In the world today, English, in all its variations, occupies an undeniably central place. From the offices of multinational corporations, to university classes and research teams, to local marketplaces and cafes like the one I’m sitting in. In a town in the middle of Denmark, my cafe table numbers Danes, Spaniards, and Germans – guess how we’re communicating?
When it comes to English, communication is precisely the point. English is a means of communication in the globalized world. According to the Harvard Business Review, business today speaks English. Even when a company in Germany is dealing with another German company, there is no guarantee that the employees will be German speakers. If you visit an industrial farm in Denmark, the working language isn’t Danish – it’s English. The presence and importance of English as the working language globally is so apparent that four out of five Europeans consider English the language worth learning for the future. English today is not the property of its native speakers, it is the lingua franca of the world. English transcends cultures and borders, and the assertion that the EU should drop English as one of its working languages is therefore highly problematic.
In an article published today in The Euroculturer, the argument is made that without the UK to notify English as an official EU language, it would not be acceptable to grant English the prestigious status as official and official working language of the EU. This argument is based on the assumption that languages are inextricably joined to their native speakers and nations, and that the working languages of the EU are an expression of the status of those nations, cultures, and speakers. In response, this present article will argue that even without the UK, the EU and the rest of the world still very much have English.
In his article, Ian Snel points out how Brexit will rob the EU of most of its native English speakers. Of the three working languages of the EU, German and French will then be more ‘appropriate’ working languages because they represent a greater part of the populace – but are the working languages of the EU determined on a principle of relative prevalence of mother tongues? If that were really the case, Italian should already have overtaken the position of French, being the mother tongue of 13% of the EU population to French’s 12%. Clearly, the official working languages of the EU are determined based on more than the relative number of native speakers. That is as it should be, because what we are discussing here are the working languages of the EU – not the languages of a hypothetical EU-nation. These working languages are not meant to signify the importance of some languages over others, they are meant to serve as practical solutions to the obstacles presented by transnational communication.
Now that is not to say that in the selection of the EU working languages there is no dilemma present concerning the relative importance. The position and status granted to German and French in the European Union has been said to contribute to, or be a consequence of, the large influence that both Germany and France exert on EU matters in general. The case of English, however, might be another matter. Without the UK, English is not tied to the national interests of a powerful member state, and more importantly, the language itself is already liberated from national constraints as a result of its global use.
The link between English as a language and its native speakers or countries, is today a very weak one. In fact, non-native English speaker outnumber the natives by four to one. By being the go-to language for an immense array of interaction on the global stage, English is no longer bound to or owned by its native speakers. When a Czech student discusses globalization with her Hungarian classmate, she isn’t speaking through a filter of British culture, but expressing herself in the language she learned for communication with foreigners. English for these two students is just the chosen lingua franca, the vehicle for communication in a transcultural space. The globalized English language is not inherently tied to a specific culture. The EU is therefore not in any danger of the UK exerting undue influence over its affairs simply by using the English language. English in its international form has been stripped of the cultural references and assumptions inherent in one culture, and made to serve as a tool of communication across cultures. International English is a medium for communication, not for national identification.
The official languages of the EU are important for internal matters, for representation and equality of member states. The working languages, however, are not necessarily tied to representation, but to efficiency. In this area, English has an enormous advantage. If the EU means to maintain or expand its prominence in the world, English is an essential tool. It would be detrimental to international efforts if the EU ceased to communicate in English. Even within the EU, English is an important unifying element. German and French are prevalent and important languages in the European context, but it is English that Erasmus students, employees of European companies, and national officials, primarily learn and communicate in outside of their country. If the Eurocrats would now only communicate in German or French, how will the citizens of, for instance, Eastern Europe or the Baltics – countries that in most cases have replaced compulsory Russian-learning with English as the primary foreign language in education – react to such a development? It’s unlikely that it will make the EU seem less like the elitist and detached organization it is often painted as.
The importance of the English language and the supposed link between English and the British culture has met resistance before. Postcolonial writers and activists have long argued the case for ‘Englishes’ or for the existence of a non-national ‘English’ language separate from the English of the colonizer – of the UK. These languages, sometimes considered forms of ‘pidgin’ English, are languages in their own right. They have created a hybridized English to fit their cultural needs. The English language has grown and responded to the different local cultures, until it has become a language that they can use for communication, but in many cases also for identification. This shows that the language can be appropriated and expanded outside of the original spheres. It would be in a very different context, but perhaps by a similar process, that English today could realize its new potential for becoming a decentralized, global language. Perhaps, Brexit could mean that English could serve as a needed neutral medium for communication at the European level.
Kathrine Jensen is a first semester student of the Erasmus Mundus Euroculture MA at Deusto University. Her academic background is in comparative literature and cultural studies.