught in the EU.

Foreign language teaching averages out at some 90 hours a year in most EU states, but Denmark, Luxembourg, Malta and German grammar schools lead the pack with over 200 hours a year.


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