Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

 You are in: Talking Point: Debates: European
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Monday, 30 April, 2001, 10:06 GMT 11:06 UK
Should Europe speak English?
The English language is often the one common tongue that Europeans of various nationalities use to communicate - whether doing business or having a drink together.

In the 1990s, English overtook French as the language in which most European Commission texts are initially drafted.

With European enlargement and the prospect of yet another handful of languages battling to join the eleven existing official ones, is it time to make English the official language of Europe?

Is the English language good for Europe?

For this Europewide debate, Europe Today's Laurence Zavriew brought together Robert Phillipson, professor at the Copenhagen business school's English department; and Juliana House, professor of linguistics at the University of Hamburg.

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

Where is the need for the proclamation of an official language?

Simon Young, Germany
Where is the need for the proclamation of an official language? People will communicate in the languages of their choice. They will not appreciate pressure from politicians to choose one language over another. On the question of what language the officials and institutions of the European Union should be using, I would say they have a responsibility to stimulate and promote the language cultures of all member states and regions. That means official documents should be published in all languages used by, say, at least half a million EU citizens. Some people in the EU keep whinging about translation and interpreting being intractable and unaffordable, especially when new members join the Union. But the EU is rich enough to keep its linguistic house in order. And it has a duty to make a polyglot officialdom work.
Simon Young, Germany

English is an appropriate choice because it is one of most adaptable; it readily receives new words from many languages. Although technically a Germanic language, a majority of its words come from other sources; almost half come from Latin and Greek. Thanks to the success of William the Conqueror at Hastings in 1066 about 15% of its words come directly from old French.
Vinton E. Heuck, USA

As an American, I feel lucky to have English as my primary language. However, while on student trips to Europe, I never cease to be appalled at other Americans who think that "everyone" speaks English. I like to think of myself as a considerate traveller and always make an effort to speak the language of the country I happen to be in, even if the vocabulary consists only of "please" and "thank you". As for an official EU language, if only one language must be selected, it should be French, if only because it has been the dominant diplomatic language for nearly 400 years.
Andrew, USA

Living in Switzerland I see how natural it can be for people to learn one or more languages well besides their mother tongue. The same principle should be applied to the rest of the EU, particularly language-shy countries like the UK. People will tend to opt for one of the big languages, true, but at least Europe will retain some of its diversity and the languages can still evolve.
Jonker, Switzerland

English is the lingua franca, just as Latin was during the Roman Empire. It has a role to play as the language of the dominant culture in the world, but it will be a bridge just as people will speak French or German to understand each other. My girlfriend is Italian, I am Spanish, we live in Austria and speak in German Itaņol to understand each other.
Rodolfo Losada, Austria

The beauty of Europe is its cultural and linguistic diversity. Establishing English as the official language of Europe would give the English and Americans even more excuse to be lazy learning a 2nd or 3rd language.
Richard Bee, UK

It would just be an extension of a common ground

Hamzah, UK
It would just be an extension of a common ground. English is most certainly used by Europeans to converse with each others when travelling in Europe as I found out while Inter-railing. I particularly remember two people next to me on a train were trying to start a conversation in broken English until I pointed out to them that they were in fact both German!
Hamzah, UK

I think that English is widely spoken enough without putting a meaningless label on it. All the official status will do is wind up other European nations, which is something that I think we can do without!
Matthew Percival, UK

English is known throughout the world due to the vast expanses that the Empire covered, and this would allow the whole world to be able to trade far easier with Europe due to a common language. It would also be a lot easier for the Americans!
Tom O'D, UK

No! All the main languages of Europe should be treated equally- French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Polish. Diversity is a gem that Europe should keep.
Anonymous, USA

If we have to have a single language then Greek must be the first choice

George, UK
If we have to have a single language then Greek must be the first choice. That is not just because it's the mother of all other European languages but for its completeness and descriptiveness - why else is it used in medicine? From a political perspective this option will probably be the best for our European cousins to agree on. After all when they were searching for a name for the new European currency they came up with the Greek derivative 'Euro'
George, UK

Oral English? YES.
Written English? NO.
Or take all EU languages and make one official EU language by using the proportion of people to allocate words. Or better yet make just one official world language and ditch all other languages.
Mac, NZ

Great, I can come to Euroland and speak one language and use one currency. Book my flight!
Bubba Holloway, USA

It is not about the English people learning other languages (or not), or whether the French are offended by the use of English, but what works best in a global community - English is by far the business language of choice and is used throughout the world as the "standard". If the EU wants to position itself as a global player then there is no debate. All you have to do is read this board and see how many people from all over are able to communicate in English!
Chanti Teo, Hong Kong

English has become the first global language

Stephen Kenney, USA
Much to the disappointment of the French, like it or not, be it worthy or not, English has become the first global language. It's the official language of aviation, it's first choice for international business, it's the primary foreign language taught in non-English speaking countries worldwide. On a personal note, as an American who lived in Spain, I wound up speaking more English than Spanish, for many people I met spoke English quite well, and were very eager to exercise their English prowess.
Stephen Kenney, USA

