Give us back our language!

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Philippe Van Parijs is a professor at the Universities of Louvain and Leuven. His books
include "Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World" and "Belgium.Une utopie pour notre temps".

The European Union will not be able to do what it needs to do without a stronger European people. Not in the sense of an ethnos – a population unified by a single culture closely linked to a native language – but in the sense of a demos: a population united by a flow of information and arguments, by the negotiation and deliberation that make up a common agora. This kind of flow requires a cheap, effective instrument of communication. It requires a lingua franca.

For contingent historical reasons, this language is and will remain English. Even after Brexit? Even more so after Brexit, when English will have gained a more neutral status, as it will no longer be the official language of one of the EU’s central member states. English is a continental language that was imposed on the population of Great Britain in two waves: the Germanic component in the 5th century by the Angles and the Saxons, and the French component in the 11th century by the Normans. It’s time to stop associating this language with the Union Jack – as many websites are still in the habit of doing. Let us reclaim it and speak it with our wide variety of accents, without trying to mimic those of Mr Trump or Mrs May. The Brexit campaign was partly driven by the slogan "Give us back our country!" Our cry must now be "Give us back our language!"

Will this lingua franca inevitably override our many native languages? Not at all. However, our native languages need to be cherished and practiced not only in private contexts, but in the public spheres of our respective countries. And those who settle permanently in our midst must understand that they are expected to find the courage and humility to learn our official local languages. These must remain the main medium of instruction in our schools and, in most cases, the medium of public communication.

Even when constrained in this way, the spread of a lingua franca raises various concerns. To start with, is the spread of competence in the lingua franca not likely to undermine our motivation to learn languages other than English and our own native tongues? True, early bilingualism may better equip us for learning other languages later in life. But languages are learned and maintained through practice, and the more people know English in other countries than our own, the less opportunity and incentive there will be to learn other languages. 

Grabbing the Megaphone

This does not undermine the overwhelming case in favour of the democratisation of a lingua franca; however, we must acknowledge that sharing a lingua franca is no substitute for being able to communicate with people in their own native language, or enjoying direct access to the culture and media of another language community. Universal bilingualism with English is a must and, with time, will become increasingly self-evident. Learning further languages will require more will, but will not lose its value. 

Whether or not it goes hand in hand with learning additional languages, doesn’t the adoption of English as our European lingua franca expose us to excessive Anglo-American influence? Indeed, is this not already the case? For example, if anything can qualify as an EU-wide publication, is it not the Financial Times, the Economist or Politico? This poses a real challenge. And the only effective way of addressing it is by grabbing the megaphone. Instead of just mumbling and grumbling in our respective languages, we should speak, write, publish and broadcast – also in English, so that we can be read and heard throughout Europe and throughout the world. When it comes to written communication, machine translation will be of increasing assistance. In terms of oral communication, proficiency in English will remain indispensable.

Is all of this just a dream, or is it already on its way? Just one illustration is the European University Institute’s latest annual State of the Union event, which took place in Florence on 2 until 3 May 2019. It hosted an in-depth conversation in impeccable English between the President of Romania and the editor of a German daily newspaper. It also hosted a lively debate between the four leading candidates for the European elections. None of these individuals is a native English speaker, but all four managed to convey their arguments and their emotions, their anxieties and their enthusiasm, in perfectly intelligible English – indeed, in an English more intelligible to an international audience than if the participants in the debate had been native speakers.

Most of the individuals I just mentioned belong to a generation of Europeans for whom the ability to communicate in English is the privilege of a minority. By contrast, many young people now "grow up with English", as former German President Joachim Gauck once put it. For them, it will be so much easier to realise his vision for Europe’s future: "A European agora, a common forum for discussion to enable us to live together in a democratic order."

Learning and using English as our lingua franca is not a betrayal of our national or cultural loyalties. It does not amount to sacrificing Goethe or Molière, Dante or Cervantes to Shakespeare. In fact, it has nothing to do with Shakespeare. It is simply the instrument we need, from Göteborg to Nicosia and from Gdansk to Lisbon, to be able to communicate effectively and cheaply with one another, to exchange information and arguments, to mobilise successfully across national and linguistic borders – especially if we are neither rich nor powerful. Without such an instrument, there is no hope of creating a European demos sufficiently strong to enable the European Union to do what it needs to do for all of us Europeans – and for mankind as a whole.