English as the language of Europe?

In this guest post, Christiane Keilig from the British Council in Berlin shares her views on why just English isn’t enough.

Last Friday the German president, Joachim Gauck, proposed to make English the language of the EU.  I was surprised to hear it  – why did he say that? Just to appease the British and make sure they stay aboard the EU? Or to allay fears that Germany is becoming too powerful? It’s probably a bit of both. But, thinking about it, it does seem to make sense, because:

  • English is comparatively easy to learn (I had to learn Latin and Greek  as first foreign languages and I rejoiced in English)
  • It is already an established business language and dominates in certain areas, for instance IT and banking
  • It is the language spoken by big economies

Okay, but.

There are also other huge economies out there and I would argue that if you want to sell a product or a service to a foreign market, you need to speak their language and not just English.

Because a market, or rather, countries, are also about culture and I believe that you cannot truly understand a culture without speaking the language – language itself reveals a lot about a country’s mindset.

Also, 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.

Moreover, in times of globalisation and mobility, with families living and working far away from their home country, it’s also important their children can learn their mother tongue – it is a vital part of their identity and culture.  So it’s not just about learning the language of the country they’re now living in and then ‘just’ English.

Just to pick up on one of the areas of the project’s research: Education. The Language Rich Europe research clearly shows a tendency for English as the most widely chosen language to be learned at school – which could be seen to be endangering the diversity of languages.  It is important that especially at school other languages are taught with the same importance attached to them .

For instance, the school my son goes to offers English, French and Latin and you can choose the order in which you learn the languages. I convinced him to learn Latin first, as that gives him a good basis for grammar and all romanic languages. It would be a shame if opportunities like that would disappear.

At the conference on 5  March, Language Rich Europe’s experts will present recommendations for more language diversity in the areas of Education, Audiovisual Media and Press, Public services and Spaces, and Business. They will present the outcomes of the project’s research and will surely provide food for thought and discussions.

Why not join the debate? Do you think English should be the language of Europe?  Comment here or tweet @LanguageRich  to  let us know what you think!

15 thoughts on “English as the language of Europe?

  1. I am very surprised to read the comments made by the German President. In actual fact, I live in Ireland where the German Embassy in collaboration with the Goethe Institute and the Embassies of Austria and Switzerland launch a campaign last week aimed at encouraging people to learn German

  2. I don’t think you were the only one who was surprised! At a time when teaching of German as a foreign language is decreasing in many places, I am sure many promoters of the language were a bit taken aback. I would like to hear how different countries reacted to the German President’s statement.

  3. Il y a déjà eu un long et riche débat sur le multilinguisme, organisé par l’UE, mais il a été effacé…
    La seule solution simple et juste, c’est de promouvoir l’espéranto. Par aileurs, contrairement à ce qui est dit dans l’article, l’anglais n’est pas toujours choisi à l’école. En pratique il est imposé, faute de choix à l’école primaire, puis en 6e en première langue, dans l’immsense majorité des cas.

    • Forty thousand Europeans (French and Germans) recently voted for the political party that is called Europe-Democracy-Esperanto or E-D-E. Thousands of Esperanto speakers have more recently voted in an on-going campaign at Avaaz. The petition is in some 14 regional languages. Is anybody listening???? They should.

  4. Pingback: The truths about teaching English | Teacher Sherrie

  5. Learning one foreign language well is doable for everyone. Learning two, three or five takes time, effort and usually money as well. So if we all just agree on English as a lingua franca in Europe, everyone will be able to communicate with everyone.

    Being multilingual is great. But learning many languages necessitates resources, and thus comes at the expense of something else (e.g. learning maths or physics, or something else that better enables us to create something).

    Europe’s language diversity is a richness from a cultural point of view, but it hinders us from understanding each other. So let’s just all learn to speak fluent and effortless English first, and then we can later pick up other languages based on interest, work or chance.

  6. What makes you think we could ever, or should be attempting to, all understand each other. Even in the United States, we don’t all understand each other’s dialects of English. Languages are an important thing to maintain, and we should give preference to any one. Let the students decide what they want to learn. Especially considering what you said about learning other subjects, what about the kids who are interested in Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, African languages, other Asian languages, Caribean cultures and languages, South and Central America? Should they have to waste 10 years studying a language they could care less about? And then have to go back and do that whole process for the language or languages they actually want to learn. Also, not the entire world speaks English, which is something people seem to forget about often. It is very important, as the author says, that schools, organizations, parents, families, societies, cultures come to recognize the importance and value of learning any language, not just English. Every language is equally as valuable as any other and to say otherwise, to me, consitutes nationalism, racism, and ethnocentrism. Schools, especially in Europe where there are so many people from so many different places living in places other than their home country, should promote various languages in schools. The locals and the internationals.

    • The situation in the EU is that only 70 million people in the EU are Anglophones i.e. GB and Éire. Plus, the awkward British or rather English do not want to be part of this macroeconomic bloc and there are more Franco/Germanophones in the EU. The English will lose out if they continue to remain monoglots as terms will always be decided by bi, tri or even quadrilinguals.

  7. Pingback: Learn English or stay home? | Dolmetschblog

  8. Almost all countries in the world communicate their business through english. Whether they are asian, european, or american. It is vital now to learn it because it gives you a lot of advantage. There is a saying that if you know how to speak english the whole world will speak to you. I am working in Saudi Arabia and even the Arabs communicate through English.

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