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Thursday, 23 August, 2001, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Is the English language conquering Europe?
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European Commissioner Neil Kinnock has been accused of trying to increase the dominance of the English language in the European Union.
The French and German foreign ministers have made a formal protest to the European Commission about his proposals to cut the bill for translating documents.
They believe the plan - which would restrict some documents to the language in which they were written originally - would favour English.
Marc Roche of Le Monde newspaper, criticised Mr Kinnock's plans: "It's a terrible idea... It's a perfidious British plot in order to transform the EU into a sort of English speaking area."
Is English taking over as the dominant language in Europe and the rest of the world? Should we all be speaking in one tongue or do we risk losing the cultural diversity of a multilingual world?
We discussed this issue LIVE in our Talking Point phone-in programme broadcast on BBC World Service Radio and on BBC News Online. You can use the form at the bottom of the page to add to the debate.
This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
In this debate, I too would like to fly the flag for Esperanto. it is the only truly neutral language in the world. It is far from being dead, as asserted by some of your contributors. This is evidenced by the large number of Esperanto sites on the internet and the worldwide network of delegates of the Universal Esperanto Association delegates.
Having English as a universal language should be deemed an advantage. In this ever-shrinking world, we need a common spoken protocol to allow us to get by unhindered wherever in the world. If this language happens to be English, then let it be. By no means does this mean that one has to trade in one's own mother tongue. I speak 5 languages including English. I do not for one second consider myself English, but I certainly have an advantage over the person who can't speak it, both socially and cognitively.
However, after this programme, I am wondering if people that speak a different language as their "first language" are more aware of the variances of English throughout the UK, US, Australia, Canada, etc.
When we are communicating with people whose SECONDARY language is English, we need to make sure that we do not use 'figures of speech' and regional terms. After all, we are lucky in that we do not need to learn another language. So the least we can do is make it easier for people that are willing to learn our primary language, right?
On our first trip to Europe from the Antipodes a couple of years ago, England was the country where we had most language difficulties: a lifetime of Australian English just isn't good preparation for the various regional accents. Communication on the continent was simple, because we were constantly in touch with local Esperantists. By using Esperanto, EU countries could all keep their own language, their national pride, and much of the translation money. But maybe Neil Kinnock and Co. find it more fun to stir up trouble by pushing their own language.
Michael Chee, Singapore
Perhaps it is time Esperanto made a comeback...
The English language is a beautiful language, maybe it's like a rose. But who would ever want their garden just full of roses?
Alan Chambers, Warsaw, Poland
I find the idea really strange, if not dangerous. From the whole story, it is the English language which will draw enormous advantages and no one else! English as a world language is very widespread and it does not need a new push. The commission should concentrate rather on promoting the linguistic diversity of the EU instead of promoting English! And why English and not French? A lot of the EU bureaucrats speak excellent French. I am totally against this suggestion and I am afraid it can be taken as an alarming sign of the anti-democratic spirit of the EU.
The people who will really lose out if English becomes the international language are the English. Non-native English speakers can keep their own language and cultures but we will be forced to give ours up. English, as spoken by English people, is a diverse and beautiful language whether used by the world or just by the English.
My case is special because I live in a French-speaking country but I hate French. This is why I spend most of my time learning English. I notice that everything around me is English - the American films, the Internet, etc. I think the French and the Germans are jealous, but they can't stop the influence of English in Europe because the USA dominate the world by their language - English.
The usage of one language by another in certain fields is perfectly logical. It's exactly what happened when the Romans came north. Their language was exported through trade, and as administration, science and other new concepts were introduced into less advanced areas of our cultures. It's happened before, people, and there's no way of stopping it. Maybe the French should remember their repression of regional dialects in favour of Parisian French, not so long ago.
Vlad Povoroznic, Moldova
What is this difference between US English and UK English that people are going on about? - a 'z' instead of an 's' here and there and calling the things you wear on your legs by a different name. It's the same language with regional variations. Even in the UK, different parts of the country use different words for the same thing. If you speak English, be it UK or US, you understand what is said.