Working in an EU country and in a technical field, the most common language is English. After that perhaps German and Spanish... I see no good reason to not adopt English as the common language of the times - previously it's been French, German, Latin etc. So why not?
Chris Mellor, Netherlands

Old German should be the dominant language of German led Europe. Are we not the big boss in Europe?
Hans Zimmerman, Germany

French should be the one, because we cannot speak another language. The British can speak French easily.
Pier Loti, France

Ethnic diversity and languages should remain

Saratsiotis Philippe, USA
I personally believe that English as an official European language in top level meetings is a good idea. After all, the majority of politicians or ministers do speak the language. However, at local level, ethnic diversity and languages should remain and be respected since that is the essence of Europe.
Saratsiotis Philippe, USA

German and English should be taught in schools throughout the Union as second languages. Being so similar, they are equally easy to learn. I have found in many European countries where one language is not easily understood, the other is.
Jacquie, England

Having English as your mother tongue is the biggest advantage of being born in Britain - in international business and politics, its use is unrivalled. But as an English speaker, I could not imagine imposing my language on others and have made efforts to learn French and German. Everyone in Europe, the Brits included, must aim to learn at least one foreign language. Granting English an official status would make the British even more disinclined to learn languages and appreciate the diverse cultures of the European Union.
Jon Worth, UK, soon Germany

In a word: NO. There are much better languages than English. Diversity is what makes Europe!!!
Andre, USA

The language may be called English but it belongs to the world!

John, England
If Europe is to have an official language then, yes, I think it should be English. I support this because I wish to one day know that all of the people in the world will be able to talk to each other without problems. English becoming official as Europe's language will mean we are on the way to achieving that. It is not a question of my nationality, the language may be called English but it belongs to the world!
John, England, UK

There is no reason why global English should not be the language of choice for the EU. I work in scientific research, where anyone who doesn't speak English is quickly left behind (which has been the case for about 15 years now). If you want a conference, publication or meeting to happen, it has to be in English. I have just spent a month in the Netherlands where Italians, French, Spaniards, Americans and Dutch will work and socialise in English. The Dutch speak excellent English, but it doesn't seem to have had a big effect on their culture - books and TV shows are still made in Dutch. I see English as a trading language, like Malay was in the 15th century, and it shouldn't be a threat to anyone. Just think of all the money that the EU could save on translation.
Ed, UK, Europe

I have no problem with putting a label "official" on English in Europe as long as at least 2 other languages are declared mandatory for use in legal matters and official documents (passports, contracts, laws, public announcements, etc). On the other hand, it is really not necessary because English is already assumed as "worldwide international default". Europe-wide discrimination against German as a result of WW2 must stop. Headphone translation at conferences and TV subtitles must be available in 3 groups of languages: Roman (French, Spanish, Italian), Germanic (English, German) and Slavic (Serbian, Czech, Bulgarian, Polish, Russian). Among all Slavic languages, Russian is undoubtedly the most widely understood.
Yevgeni, Russia

I feel it should be mandatory for the British to learn at least one other European language

Caterina, England
Whether we like it or not, English has evolved into the international lingua franca, let alone the most commonly spoken language within Europe. This seems to have happened without making it 'official'. It does worry me that 'officialising' it could provide an even stronger disincentive for native English speakers to learn other European languages. I feel it should be mandatory for the British to learn at least one other European language to at least an intermediate level, preferably an advanced level in fact. As a native English speaker, I feel frustrated that frequently, when I speak other languages abroad, (Greek, French, German and Italian) I am replied to in English. There seems to be an assumption that, because I am obviously British, I am just incapable of speaking another tongue. Recently I was listening to a radio programme discussing this issue and one of the guests suggested that Greek would in fact be a suitable lingua franca for Europe, being the 'mother of European civilisation'. I'd be happy with that, as I already speak it! And it would eliminate the angst that the French particularly seem to feel about English becoming Europe's language.
Caterina, England

NO!! I am an Indian who has lived in Germany, the US and now England, and I find the absence of indigenous culture in England absolutely appalling. The only reason English is popular is because it is, like most aspects of English culture, LAZY AND EASY. Until the English show more maturity and commonsense in their approach to Europe, there is no reason why their language should be elevated any further - how many English people have you met who have ever bothered to learn another language???
Rustam Roy, England

Yes! Because it annoys the French!
Alex Chiang, Australia

Why should other countries make the effort to learn English, while we sit and do nothing?

