Friday, 7 May 2010

My Europe Week: EU lingua franca?

If we applied the first past the post system, German would be the sole language of the European Union, being the mother tongue of the greatest proportion of the EU population (18 per cent), although far from an absolute majority (source: Wikipedia).

However, the European Union has wisely opted for both language rights for citizens and supporting actions to promote language learning (multilingualism). These questions, as well as the missed opportunities through dumbing down TV and film soundtracks by dubbing, have been discussed in three previous Grahnlaw My Europe Week blog posts.

Now is the time to look at linguistic matters from a different angle: Is there and should there be a lingua franca in the European Union?

Lingua franca

The Wikipedia article Lingua franca offers us a starting point for discussing a bridge language or a working language for speakers or readers with different mother tongues.

Here is my rough summary based on European political and cultural history:

Having been the language of the Roman Empire, Latin became the language of the Catholic Church, of learning, Courts and diplomacy. It survived as the first language of Western European diplomacy until the 17th century, and beyond that as part of a classical education well as the language of science.

With France at the height of its power, French became the first language of diplomacy, the preferred language of European Courts and of the nobility. (French was probably understood as well at the Court in Saint Petersburg as in France outside the Parisian region.)

Through the British Empire and the later rise of the USA, English has risen to prominence far beyond the confines of Europe. For the first time there is something approaching a world (second) language, if we take all speakers and readers into account.

Wikipedia describes English as the required international language in communications, science, business, aviation, entertainment, radio and diplomacy – crucial areas for global interaction and human progress.

Even if we embrace the EU’s aim to learn at least two foreign languages, should we universally opt for English as one of them?

Two additional questions:

Why do we start teaching children foreign languages so late, long after they have lost most of their ability to learn multiple languages almost effortlessly?

Why do our schools not generally use native speakers as teachers of foreign languages?

My Europe Week and My Europe Week are but two small examples of an emerging European public sphere you can join.

Ahead of Europe Day 9 May 2010: Share your Europe.

Ralf Grahn