16 March 2011

The state of French in the Union (Brussels Pidgin English II)

In our previous post, we wrote about the Pidgin English dominating Brussels (Brussish, anyone?). In our second (and probably not last) post on the subject, we try to dig a bit deeper into reality.

When it comes to actual (not official) working languages, the European Commission is predominantly Anglophone (with a strong variation across Directorates-General), while the European Parliament administration in Brussels has also become “English-speaking” since 2004. Now that Kovács and Kováts have temporarily become part of the Council as the spokespeople for the Hungarian Permanent Representation, we have come to an interesting discovery: the Council which we thought to be a fortress of the French language is clearly dominated by English. (We are not saying that French has disappeared, but English is clearly the lead language.)

Nothing illegal is happening, French remains an official working language in the Council, but for everyday interactions, at meetings and during drafting of documents, English is the “langue véhiculaire” in roughly 80% of the cases (our estimate from personal experience).

Some delegations fight hard to stop the advance of English. According to some reports, German delegations have a standing order to use German (see here, footnotes 24 and 25 on page 314, we wonder if it is still valid) and French civil servants are instructed to speak French only.

Le Comité Pour la Langue du Droit Européen (CPLDE) has launched a campaign in 2007, arguing that French is by nature the language of law and legal analysis. (Here is a rather sceptical take on it by EUObserver.) Maurice Druon of the Académie Française made it clear: "Toutes les langues sont égales et toutes les sensibilités nationales sont dûment protégées. Cependant, en ce qui concerne l'interprétation des textes, il vaut mieux être certain de ce que l'on écrit. L'italien est la langue des chansons, l'allemand est bon pour la philosophie et l'anglais pour la poésie. Le français est une langue plus précise et rigoureuse. C'est la langue la plus sûre pour les questions juridiques... la langue de Montesquieu est imbattable"*.

The French Sénat has passed a detailed resolution on the subject, calling for the respect of multilingualism. (It is a great source of data, for anyone interested in the subject.)

Until now, these are that facts on the ground from our perspective. But here we come to a serious point of debate between Kovács and Kováts. Kováts thinks that anyone working in Brussels should make the effort and learn French asap. French should be used at meetings and in writing, even if some participants may have difficulties, but this will push them to improve their skills. Kovács is more pragmatic and feels that we should accept the fact that English has become the global language of choice and perhaps even cherish that this resolves an otherwise probably irresolvable question. Our debate mirrors a wider debate going on in Brussels on this issue, so in our next post tomorrow, we will lay down some arguments pro and con. (Incidentally, Kováts has advanced much-much further in the language of Montesquieu than Kovács has, which certainly colours our different points of view, but it would be simplistic to consider that to be the sole explanation.)

* For the francophonely challenged: 
A translation of the text in the original, Euratciv article can be found under http://www.euractiv.com/en/culture/group-pushes-bolster-french-language-legal-supremacy/article-161623

1 comment:

  1. Would it be premature to conclude that while Kovats tried to learn French from the real life, Kovács relied on to the Commission internal language courses :-)