5 April 2011

A lingua franca for Europe? (Brussels Pidgin English III)

Gen 11:7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

(As you will see from the text, there is a deep disagreement between Kovács and Kováts on language use, one of the few subjects where we can end up with accusations flying in the air.)

One can argue that a common public sphere requires a lingua franca to function well – and in the case of the EU, English seems to be emerging as one. (For a discussion of what happens when it is not the case, see Matthew Lowry’s funny take on the Belgian language and other barriers here.) “The most serious problem for the European Union is that it has so many languages, this preventing real integration and development of the Union”*. Kováts finds this misleading and a very Americanized view of Europe, while Kovács wholeheartedly agrees.

Whatever our views are, for the time being nothing seems to be able to stop the tide of (pidgin) English. At press conferences and especially at background briefings in the Council, English clearly dominates. (Although French is kept alive by some journalists who insist on officials answering in French.) Politicians are different again. Except for the multilingual Belgians last year, they will typically speak their own language and/or English. As for Commissioners, this should be the subject of another post.

In the institutions, most documents are first drawn up in English, drafting at informal meetings is done in English, national delegates and Council officials will speak English during work and the relay language of choice for interpretation is usually English. (To see how it works in practice, here is a discussion between Bloggingportal editors and the Hungarian Presidency coordinator on the nitty-gritty of interpretation in the Council.)

Since the 2004 enlargement the reality is that most diplomats speak English when they arrive to Brussels and they simply don’t understand French. If there is one person in the room who does not speak French then the meeting will be conducted in English. Kovács vividly remembers feeling very uncomfortable back in 2005 for having to ask a Deputy Director General at his first EC job to switch to English at a meeting in order to be able to respond to the DDG’s questions. Fast forward to 2011, and there seem to be only a few people who would still speak French out of principle.

Some commentators describe this as an Anglophone culture taking over the “outdated” Francophone world of international diplomacy. While this may indeed herald a new dawn in international diplomacy, is seems to hurt UK interests when it comes to securing posts for their nationals in international institutions, as British blogger Veronica Collins summarizes here.

It’s also interesting to look at the level of effort to maintain a multilingual or at least bilingual working environment, which differs hugely among the institutions. It’s enlightening to compare the list of Council Press Officers and the list of Commission Spokespeople. At the Commission, English native speakers clearly dominate, Council Press Officers are more tilted towards French (either as native speaker or as dominant first foreign language) while the European Parliament is the champion of multilingualism with a list of press officers by language.

There are still a few mythical, old-school British officials in the administration who make a case not to speak English, but speak the language of their partner in conversation. But it is far from the current reality.

Kováts believes that this multilingual approach should be a sort of ideal for European civil servants and diplomats. He believes that without a multilingual working culture we are not credible in designing common policies for a multicultural European Union. Pushing for the use of French is only the first step – all European civil servants should be “life-long learning” and constantly picking up new languages and thus understanding better the complex nature of Europe.

Kovács does not dispute that in general, and does not deny the value of being able to speak each others’ language. But he believes that we are multilingual by definition if we speak English as a first foreign language, and for the rest it should be either all or nothing. Consequently, Kovács finds that drawing the line at “EN& FR” is not a tiny bit less problematic than drawing it at EN only, or “EN&FR&DE” or “EN&HU” for that matter.

*(Mr. Elton, ambassador of the USA to Denmark, 1997, quoted by Robert Phillipson. More on this in his book: English-only Europe? Challenging language policy)

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