Well, I always find it quite embarrassing when the cash clerk in Amsterdam can speak three different languages fluently whilst the majority of 'professional' British people can barely order a beer in Dutch, or German, or French - terrible situation. Let's face it, folks, our language ability in the UK is appalling.
Garima Khare, Germany (Indian)
English is the great British export. The French and Germans inflict on the UK their EC bureaucracy. We retaliate by exporting our language. Frankly, what do the hypocritical French and Germans expect? After all, we are only playing by their rules.
In Brussels, English is widely spoken especially by lobbyists and it tends to be the common language when you get a group of people together from all corners of Europe either socially or in a work environment. But so what? If you take the time to learn other languages, this whole debate is irrelevant. Incidentally, much of the English spoken on the 'Continent' is of the American style, we Brits may not like that, but c'est la vie!
At the University of Southern California, as a student, I witnessed foreign students speaking a mix of their native language and English using the words from each that allowed them to best express themselves. Also, in Southern California, a new type of pidgin known as Spanglish has arisen with some second generation Hispanic-Americans.
And is English really so clear and logical for foreign speakers? What about rough, through, bough, lough and cough, (five different ways of pronouncing the "ough" cluster)? If we're talking about simplicity, then Spanish and Italian seem to me far more "logical" when it comes to spelling and pronunciation, even grammar. Every language has its peculiarities, and we should be celebrating these, rather than looking for petty reasons to make one language "superior".
English as an international language is used all over the world. Every person must know English to learn about world. So English is an important language.
English is the language of capitalism and it is therefore inevitable that it becomes the language of the capitalist societies that control this world. Long live Mother Russia!
My advice to the Germans and the French is to insist on making American English the EU standard. That will force the English of continental Europe - on that little island - to speak and write properly.
See how much they will enjoy doing that! Their moans and groans will equal the current mutterings of the Germans and French.
Language is the great divider of people on this planet. If we wish be as one then we need to speak as one.
Gaya Embuldeniya, Hong Kong
It makes sense to have a common language - and English is the natural choice. I don't see the prospect of another language at this point. Even those who speak the language with the most number of speakers, Mandarin Chinese, are rushing to learn English.
I feel that in the future English will remain the most widely spoken language of international trade. However, the other important languages of the world such as Russian, Spanish, Arabic, French and Portuguese will become more regionalised.
Thomas Dodd, UK
One thing you haven't discussed yet in your programme on the English language is the effect of the globalisation of English on the viability of other languages. We need to think of ways of helping smaller indigenous languages to survive before they reach the point of disappearing. One reason to try and preserve languages is that language and culture are closely related, and it would be a great pity if these cultures were lost for ever.
There seems to be an impression that British English and American English are vastly different. Aside from slightly different spellings for certain words, what is the difference?
John Wilsworth, South Africa
In my modest opinion English is already the only way of communicating effectively all over the world whether one likes it or not. I am not saying that it is fair but this is the reality and trying to take it back at this stage of the matters would be just ridiculous.
I agree with the melting-pot theory as to why English became a global language. It's this quality of adapting and assimilating elements from other cultures and tongues, that gives English that unique "je-ne-sais-quoi".
When confronted with foreign influences on their language, the French react with pompous chauvinism; the Germans torment themselves with angst, but the English have never made a great fuss about maintaining english in its pristine, "pukka" form. That is the great strength of this language.
Peter Aspey, Rotterdam, NL
Some of your comments about translating documents into just one-language sounds great. In California we translate all of our state and federal documents into what seems to be the cornucopia of languages. Not just Spanish, but Mandarin, Russian, Japanese, etc. I'm sure it's costing us tax payers a tremendous amount of money but at least immigrants are able (hopefully) to understand our laws better.
I agree with many respondents that if English is to be dominant for a time, it should be UK English and not the mutant form we speak in the US. I enjoy our hybrid as a cultural expression, but would not encourage its being forced on the unsuspecting non-American.
Nishant Gupta The Netherlands
One should learn English if they one to connect with the world. You can be an international pop star unless you sing it in English. Look at Celine Dion. She was singing in French and it didn't get her anywhere until she started singing in English.
