Much has been said about what may happen to the English language and the need for English translations once the UK is no longer a member of the European Union. One of the unforeseen consequences of Brexit is that Great Britain will no longer have the right to choose a national language into which the European bodies translate. In short, this can be the first step towards the demise of English as an international language, and a more multilingual world.
Some languages just don’t make it as official languages in the EU
Currently, each country has the right to have documentation translated into their national language. Every country chooses one main national language as it is assumed, perhaps naively, that everyone in a country is fluent in the national language. Perhaps this is so at MEP level, but practically no French-speaking Belgians (40% of the population) do not speak Flemish Dutch (59% of the population) and vice versa. Some 30% of Latvians have Russian as their mother tongue, which is 50% in the capital Riga (where Nils Ušakovs became the first Mayor of Riga of Russian descent since Latvia’s independence) and over that in some areas. Russian and Latvian are not mutually intelligible. More than 10 million people speak Catalan not only in Spain but also in the south of France and Sardinia (Italy). Another Baltic country, Estonia, has close to 30% Russian speakers. Belgians have no problem having documentation in either French or Dutch as those two languages are also official in other member states. Despite the large Russian minority in two member states, Russian is not an official language because no EU country has Russian as its main declared official language.
The controversy about the official status of English in a post-Brexit EU began soon after the result was known. Ms Hübner, a European official commenting on the legal consequences of the British referendum to leave the EU said
“English is our official language because it has been notified by the UK. If we don’t have the UK, we don’t have English”
The EU takes great pride at its linguistic diversity, making translation a right. It is the largest translation organization in the world. Most scientific publications, business channels and international relations are undertaken in English. It would be ironic that the de facto international language of business and commerce would not be official in the EU because of a lack of English-speaking volunteer countries. And there are only two: The Republic of Ireland and Malta. Ireland has already named Gaelic as its national language. What a turn of history it would be for the Irish to rescue the English language. Malta has become a kind of international destination to learn English in the sun. However, despite English being widely spoken and used in the island, the national language of Malta is Maltese, the only Semitic language spoken natively in Europe.
The background: English displaces French in the 90’s
Before the UK joined the Common Market in the 1970’s, French was the dominant language in the institutions and it remained so until the late 1990s. When Scandinavian countries joined in 1995 the by then European Union, the balance began to be tilted towards English. Nine years later, Central and East European countries which had had Russian as their lingua franca picked English as a means of “Westernization”. At a practical level, English has displaced French in most education systems througout Europe and the younger generations use it freely. Most staff working in Brussels communicate in English rather than French or German, the other 2 working languages at the European institutions. Ms Hübner, a Polish Christian Democrat and Honorary doctorate by the University of Sussex, acknowledged that “It’s actually the dominating language”. The Polish MEP confirmed that English could continue being a “working language”. But there is a difference between an official language and a working language. No English translation would be available or guaranteed in meetings and soon other languages may opt to be working languages in documents. The UN has 6 official languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic – but only the first two are working languages. To keep English as an official language would require agreement by all member states.
There is a regulation dating from 1958 regarding the official languages of the EU. At that time the UK was not a member as it joined in 1973. The regulation was originally written in French and does not state clearly if a member country (the above mentioned Ireland or Malta for example) can have more than one official language. Interpretations of the French wording tend to conclude that this might be possible, but the English translation of the document appears to rule this out clearly.
The question is then: could we be witnessing the demise of English as an international language? Or are we going to see the consolidation of a European English or International English as a real lingua franca spoken by non-native speakers.
Further reading: Politico – English will not be an official EU language after Brexit