european union, the common language

February 1st, 2006 by Romeo Anghelache

I see a lot of competitions going on hiring translators and interpreters for the European instutions and that makes me think about the issue.

The E.U. administration should provide a table with two cells: how much does the European administration spend on translating and interpreting, and how much does it spend on the research and administrative work.

I’m pretty sure at some point in the near future the language related expenses will surpass the real-work expenses.

It seems obvious, to me, at least, that a true E.U. community cannot exist without a common language.

Those who object to the idea of a common E.U. language will bring the argument that such a choice will produce a uniform E.U. , and I would reply that there should have been concerns already when the global businesses were sweeping the local flavors of everything, it’s already too late to object to this blanketing. I can also add that international scientific institutes are using a common language and you don’t find many people there thinking uniformly in scientific matters. I invite the ones who still disagree to sell their car, end their telephone, TV and internet connections, and never buy a plane ticket again: then we’ll have plenty of diversity, a diversity which will happen to be ignored, or be visited only over the weekends.

So we should use a common language in the E.U. schools .

Now comes the more difficult part: which language? Each E.U. country with a population larger than 30 millions hopes it will be their language to be chosen as the common one. In this matter we should forget about the concept of nation which, I agree, was useful to start wars and make people kill around in its name, but now it’s a brake in communication.

Pragmatic reasons should be at the base of such a choice: how many people are talking that and that language? Chinese, hindi, english, spanish are the first four languages in use today globally. The most popular language used on Internet is english for obvious reasons but that may change with the numbers of PCs connected in the non-english speaking countries, so an argument using the “main language on the internet” statistic is weak.

As europeans, it will be easier for the new generations to commonly learn one of the old european languages (english, spanish, french, german, italian) or to learn an entirely new one, like esperanto. The global use of these languages select english and spanish and discard french, german and italian.

So E.U. is left with three options for the common language: english, spanish or esperanto.

Esperanto might be more difficult to put into effective use, but if taught early in schools, as a comoon E.U. alternative language, it might win in the long term.
This way, the national pride of any E.U. country stands unaffected.
But preserving the national pride of all the E.U. countries might kill the intention of having a common language: the peoples will still use their own language, and use esperanto only for contact with E.U. foreigners, which will end up in the situation we are today: the majority of germans, french, spaniards barely know a foreign language (e.g. english), even if taught in schools. One can feel that on the street.

So esperanto might be a failure because it’s fresh new for the most. It only relies on early schools and local politics to be promoted to a successful use. That might be costly, although not as much as the current translating/interpreting practices in the E.U. administration.

So let’s return to english and spanish. It’s easier and cheaper for either of them to become the common E.U. language.
The adoption of english might seems advantageous today because its the “language of science” and “language of the internet”. But none of these two are real arguments:
1. the few global publishers of today who adopted english language as a standard might dissapear sooner than you think and the scientific publishing might get distributed sooner than I think.
2. the language of the Internet goes with the users of Internet, and it might be possible that the majority of these users to become spanish or portuguese, not english, globally, as their infrastructure grows.

There is also a cultural argument against english: the habits of the native english language users are associated with the english language in a fuzzy way. As these habits resemble arrogance more than human compassion, the english might lose sympathy if nothing in global politics changes.

E.U. can wait until english installs as a de facto common language, but this waiting costs a lot. And the result of a natural evolution might still be spanish.

So we’re left with spanish.
The advantages of promoting it as a common main or second language for all the E.U. countries might bring some fun with the novelty itself, and the fact that many E.U. languages have a lot of latin in them can only help. This way, E.U. might also gain a feeling of community identity (as opposed to the dangers of being confused with U.S. in terms of style).

The conclusion: start teaching spanish in all the primary schools in E.U. as the main national language and start using it in the public administration, teach english as the second language and keep the rest for the arts/history classes. Make some room for chinese, hindi or bengali classes.

8 Responses to “european union, the common language”

  1. frankenschulz Says:

    “There is also a cultural argument against english: the habits of the native english language users are associated with the english language in a fuzzy way. As these habits resemble arrogance more than human compassion, the english might lose sympathy if nothing in global politics changes.”

    Aw, come on… you’ll find these people everywhere! Spanish may have lost sympathies already, just think of Cortez, Pizarro, Franco, or Julio Iglesias…

    Just wonder why you skipped French as an option so quickly, 190 million speaking it world wide, half of Africa included. Spanish would be nice, for sure, but within Europe (not speaking of the world) there are only only 44 million speakers….

    So, math doesn’t help us here, I guess. I wouldn’t mind English as a compulsory second language for kids, it’s easy (but still enormously rich — it has about 900,000 words), already well spread within Europe and the world, used in commercial and non-commercial areas. As long as English as a European/global language doesn’t kill national languages, I only see advantages.

  2. Romeo Anghelache Says:

    I was surprised at the conclusion myself ­čÖé

    It’s the arrogance associated with our times (the time of chosing a common language), not with some past times, which should matter. We were all monkeys some time ago. The arrogance-based choice is not a punishment, but a protection from a bad start (wrong cultural premises).

    As about French. The language sounds nice to me, I even understand it :), but again, a protection against arrogance is needed here too, I believe. I’m afraid that, given the chance, the french politicians will poeticize it to death.

    Chosing Spanish as the main language for E.U. is, I think, the best compromise between minimizing the national prides issue and maximizing the world spread.

