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Respekt in English

The English Language Is Ours!

Post-Brexit, there is still only one choice for the shared tongue the European project so badly needs

Slavíme brexit • Autor: REUTERS, Alastair Grant
Slavíme brexit • Autor: REUTERS, Alastair Grant

After French Deputy European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune suggested European Union institutions stop using “broken English” post-Brexit and return to the golden times of European multilingual diversity, the Eurozine website published a piece arguing the exact opposite point of view. In the article Belgian political philosopher Philippe Van Parijs calls on Europeans to “re-accept” English after the British retreat back across the Channel so this European language can become the absolutely neutral, shared, naturally-unifying language of the EU community.

If there exists a standout trend in the linguistic development of Europe during the last few decades, it is without a doubt the enormous intergenerational growth of those who use English in countries where it is not natively spoken, writes Professor Van Parijs. Among older citizens of the EU, German remains the most widespread language, but among the younger citizens, English is more than three times as widespread as any other language.

This dramatic expansion is not limited just to Europe. Most countries today, in many branches of endeavor and social situations, deliver information in their national language for locals and in English for foreign nationals. Even in Beijing the names of streets are posted in both Chinese and English – and even though Mandarin is the language with the most native speakers worldwide, it probably will never easily manage to reverse the planetary dominance of the English language. According to surveys conducted several years ago, 40 million people outside of China have learned Chinese, but four times as many people have attempted to learn English just in China itself.

The global spread of the English language has also naturally had an impact on European Union institutions. After the EU expanded to include Austria, Finland, and Sweden in 1995, English rose to the level of the hitherto completely dominant French language in terms of influence and use, and after the accession of the East European members, English absolutely controlled the communications field: most first versions of documents are released in English, press conferences are held in English, and whenever the necessity of delivering information in just one language arises anywhere in the EU information network, that language is English 100 percent of the time.

Will all of this change now that the British have left? Before Brexit, native speakers of English in the EU were the second-largest group after those who “have” some German; after Brexit, the number of those same English speakers fell to eighth place, behind the Dutch. Will English begin to disappear from European institutions, therefore? The answer is “No,” Van Parijs continues. English did not become the EU’s communications language on the basis of an official decision, or because Britain was a member state. What pushed English into its position as the lingua franca is simply the self-reinforcing weight of its prevalence. Moreover, post-Brexit the English language has acquired a kind of new neutrality. The choice to use English no longer implies the awareness that any particular member state is enjoying a major benefit from its use.

Looking ahead, it is also up to the Europeans to once again appropriate English as their own language. Historically, English is a continental language that was imposed through two sequential invasions by European tribes on the indigenous inhabitants of the biggest island near European shores. The Angles and the Saxons brought Germanic components to the mix during the 5th century, while the Normans seasoned it with French six centuries later. The resulting hybrid later spread throughout the entire British Isles and a large part of North America and Oceania.

What now lies ahead for the Europeans is the task of working with this language as if it were their own. We must stop associating English with the British flag and begin considering it a language that is also ours, speaking it unimpeded with the entire arsenal of our accents. We must also give ourselves the right to develop this language and to add innovations to it that we deem appropriate. British people will forgive us, but it is no business of theirs to force their isolated version of our own communications language on us. Many people in the United Kingdom saw Brexit as a journey toward retaking control over their country; likewise, [Van Parijs writes,] it’s time we regain control over our own language!

Doing so, of course, is a task we are very far from fulfilling. It is very important to expand people’s ability to speak English as fast as possible and to boost it in the EU, because things are as former German President Joachim Gauck once said:

“It is true to say that young people are growing up with English as the lingua franca. However, I feel that we should not simply let things take their course when it comes to linguistic integration. … A common language would make it easier to realize my wish for Europe’s future – a European agora, a common forum for discussion to enable us to live together in a democratic order.”

Without a common language, without a shared tongue, such a forum where Europeans might be able to hear and speak with each other will never be created. To rely on an army of expensive interpreters is not a viable alternative. Brexit, therefore, changes nothing in the linguistic respect, and English is decidedly not condemned to disappear from the European continent. On the contrary, it is quite likely to spread even further.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert. Vychází ve spolupráci s TransitionsOnline

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