English: A Common Language for the European Union?

From time to time, Europeans raise the question of the importance of a common language in building a multinational European democracy. Some observers believe that aiming for a uniform language, specifically English, would allow for the emergence of a feeling of continental solidarity. In modern philosophy, the theory that a democracy needs a common language in order to function dates from John Stuart Mill. The following opinions are based on those expressed in an article in Corriere della sera. (Unfortunately, it was a long time ago, and I couldn’t find the author’s name.)

But it is useful to be skeptical of the importance of a common language for the EU. And it is indeed possible that the idea has no general validity, as it has been shown not to be adaptable in all circumstances. In order to function, democracies need effective and inclusive communication, but not necessarily only one common language. Switzerland shows that it is possible to have a multilingual democracy that is also economically vigorous. Spain and Belgium show instead that to impose a national language on others generates social and political tensions.

In the European Union, English is the mother tongue of about 13% of the citizens. Therefore, English is not and cannot be a “neutral” language like Medieval Latin or l’esperanto. In an English-speaking Europe, Great Britain would enjoy indisputable advantages, while others would experience unacceptable disadvantages. The leadership position of English in Europe would bear fruit for the United Kingdom in savings on the expenses of teaching foreign languages and translation. And the use of English would also allow the countries on the west side of the English Channel to more easily attract highly qualified personnel and students compared to other European nations.

It is not clear just how the promotion of English as a common language would contribute to the cause of continental democracy and to the solidarity of the people. If a unique language like English were enough to make the people “more European,” then the British would already be the major supporters of European unity. About 56% of Germans and 51% of Greeks claim to have a knowledge (at least nominally) of English, but at the outbreak of the debt crisis in the Eurozone, this did not prevent the rise of a reciprocal and profound distrust in public opinion between the two countries.

Different studies show instead that the prevalent use of English as the only language in Europe for political and economic matters could hinder the construction of a true European democracy more than it favors it. English is in fact a language known well by a very small minority of European citizens. Notwithstanding years of education in school, only 7-8% of the European population whose mother tongue is not English claim to have a very good knowledge of this language, that is, a linguistic competence adequate to participate in political activities in an English-speaking democracy. There are not large differences between generations, but knowledge of English tends to be concentrated among more educated European citizens with higher incomes. Therefore, a one-language policy would create an inequality among member states and among different social classes, fueling feelings of being distanced from European institutions.

Instead, it can be argued that the multilingual policy of the EU, with respect to diversity and the educational spread of different European languages in schools and universities makes possible a more effective management and more inclusive communication across European countries. At least for the foreseeable future, Europeans will continue to live and work within the geographic and psychological boundaries of their nation. The typical situation is not a Calabrese who debates fiscal austerity with a Slovak, but rather a Calabrese who discusses with a paisano some of the effects on the Italian economy of a rigorous fiscal German policy. To have information in Italian on what happens in Brussels and Frankfurt institutions and to know perhaps a little German, in this case, is what it takes.

To invest in languages such as German or French is strategic not only for reasons tied to building Europe but also for commercial reasons. Germany and France are the principal destinations of Italian exports. And English is not the only language to be compensated in the workplace. According to some recent studies on the incomes of those linguistically competent in the European workplace, in Italy the knowledge of German and French, in terms of individual income, repays more with respect to English, and this happens because it’s a matter of a rarer competence and therefore is paid more.

The problem is not the English language itself, but the hegemony of one official language in the European Union over others. European institutions born after the end of the Second World War were created specifically with the intent of neutralizing the domination of one country over others by delegating some powers to institutions that represent all of the member states. Having multilingual institutions is the linguistic corollary of this idea. Those who object that to guarantee communication in 24 official languages of the Union is too expensive should note that multilingualism costs contributors only 0.0085% of the GDP of the 28 member states, less than 1% of the balance sheet of European institutions, and much less than 2 Euros annually per citizen. It is difficult to maintain that these are unsustainable costs, especially in light of the costs of inequality under a one-language Europe.

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