The EU

On January 1st of this year, under the continuing enlargement plans, Romania and Bulgaria acceded to the European Union. At the same time, the number of official EU languages was enlarged to 23, now including Romanian, Bulgarian – and Irish. The inclusion of the latter might seem to come at an odd time, given that the Republic of Ireland has been a member since January 1st, 1973, and Irish is its official language. Yet it was through English that the Republic handled its application to the Union.

To take some basic figures, Irish is spoken by less than half of the Republic’s population, whilst it is in daily use by only 5% ((A generous assessment, since this figure appears to include schoolchildren who use the language in class on a daily basis.)). To put this in some perspective, there may be more than twice as many Welsh speakers, while both of these Celtic tongues pale in comparison to Catalan, for example, with more than 7 million speakers. Ireland’s European commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, insists that Irish is central to Irish cultural identity, and its acceptance into the European fold has prompted calls for the inclusion of other minority languages ((Spain has already requested semi-official status for Catalan, Galician and Basque.)).

The inclusion of Irish in the European family has been seen as a major boon to the preservation of this minority language, and in this regard can only be lauded, yet its inclusion comes with some rather unnecessary attachments. In 2005 the EU spent roughly €1.1 billion on translation and interpretation. The addition of Irish to the list of languages is estimated to cost €3.5 million annually in the hiring of 30 translators to handle the significant legislation. Being an initial estimate, we can only assume that it has been conservatively made, and the possibility that the translation requirements expand to include more than simply the ‘significant’ documentation will further revise this estimate upwards. Whilst the figure of €3.5 million might seem paltry in reference to the total spent on translation, when we take into consideration its unnecessity, it might seem expensive lip service to the support of minority tongues.

Yet whilst the EU diversifies linguistically, it is increasingly coming under Anglophone domination in its general operation. ‘In a union of many languages, increasingly there is but one language.’ ((“Babelling on”, The Economist, 8508, (16th December, 2006), p. 24.)) The proportion of documents published in English has risen to around two-thirds, to the detriment of the other agreed working languages of the Union, French and German. This in itself comes at little surprise as English increasingly strengthens its position as the world lingua franca, from its de facto rule in highly specifised areas such as air-traffic control, to its increasing proliferation in the business world, and spreading popularity across parts of the globe hitherto unassociated with English.

The global strength of English has unfortunately, though not unnaturally, led to a decline in numbers of English students of foreign languages. Almost in the same breath politicians, news reporters and the like often point out that whilst many more foreigners are learning English, fewer English-speakers are reciprocating. Lord Dearing is due to issue his final report on the state of language teaching in English schools by the end of February, but the interim report of 14th December 2006 laid the ground for the promotion of language teaching from a younger age, and for incentives for students to continue language subjects at least to GCSE standard. The key question many young people will no doubt ask therefore: why? Beyond all the standard reasons for studying any subject at school, and the obvious benefits of lingual ability both at home and abroad, the simple fact of English dominance in the world serves to increasingly devalue language skills in the eyes of many young people. Indeed, one of the biggest problems posed when considering a second language is simply, which to choose? Those who deplore the falling numbers of language students often point to other growth languages such as Spanish, or to those of possible importance in the future such as Arabic or Chinese, all of which suffer from poor coverage in the English education system.

There is of course an alternative to the seemingly vacant choices available to today’s students, and one which has been proposed by those on the fringe of society, like this author, for many years. That the dominance of English gives the native speaker unfair advantage in situations where non-native speakers must acquire a working knowledge of the language is obvious; that the dominance of English further inhibits the study of foreign languages in English school is becoming increasingly clear; that the appropriation of English by non-native speakers might also in the end work to the detriment of the native ((In the example of “Globish”, identified by Jean-Paul Nerrière, a subset of roughly 1,500 English words, simplified and devoid of idiomatic phrases and alike, which was more mutually intelligible to non-native English speakers than native Anglophones.)) might follow as a future possibility.

In all ways, the dominance of one language over one or more others is only likely to become harmful to the relations between the two communities (native and non-native) and have certain unpleasant side-effects on the native community (predictable, like the declining interest in foreign language study in England, and others yet to be seen). Meanwhile, the protection of minority languages, and the increasing marginalisation of the other major languages in the EU might in the end only propagate a message of bureaucratic waste rather than cultural utility. The obvious answer should lie in the utilisation of a common medium for communication in the European Union, and one that need not necessarily benefit any one nation or tongue over another. The example of Esperanto is sometimes cited as an ideal candidate, being based upon a Romance vocabulary, with smatterings of Germanic origin, Slavic semantics, and an overall basis in western Indo-European languages. It might not be pretty or poetic, but it serves the purpose of official communication, is of some relation to many of the major language families in the Union, and promotes the study of foreign languages with no bias towards any other nation or language.

After all, there may be other benefits to speaking a second language which even the English would find it difficult to refute. Apparently recent studies suggest it can prevent cancer! Or at least delay dementia, whatever.