    However the main suggestion of my article is to move aside the national language, and use the common E.U. language instead. Let the national language die or be learned only for historical reasons. I see the national languages as a hindrance to the U. in E.U. : if they are still taught as a first language in schools and still used in the administration, people from different E.U. countries will practically ignore and misunderstand each other, as they do now. As a consequence, E.U. will stay schizophrenic, that is, always vulnerable to any dividing model: “old” vs. “new”, “western” vs. “eastern”, “northern” vs. southern” etc.

  3. Radu Says:

    I disagree in the point of moving aside the national languages. A common language can be adopted/used/teached without the necessity of forgetting the native language. The interest for a good communication in what regards official issues shouldn’t interfere personal choices. For example, I can hardly read/enjoy poetry written in any other language than my native one. And I don’t want a future without reading poetry.

  4. Romeo Anghelache Says:

    Lots of poetry is written in english nowadays and lots of non-english europeans are reading it, so your argument doesn’t do much damage to my proposition.

    One may still learn the ‘native’ language for the purpose of reading old poetry, but this should not be part of the mandatory educational programme, it should be facultative.

    Letting the ‘national’ language (if different from the ‘common’ one) linger in the mandatory educational programme, will, practically, result in its effective use at national scale, so the ‘common’ one gets effectively ignored: practicing the common language in the everyday life is the crux of the matter.

    You and I are writing these messages in english, although we’re ‘native’ romanians. We’re doing it because we hope an european neighbour (polish, french…) may read, understand the issue and think about it too.

    If a top-down decision is not taken soon about this issue, we’ll end up speaking english, which is not such a bad thing in itself but the picture will become like this: I talk romanian to my fellow ‘natives’, speak english only in matters important at the Union level, but my everyday life is not peppered with Union issues, so I’ll mumble english, ignore the Union, and talk a ridiculous, defined ‘native’, language with my first neighbour.
    This leaves us in many, little, rather isolated, groups; come the peak-oil issue, and I already see the tribes speaking romanian fighting with gearman speaking tribes over tomatoes and potatoes, a priest will translate to the tribe leaders the curses of their ‘enemies’.

    The definition of a ‘native’ language loses sharpness as long as the communication channels with the second-order neighbours get to be used more effectively. The bad thing is that, if we insist in using our own native language, we tend to ignore the existence of these communication channels: essentially, we grow ignorant.

  5. frankenschulz Says:

    Your national language, actually often your mother tongue only facultative in a nation’s schools? Ridiculous… Just wipe out a few hundred years of culture, history and science, and do a fresh start in a mono-lingual internet century? No way, i.e. without me…

  6. Romeo Anghelache Says:

    So we’ll fight over tomatoes with translators midway ­čÖé

    The only ridiculous thing seems to be the nation concept and anything it implies (like the translator expenses).

    It’s a translation, not a wipe out. And this is already happening in a less systematic way.
    I don’t think that Kant, Ende or Habermas will be forgotten if no german ‘native’ will be forced to learn deutsch in school. I’ve heard of them, and read some, without being even remotely familiar with german language.
    Did you care enough to read Aristotle in clasical greek or latin?
    A step back to look at the issues is necessary.

    It’s not even obvious if we (E.U.) will end up mono-lingual. Some languages stick to your mind even if they are facultative: I still easily understand french after 23 years of not speaking it with anybody. Not being my mother tongue, or native language either, I guess I am emotionally attached to it, but that doesn’t make me feel uneasy to accept a common E.U. language, as the main language, different from french or romanian. Well, I’d have trouble with a german proposal but I’d get over it if I’d see the rational reasons supporting it.

    I suspect that some professionals relying on the language splitting are too zealous. That’s where this instinctive reaction comes from, I suppose.

    For example, if the german TV would let the original sound and subtitle the movies, say, in german, a lot more foreign people would be able to read/write or understand german, and a lot more germans would feel comfortable speaking english or french, or polish. Choosing not to subtitle but to double the voices is a choice similar to pushing the native language on the first stage, with the same consequences: cultural loneliness with only the official translators and diplomats as links to foreign cultures. Same goes with any nation larger than 30 mils.

  7. bea Says:

    Frank, without me, also! It sounds so extreme!
    If people need a common language they will learn it, they will have to, like they now learn English for internet. It will stick to their minds cause they have to. I don’t like the idea of regulations like these. I love speaking my language. The languages are subtile ties between people, history, self identity, more important than even progress.
    People will choose by themselves if they have to learn a new language, and who chooses not to learn, he will choose a bit later than the others.

  8. Romeo Anghelache Says:

    It sounds even more extreme to me to only get knee-jerk replies to this set of language related reasonings (they maybe fallacious, but no feedback helped clarify that yet).

    The fact that the languages are subtle ties between people doesn’t imply there have to be many languages. The common language, if chosen, becomes a subtle tie within one generation. I bet any romanian today has difficulties reading the written romanian a century ago, so I can’t see any serious, long-standing, reason to stick to our instance of language we use today (except our personal history which will get lost in a few decades); it’s not even possible to preserve it as we’re practicing it now.

    The issue here is pragmatical: how many translators will we have to pay to get along with each other in E.U., that is, to get second-hand semantics of our neighbours’ utterances?

    At least, it is a fair situation, as long as we don’t get it, we pay for it.