Mark, England
There should be no "European Language". We will lose cultural diversity, and part of the adventure in travelling abroad. Why should other countries make the effort to learn English, while we sit and do nothing?
Mark (age 18), England

The EU is growing. The EU bureaucrats can either add to the number of 'official languages' or choose an official language for EU business, but this would provide the 'Britanunculi' (derogatory Latin slang term for Britons) with the best excuse yet for not bothering to learn foreign languages. I am English. Although I personally seem to have little talent for learning languages (I am a casualty of the 1960s move away from teaching English grammar in schools) I am appalled by my compatriots' inability to speak other languages and their frequent unwillingness to learn other languages. When I meet people from other European countries one of the first questions they ask is 'how many languages do you speak?' In Europe it seems 'normal' to be able to speak three or more languages. In the UK most people speak only English, and most are not even ashamed of this! French was the international language of Europe for hundreds of years - perhaps it should be again? If only to spite the 'Britanunculi'.
Carolyne Kershaw, UK

I think that there is a good case for English to be adopted as Europe's standard language. As an Italian born, having lived in the UK for many years and now living in Germany, I feel that there is a need for a standard language within Europe. Whenever I travel around Western or Eastern Europe, I normally use English. I have found that many people have knowledge of this language, which is also the preferred language. English is much easier for people to learn as the syntax is not complex like French, German or Italian.

On another point, it does not affect my cultural background as an Italian and I do not feel undermined by using the language whenever I need it. I also speak French, German and Spanish, and I am learning Russian, but English is the language that I use to communicate at all the time, for business or any cultural exchanges. This does not mean that people in the UK should refrain from learning other European languages, as in order to understand people one should learn their language and culture also.
Anton Lito, Germany

Native English speakers will be less inclined to learn foreign languages

Michael Gahan, Ireland
Most definitely yes, but I think that perhaps everybody should have the ability to speak at least one other language also. But English is probably the best language to have when in a multinational environment - an exceptional amount of Europeans speak English very well already. The only downside however is that native English speakers will be less inclined to learn foreign languages.
Michael Gahan, Ireland

Definitely not! With Britain being so hesitant towards European integration, it would be an insult to both France and Germany. Also, with further expansion of the EU in eastern and central Europe, the popularity of German will rise to the level almost equal to that of English language.
Dalibor Kristo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

I find it very convenient to be able to converse with people of various cultural backgrounds without having to learn their native language. However, there is really no need to establish English as an official language for the European Union. I think it should stay as it is. English is already the uncrowned official language of the world. It doesn't matter where you are, you'll see English printed on signs in airports, packages in supermarkets or on readily available newspapers (sometimes even local papers are in English). In the EU I think about 50% claim to be conversant in the English language.

If you want to be successful nowadays, you have to learn English as a second language, or you'll never rise to the top. Since the use of English is already so widespread, I really see no reason to make it the only official language of the EU.
Patrick, Austria, currently US

The official language will not be English, but global English. Local English expressions and slang will not be integrated into the European global English. The European English will be a tool for communication, which does not require knowledge about the English culture.

Whereas most of European people will be able to speak and understand clearly the European English, paradoxically, most of English people will find difficulty to understand and to be understood in global English. For example, in some cases, I understood much better a German guy talking to me in English than a guy coming from Liverpool and speaking to me as if we were raised in the same village. English people should learn about global English. Finally, I would say than there is nothing glorious in the fact than a second rated European country could impose its language thanks to the American hegemony.
Thomas, France

No, I don't believe so, even though English is a dominant language. All the languages in the EU should remain official. I speak Greek, English and French and I feel that by learning these languages I have the opportunity to enrich my self with the cultures of those countries.
Ilias Alafris, USA

The other day I was talking to my daughter about Esperanto, which would be a fair choice, given its clear and logical grammar and it is also phonetic. Ideally I would pick Esperanto, but I think that the choice will remain the English language because so many people already use it. Also, this is the only language most Americans (so poorly) speak.
Thomas, Canada

As a British ex-pat I would be horrified if English was to dominate in language terms in Europe. Just as I am against the encroachment of American films within Europe on the excuse of "free trade" cultural imperialism is far from freedom. The Americanisation of Europe has gone far enough. The U.K. would be better attempting to become a good European and not a American lap dog as it has over the years since 1945. A special relationship did evolve since then but not the one we are taught but one of an American master and a English servant !
Stuart, Australia

No, English should not be the language for Europe. It should be German since Germany is the central country in Europe and the most important in the union.
John, Chicago

There is no question that it is the future

Zbigniew, Poland
There is no question that it is the future. The majority of young people in EU countries and future EU members speak English not French. Asia, America, Australia also operate in that language. Communication is the most important aspect of transferring technology or doing business transactions, if we wish to compete with the rest of the world we need to have common language. English is the best choice, most of Europeans know it unlike French. Also, it is used almost exclusively in the high tech and IT industry.
Zbigniew, Poland

One would think that since German-speakers make up the highest percentage of Europeans, that language (if any) would be best suited to become the official one. But the British would never settle for this, nor would the French, the Italians, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Polish, the Czechs, etc. English being named as an official language, however, would be taken with even more hostility by the continentals. Though the fact of the matter seems to be that English is very quickly becoming the language of business, education, and the internet, to make it official would be beyond what most Europeans would accept.
Jay S. von Bethke, S. Dakota, USA

Listen now both sides of the debate
See also:

20 Sep 00 | Europe
English threat to Italiano
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more European stories