Most people in the world speak at least two languages or dialects
the lingua franca and the very local one. English speakers of the world will miss out through not having their own
intimate and private language of their area.
You were quite right when you say that English ia a dominant language nowdays.It has got its popularity through its history. But as you know nothing lasts forever. Maybe Russian will substitude it some day. Who knows? No one.
The way I see it is that there will be a more mature(not necessarily pure) form of English emerging, a language that would have borrowed extensively from regional languages and dialects. With people coming closer than ever before the media will play a large part in what form English takes in Europe and elsewhere.
It might lead to a more homogeneous culture in Europe.
Bright Oduri-nimo Accra, Ghana
One should not forget the subdivisions within English as well. The English spoken in Louisiana and Mississippi is quite different from the English spoken in New York and the West End of London and Australia for example.
Charlie Diamond Toronto, Canada
In recent decades computers have played a role in the spread of English language that cannot be underestimated. One had and still has to make special efforts to use a different language in a computer environment, even if the language uses the same or almost the same alphabet. The complexity of the Japanese writing system has rendered it virtually impossible for the Japanese to use computers to write in their native language.
Plus, the Internet has been almost fully English until very recently. And in today's computerized society this is bound to have a tremendous effect.
Europe can never be truly united until we all speak the same language - it is unimportant what that language is. I'd happily speak French if everybody else in the EU was made to. If, as it seems, that Language ends up being English I only hope that the powers that be do all they can to make true English the official language and not the US hybrid that most continentals speak.
wim, Brussels, Belgium
I am all for english as a language of communication. However it is not democratic that the European Union wants to abolish a number of languages. I want to be able to read suggestions for new laws in my own language - and not everyone speaks english well enough to read a complicated law text. Do we only want academics to participate in the shaping of the future?
Once again, I have heard someone erroneously stating that "Chinese" is the most widely spoken language in the world and English comes second. There is no such language as "Chinese". Some people, wrongly, use this word to describe "Mandarin" but Mandarin is not spoken by all - or even a majority - Chinese people. Thus, English - whether we like it or not - is the most widely spoken language in the world.
I think English has it's own jurisdiction. The developed and entertainment
world is English because of America, but business is diverse in language.
however permit me to say that language like Chinese is difficult to learn.
Once the alphabet is same with english , it is easy like spanish and french.
At the EU bureaucratic level, it may make economic sense to reduce expenditure on translation expenses. Think about other worthwhile projects those funds can be spent on: housing projects for the poor, development aid, etc.
English is the dominant language of business and computing. French moaning will not change that.
Mark Cobb, Vienna, Austria
I personally think that we are a little too lazy. From what I've seen in school, people couldn't care less about trying to learn another language. Also, about holding on to native tongues... I think that we need to do that just as much as everyone else.
The reason why English has become the international language is because those in the USA which, like it or not, dominate the world in business and culture can not speak a second language. This is a product of chauvinism, geographic isolation, and an education system that does not strongly promote the learning of different tongues by its youth.
Seems to me that all your respondents so far have missed an important point - the "English" that is becoming the world language of trade and commerce is NOT the "Queen's English" but rather the "President's English" - Shaw wrote something to the effect that England and the USA are two countries separated by a common language - the language that is becoming worldwide is not English English but USAlish - already widely spoken in the U.K.
David Gatenby, Duesseldorf, Germany
Eric Ottens, Delray Beach, USA
As an (English) English teacher in Taiwan and formerly in Thailand, I say it is clear that (American) English is already the "lingua franca". I mourn the loss of cultural identity this causes, but these kids are avid to learn English from three years old.
I don't think English will take over the world but many people will know how to speak it. I personally think that the more languages you know, the better you are. From a language you can also learn about the culture, history and the meaning of the language and the country.
Apropos of the comments of some English responders, I recall an old canard quoted by my English grandfather that anyone can understand English if it's spoken loudly enough! Rule Britannica!
chris beck, USA
I work in retail, and I see thousands of multilingual labels and promotions in a year. It seems to me that the succintness of English gives it a great advantage. Example: for a 6 syllable label in English, German will use some 8 or 9, French and Spanish 12 to 14 syllables. I assume English's multiple inheritance (German & French) has given it the option to optimise over the centuries.
