Saturday, August 07, 2004



The Economist has an article on the new lingua franca of the European Union. Besides the French, it should specifically be of interest to those Germans who claim that the Soviets are due most of the credit (and the gratitude) for winning World War II (see the paragraphs with my emphasis below).

[The accession of central European countries] is already reinforcing the dominance of English as a language for the EU as a whole. In central Europe, as in much of the world, knowledge of English has become a basic skill of modern life comparable with the ability to drive a car or use a personal computer.

What has happened to the other main languages? A majority of central Europeans have eschewed Russian as firmly as they have rejected the communist ideology which was once articulated in that tongue.

The limited enthusiasm for German in central Europe has been much more surprising. … German has languished partly because Germany has been shy about promoting its language and culture in a region ravaged by Hitler's war. No such shyness has affected France. Its cultural diplomacy in the region has been vigorous and generous. Handsome French cultural centres ornament the capitals of the region: the newest of them will open in Riga, the Latvian capital, in October. But admiration for France's culture does not translate into widespread use of its language. …

The choice of English has been made easier by the demands of foreign investors. The first to move east were the most international European companies, which tended to use English as their international working language regardless of their base. The biggest foreign direct investor within central Europe for most of the past decade, Siemens AG of Germany, an engineering and telecoms firm, made English its main “corporate language” in 1998. “German companies are very pragmatic,” confirms Bernhard Welschke, head of European policy at the Federation of German Industry. They value a single language for business, he says, even if it is not their own. …

The rise of English as a lingua franca [may] have a big impact on the institutions of the European Union, and even on European integration. The EU recognises an official language for every country, and translates all main public documents into all 20 of those languages. But civil servants and committees within the EU's institutions use three main working languages: English, French and German. French has long been fighting a losing battle against English for “market share” among the three, with German far behind. The arrival of more countries favouring English will threaten to render French almost as marginal as German.

An increased use of English within the EU institutions will mean an increased use of it in the ministries of member states, where officials spend much of their time working on EU-related matters. Jean-François Deniau, of the Académie Française, a linguistic watchdog, told Le Figaro newspaper that English had conquered even the treasury directorate of the French finance ministry, which he called “the heart, the bastion, the stronghold of French power”. It now circulates drafts of new regulations in English “because they will be discussed in English in Brussels”.

One big question now is whether the generalised use of English as a first or second language will accelerate the political integration of the EU. The spread of English will lower the language barrier which has, arguably, obstructed pan-European political debate. It will open the way to the formation of pan-European public opinion, and to politicians with pan-European appeal. But there have been empires, like the Soviet one, which had common languages and still fell apart. A language can help a good political system work better, but it cannot rescue a bad one.

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