I came across an article the other day titled "Learn English or stay home". It was written by Olav Øye for the European Voice website, but unfortunately sits behind the paywall. According to the byline, Øye is a consultant and has dedicated his masters thesis ("E pluribus English") to the study of how English is used in the European Parliament. There has been much discussion in recent months and years about the role of English and the question whether it should and could become the one and only lingua franca of the Union. I think there's no easy answer to that question. So first of all, I offer you this quick reading list. Go ahead, I'll wait here ;-)
To date, Europe does not have a single European public space which could be compared to what we regard as a public sphere at national level. First of all we lack a lingua franca. There are 23 official languages in Europe, plus countless other languages and dialects. A German who does not also speak English or French will find it difficult to communicate with someone from Portugal, or from Lithuania or Hungary. It is true to say that young people are growing up with English as the lingua franca. However, I feel that we should not simply let things take their course when it comes to linguistic integration. For more Europe means multilingualism not only for the elites but also for ever larger sections of the population, for ever more people, ultimately for everyone! I am convinced that feeling at home in one’s native language and its magic and being able to speak enough English to get by in all situations and at all ages can exist alongside each other in Europe.
To me, saying "everybody should learn English as their first foreign language" is not multilingualism, but that's another matter entirely...
Officially, deputies and delegates will only speak in their national languages, as a matter of principle. Attending them is a small army of translators and interpreters who assure their message is translated into the languages of the rest of the union — at a current cost of $1.4 billion per year. The big irony, though, is that once they are away from the podium or the microphone, and they are hanging out with other European bureaucrats by the water cooler, they comfortably switch into English, the de facto lingua franca of the union. You might wonder then, when most, if not all, EU bureaucrats master English, what’s the point in maintaining 23 official languages, especially at such expense? Why not just use a single language and, what’s more, why not use the language all EU bureaucrats master — English?
That's why the EU, why Europa quite simply needs English as an official language, as a second official language in addition to each country's official language. It should be possible to get along with pidgin English, or "kitchen-table English", at any given local or regional authority, one should be able to apply for a passport, be admitted to a hospital, give evidence to the police. Using English as a lingua franca is the most pragmatic solution of all because the language is being taught almost everywhere in Europe.
But there’s a second problem with English [...]: It makes us (whoever “us” may be) focus too much on British debates. Daniel Hannan today blogging the same old story of why the UK would and should not be in the EU is getting 100x more attention than a Polish politician/writer writing about how the future EU agriculture should look like. [...] Instead of discussing the actual problems of European politics – and to the credit of many EU-critics there are many – the dominance of English makes us have the old debates over and over again. (Emphasis mine)
Business is not all. Especially in Europe and in times of crisis, it is important that we understand each other – we cannot afford to threaten a construct which, although fraught with bureaucracy, is also there to maintain peace. Personally, I sometimes think that aspect is sadly underrated.
Before we finish off with a lighter take on the subject, let's get back to Øye's text. In a nutshell, he says that English has become the dominant language in the European Parliament and that MEPs who don't speak it at all or not well enough have a serious disadvantage. His conclusion:
Voters and the press should therefore ask the candidates for the European Parliament if they have mastery of English, the language of politics in Europe. Otherwise citizens risk wasting their vote.
While Øye certainly has a point, it boils down to this: All that matters for a candidate to be elected is whether he or she speaks English well enough. Really? Citing feedback from MEP assistants, Øye also dismisses interpretation in one fell swoop:
Almost none of the assistants I interviewed listen to interpretation into their mother tongue. The reason is that they do not think that interpreters can render speech adequately. Mistakes are made. Body language is lost. In politics, such nuances matter greatly.
Is that so? I would venture to say that even if English is not your mother tongue and you speak it very, very well, quite a lot will be lost. Mistakes will be made (believe me, I sit in those meetings every day). Body language, in fact, is not lost with simultaneous interpretation. Nuances do indeed matter greatly. Just another reason to make use of interpretation. The system overall is certainly not perfect since interpretation is often not available where it is needed. But we are not even close to a European Union that works flawlessly with English only.