Babu Gorge, Shah Alam, Malaysia
Finally, if in doubt please try to learn Czech and the reasons for the dominance of English will become clear.
Spanish is not more spoken in ANY state in America than English. English is still the most overwhelmingly spoken language in Texas, New Mexico and other states where Mexican immigrants go. In the early 1900's, people had the same misconception about the massive amounts of German immigrants pouring into the states with little or no English skills. Those immigrants learned English as did all of the other European and Asian immigrants and the Mexican immigrants will too, eventually.
The reality is that people who cannot speak foreign languages are attached to the locality and make an easy underpaid and overtaxed labour. This labour is so scared to lose its local job that it is often ready to back any nationalist policies. Thus, the most basic labour and the most sophisticated elite together, hand in hand, try by all means to refrain the middle class to switch from the French to the English.
As far as Germany and France are concerned, neither their language nor their culture is in any danger of extinction. Will the French and the Germans stop learning their language if it's not an "official EU language"? Will they abandon their culture? I doubt it... How come small countries like Greece keep their language and culture, and huge countries like Germany and France are afraid of losing them?
Kieran Wright, Hong Kong China
I don't see a problem with English dominating the world. Doesn't everybody use automobiles, doesn't everybody use electricity, doesn't everybody use computers? Who cares about where all these inventions came from. Everybody should use English. Who cares if it came from England.
As a French scientist working in an English-speaking environment I can complain about a few things but I have to admit that English makes communication easier. However English is often more "sloppy" than French, which tends to be more precise, a useful trait for diplomatic transactions for example. One of my problems is that the use of English selects people on their fluency in English at the expense of other qualities. Take a top scientist unable to get understood in English (as are some French or Japanese people) and their work becomes almost useless.
I think that people who want to save "money" by using a unique
language are the same who think that the EC is too expensive for their "purse". These kind of people forget that national language is not money but 'CULTURE'. They forget that national language is not Mac Do but it is literature, poetry, charm - everything which makes our world beautiful.
Speak well of others and others will speak well of you, and it won't matter what language you speak it in!
Daniel, Fryslân, Netherlands
Most participants of this discussion are just people with English as their mother tongue. It would be nice to discuss this issue on a European platform. I'm sure that most people with English as a second language are proud of their abilities and do want to practice it. But in most cases the level of communication is relatively poor. As a result I think that people need to cultivate their own mother tongue first and may additionally try to communicate in a second language as well as possible. This second language may be French or Spanish or German or English or what else. We should not focus on English too much.
Regardless of which language eventually 'wins', surely it's a good idea for everyone to be fluent in at least 2 languages - their native tongue and one other - regardless of whether their first is English? (Which English? British or US version? Have you recently tried to get an office software package that has UK English as the default option?
Vera, Saint Petersburg
The French have a deep psychological problem with the already very real domination of the English language. Just look at the wording of Le Monde: "a perfidious British plot". This is propaganda from the French media, but look at who screams the loudest: the French and the Germans, ie those who want to dominate the EU. Their crusade isn't about protecting small languages, but about imposing their own.
I believe having a common language (I'm not going to comment on whether it should be English, French or any of the European languages) in an institution like the EU would facilitate communication and avoid misunderstandings. It is important, however, not to suppress or undervalue other languages. Languages are the mirror of our cultures and they reflect our diversity. Living in such a cosmopolitan city as London has broadened my mind and made me realise one thing: the world is beautiful because it is varied.
"Who really wants to live in a world of 3000 languages?" I do for one.
I think people should speak only two languages. One their mother tongue and the other English.
Chinese is the most spoken language in the world spoken by 885 million people, followed by Spanish which is spoken by 332 million people. Why don't they complain about these?
The EU has 15 members, 11 official languages and rising possibly to 23. The 4000 translators cost 40% of the EU admin budget.
The UN has 189 members, 6 official languages Arabic; English; French; Mandarin; Russian and Spanish. They publish all documents in just 2 languages: English and French.
