Which language for Europe?

More than half of Europe's citizens did not vote in the elections for the European
Parliament, but the institution faces more challenges than those of
credibility. One of the great challeges faced by the Parliament is the
number of languages it uses: after the admission of Bulgaria and
Romania these now total 23, practically one per European state.
Etymologically, the word Parliament derives from a word
actually meaning "speaking", but if the members of Parliament speak 23
different languages, what kind of Parliament can this be?

The European Parliament is not the only one to use several
languages: the Belgian parliament, for instance, has two and the Swiss
use four. However the MPs of these individual countries are able to
understand one another without the need for interpreters. (Despite its
tremendous linguistic diversity, India's parliament has only two
official procedural languages - English and Hindi. If they feel unable
to address the assembly in either of the two languages, members are
allowed to speak in any of the country's nearly two dozen languages,
with translation provided.) This is not so in the European Parliament:
the work of the Assembly and the Committees entail the MPs being
assisted by a team of interpreters. The possible language combinations
have increased with the growing number of languages. You need a
calculator to work out how many they are - 23*22 - a total of 506! 
This requires the help of 403 full time interpreters and several
thousand external collaborators so that Euro MPs can speak and listen
in their own language.

It is no easy task, even for the European Parliament, to find
translators from Finnish to Greek, or from Portuguese to Bulgarian.
However, Eurocracy is ingenious, and to reduce costs it uses double
translation: those who speak less widely known languages are first
translated into the principal languages (English, French or German) and
then retranslated into all the other less common languages. One wonders
how much the substance of the MPs speeches is altered by the second or
third translation.

Woe betide anyone trying to include a truly amusing joke in a
parliamentary speech: it is nothing like the British House of Commons
where the quips and the responses make the parliamentary debates more
lively than a stage play. If an unwary MP cracks a joke in the European
Parliament you first hear the roar of laughter of those following the
speech in the original language and then one after the other of those
listening in the first, second and umpteenth translation. However, the
linguistic machine manages to work: the Parliament has only 403
interpreters, even if they are also helped by several thousand external
collaborators; no one is prevented from speaking and listening in their
own language.

But not even 23 official languages are enough to keep everyone
happy. The linguistic minorities are also demanding to be able to use
their own language. Among the more insistent are the Catalans, on the
grounds that they alone make up nearly 10 million Europeans,
practically twice as many as the Danes and Finns, four times more than
the Slovenes and 25 times more than the Maltese. Similar demands are
made by the Basques and the Corsicans. And then what about the
approximately thirty million "third-country citizens" living in Europe
and who speak all the languages of the planet?

It seems impossible that all these demands can be met. Some are now
calling for the number of official languages to be reduced, or indeed
to raise English to the status of sole official language of the
Parliament. But to formally accord this privilege to the language of
two states could lead to resentment being felt in all the other states.
To tell the truth, even Ireland must be a little skeptical; it demanded
successfully that Gaelic should become an official language. If we
account that only a few Irish are able to understand and even fewer to
speak Gaelic, it is clear that language policy, in this instance, has
been used as an instrument of identity rather than of communication
(for a further discussion of language and identity in the EU, see
Patrizia Nanz, Europolis. Constitutional Patriotism Beyond the Nation State, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007; and Peter A. Kraus, A Union of Diversity. Language, Identity and Polity-Building in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

But a lingua franca is desperately needed. The Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, has suggested reviving Latin ,
an idea that would place all the MPs in a condition of equality (and
certainly of similar difficulty), although Latin would further alienate
the people from European institutions.

Will English become the single official language of the European
Parliament, defeating its many diplomatic resisters? After all, English
is already the most popular second language in the world as well as in
Europe (see Eurobarometer, Europeans and their Languages,
February 2006). But it is one thing to use English in business, tourism
and education, and quite another to grant a special political privilege
to the language of one of the 27 member countries. To ask the Euro MPs
to speak a foreign language would enormously restrict the number of
those eligible for election. There would be a risk of creating an
assembly of technocrats that is distant from the people's needs. And
certainly it does not help that English is also the language of an EU
member state with a large density of euro-skeptics and which has not
adopted the European currency.

But the march of English as lingua franca is difficult to stop. Even
in the Swiss Parliament it is increasingly common to hear MPs of the
French and German cantons communicating in English.

Perhaps the European Parliament should try to be part of the solution
rather than of the problem. If all European students would study
English as a second language, then in a couple of generations, both the
MPs and their electorate would finally be able to understand each
other. This might well be the most far-sighted measure to propose to
the new European Parliament to bring back to the European polls at
least some of those who stayed at home.

Daniele Archibugi is director of the Italian National Research Council and professor of innovation, governance and public policy at Birkbeck College, University of London. This article has been republished from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence. 


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