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


  1. Slartibartfas7 May 2010 at 21:03

    Elementary schools in Austria are starting English classes already right from the very start. If the aim would be to go beyond that you'd have to start already in the kindergarten.

    There are not a lot of native speakers working as foreign language teachers though. While this might be nice, I don't think it is so incredibly important for anything other than to learn a more accent free language.

    How is it like in other member states?

  2. Slartibartfas,

    If I have understood correctly, children learn languages most effortlessly before they reach school age, so actually starting in kindergarten would be a good idea.

    I believe that it is better to start learning a language with any teacher than not at all, but I suspect that the lack of native speakers as teachers has to do more with teachers' unions and bureaucratic impediments than with looking for optimal outcomes for the pupils.

  3. And would'nt be the best to have some common language that everyone would learn from its first "days" directly from its parents - something like a "paternal language"? (I know, it is a very daring idea, but unfeasible?)

  4. citizen of Europe,

    Do you mean a language learnt alongside the mother tongue?

    Babies have a capacity to learn different languages (in bilingual homes, for instance), but at a practical level and to encompass all, it could be organised when children start in daycare.

    My choice would be English as one of the (at least) two foreign languages everyone learns.

    As good Europeans, all Brits would learn two foreign languages as well.

  5. "Do you mean a language learnt alongside the mother tongue?"

    Yes, I mean. In my view, it would be ideal if one language were, that everybody in Europe would very well know and that would speak at his child together with the mother tongue from its first days. One parent would speak a respective mother tongue and the other parent would speak the common European language. Thus, every person in Europe would be bilingual. Is it unrealistic?

  6. I'm surprised that there has been no mention here yet of Esperanto - a language I have used as a lingua franca for my contacts in Europe for many years.

    One great advantage of Esperanto is that is (almost) no one's mother tongue. (There are a few native speakers, the product of marriages between people weith different mother tongues.

    I should like to see more use made of Esperanto both because of its own intrinsic value and because it can serve as a useful introduction to language learning. Four schools in Britain are using Esperanto as a tool for language awareness under a progeramme called Springboard.

  7. Bill Chapman,

    There are reasons to argue for esperanto, and its fans are dedicated, but very few.

  8. Grahnlaw.

    Where did you receive the information that "Esperanto fans are very few" I agree with Bill Chapman that serious attention should be given to Esperanto.

    Your readers may wish to have a look at the following video

    A glimpse of the Esperanto language can be seen at :)


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