If the EU can't resolve their language problem which has obvious strong multicultural aspects what hope for pragmatic solutions to real EU problems most of which also have multicultural aspects?
I am a German living in Canada and therefore totally immersed into an English speaking environment. While I think that there is a tangible economic advantage to not translating documents under the premise that English is understood by 'everyone' (a bit blue-eyed in my view), we should ask ourselves if we are really ready to streamline everything in Europe for economical reasons.
Gerber Ruth, Thun, Switzerland
I'm quite amazed at certain comments! Being French and having lived in the UK and Spain, I consider myself European, speaking 4 of its languages (French, English, Spanish and German) and yes I'm a normal person, not super-gifted as some of my English native speaker friends think. I believe that every country has the right to read a text in its own language in order to avoid misinterpretation. Having studied translation, I know that some ideas are "untranslatable" for reasons of culture most of the time.
Besides, long before the entering of the UK into the EU, a single language called Esperanto was trying to emerge as being the real "mixed language" for Europe. Where it is nowadays? Hardly anyone speaks it! Single currency? OK. Single language? No. We need our cultural differences, our nation's identity to express ourselves. Tolerance, please!
Hmm. Originating from Ireland I can tell you all that losing your indigenous language kills your culture. When Ireland was swallowed up by Britain the Irish were put into an English-speaking school system. Result? The Irish language was 99% destroyed. And what is Irish culture now? Advertisements for Guiness. Lose your language = lose your soul. I am always being told that if it wasn't for the British I'd be speaking German. Well, if it wasn't for the British I'd be speaking Irish.
EM Needle, England but German
English is the greatest, richest language in the world. In fact,it ought to be the only language in the world. There might be less conflict and misunderstandings if we could all communicate in the same tongue. The French are just jealous (as always)
I do find it ironic seeing the English getting worked up about the French, Germans or whoever telling them what language to use, when they have been doing the same within their own Union for the last 800 years or more.
Amjad Deen, Prague, Czech Republic
Language - any language - is a living thing. It has a dynamic of its own, and there are many cases throughout history that show how enforcement of a particular language only lasts until the enforcer's back is turned. A case in point is Welsh. Surely few in Wales would see the sense in bringing back Welsh as the main official language, but its strong rise in popularity over the last generation shows that there is still vibrant life left in it.
I work as a translator of EU-related texts (Finnish-English)and cannot see that the Finns - who so valiantly fought for independence in the early 1900's - would ever give up their own language. Instead they learn English (and speak it better than many who call it their mother tongue) or any other language that may be necessary in business, politics, education or culture. Forget the arguments; what lives or dies in the world of communication is up to those involved in the day-to-day process of getting on together in a multi-lingual world.
Lawrence, The Netherlands
Make everyone speak Latin - truly the mother tongue.
As a former TEFL teacher in the Czech Republic, English was the dominant foreign language with German a poor second and French nowhere. If we are to expand the EU and we are all to communicate English is the best option. This might not satisfy the Germans or French, but frankly being part of the EU seems to mean making compromises and fudges, so for once they will have to accept this one.
English is undoubtedly the only universal language right now thanks to the United States of America though this may not continue because Spanish could take its role sooner rather than later. This may seem preposterous to some but evidence shows that this is the way things are going in the States.
English readers should make allowances for Mr Fischer, the German foreign minister. He didn't go to university, but he makes efforts with his English. I wonder how many UK politicians including Neil, are able to use German. The last one that I can remember is Dennis Healey, and that was some time ago. Instead of making such proposals, perhaps Neil should look at foreign language education in UK comps. It would be interesting to know how many Labour MPs are competent at all in foreign languages.
As a professional engineer who has spent the last 6 years working abroad all over Europe I can only say that the Brits are an arrogant bunch of people who expect everyone else to speak English. However, generally speaking we make no effort whatsoever to even master a few simple phrases and it is this arrogance which I truly believe gets up our European counterparts' noses.
Steve Morris, Official Spokesman for Neil Kinnock
Oh my! if people really do think that "everyone in the world speaks English" they really do need to travel more!
Fabien, UK (France)
Throughout the past 400 years, the English (and later Americans too) have proved their contempt for cultural identities all over the world. Even in Britain, how many Englishmen speak Welsh, or Manx? This plan of Commissioner Kinnock is just a continuation of that imperialist attitude. Besides, translation costs can be reduced using modern speech software.
It is quite possible that in job and education related matters the question has already been answered - English is almost without doubt every European's native, 2nd or 3rd tongue - no offence meant to the minority constituting the exception. But I find this to be a transitory cultural phenomenon. As soon as Eastern Asia rules by the strength of its economy as the USA and the EU do now, some standard form of Chinese will emerge as a global language. Simplified from its current patterns no doubt - or the USA and EU would probably not take it in as its common 2nd language - but no less universal than Latin or English were in their time.
Patrick Martin, N. Ireland
A common language is an inevitable consequence of globalisation. This is already English, although we may therefore expect a few anarchists to start storming the White Cliffs of Dover. All Neil Kinnock was trying to do was save the EU taxpayer the unnecessary cost of translation. The irony is that this will make it more difficult for the Brits who will have to learn to read other languages. I think our French and German friends have rather shot themselves in the foot. Perhaps they should write more in their own languages rather than accepting the de facto dominance of English. We should also encourage our EU partners to join with us in making a European English that is spelt correctly and not in the US manner that we see all too frequently.
Are the outcries of the Eurocrats simply jingoistic cries to appeal to their own electorates or do they represent the opinion and responsibilities of the European Union as a whole? Similarly, if French or German were proposed as the predominant sprache, would this outcry be as loud and seem so misplaced in the UK? Probably not.
John Gant, UK
Well, the problem is that English is so much easier to learn than most other languages....
We are fighting here in Wales to preserve our language (Cymraeg), which is being eroded because of the influence of English. Why? Because language is an integral part of culture, and we value our cultural identity. How awful if we were to create a world with only one language and only one culture! Let's celebrate our diversity. Translation costs are a small price to pay to preserve the richness of our cultural diversity.
The one intelligent thing Kinnock has said or done in his entire life.
Joanna A, Spain
The French and Gerrman people might feel easier by the fact that it is not British English that has conquered Europe - it is American English. My ten year experience in Europe told me that very few French/German chaps like to speak British English. They like to drink Coca Cola while speaking in European-styled American accents. The United States of America conquered the United States of Europe a long time ago.
There are more people outsidide the UK who consider English their first language. Ironically, this non-UK English-speaking majority does not reside in the EU. In addition, the UK is a stronghold of anti-EU scepticism, which provides even less justification for English to become the EU's dominant language. Therefore, the importance of the language will eventually decline, especially after the EU expands its Eastern borders. Just wait 40-50 years.
While working in Korea I found that when Koreans dealt with the Japanese the common language was English. What do the Asians know that the EU doesn't besides making better cars and electronic equipment?
Working in a multicultural environment is pretty tricky, I've been in one for nearly 8 years and really appreciate when I can read documents in my native tongue. Unless issues are fully understood, there is scope for mis-interpretation and the effect could cost more than saving the translation fee. This is the cost of being a union of diverse states and we have to accept that. If the tales are true, it sounds like that there could be more to be gained by saving money on travel and entertainment costs.
Why can't we agree that each document submitted by every national delegation be in its national language AND in Latin! Latin is a 'dead' language (so no national-linguistic problems here), is spoken by quite a few people in our continent and it forms the basis of many (if not most) current official EU languages. It would further revitalise the study of classics - not a bad thing after all.
Tony Questa, UK
Everyone's second language in Europe is naturally English for a variety of reasons - eg trade with USA, international conventions for flying etc. However what is the second language for us poor Brits ? We can't learn them all. Our current form of English is a pretty good mix of Roman Latin, William the Conqueror's French and Saxon German plus a lot of Greek for good measure. It's a truly international language. However I believe the 'Global Village' is gradually standardising on 4 languages at the moment including Chinese, Spanish and Arabic. So EC readers take your pick. Which one of the Global Languages do you think will win out in the end?
14 Aug 01 | UK Politics
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