World Savvy: Will English exit the EU because of Brexit?

Just before the referendum in Great Britain on whether to stay or leave the EU, a sign was sprayed on a wall in one of the poorer sections of London: Latvian vermin scum get out. As a Latvian, this was a little disconcerting. How can Latvia, a little country of only 1.3 million Latvian speakers with one of the world’s most obscure languages, engender so much hate?

True to form, this crisis led to a business opportunity as the Alliance Française and Goethe Institut in Riga reminded people it might be time to learn French and German.

But Latvians are hardly the only people who are questioning the future role of England and English in the EU. Alan Greenspan, the former head of the influential US Federal Reserve, stated that Europe’s financial axis will shift from London to Paris, Frankfurt or elsewhere.

And private firms are making themselves felt. Vodafone, one of Europe’s largest telecom firms, has announced that it may leave London and seek a new headquarters somewhere in the EU where most of its business lies. This will just be the beginning.

In England itself, the implications are that language learning will fall off, while there will be ever-more translation work on the continent. Localization company TranslateMedia reported in May that “Britons are already notoriously bad at speaking foreign languages, and this reluctance to learn other languages is thought to cost around £48 billion a year in lost opportunity.”

Sarah Lyall, writing in The New York Times, put British aversion to learning other languages this way: “British people don’t speak the same language as other people in the European Union — not literally, not metaphorically. This is a country where one of the main railroad stations, Waterloo, commemorates Napoleon’s defeat by the British, where a serious objection to building the Channel Tunnel was that it might encourage rabid animals to sneak in from France, and where Beauchamp Place in London is pronounced ‘BEECH-am.’”

As Lyall notes, in the British-continental cultural clash, things have been lost in translation for centuries. Jeeves and Wooster author P. G. Wodehouse often painted this clash in amusing tones, as in the opening lines of The Luck of the Bodkins, written in 1935: “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes, there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”

At the end of June, The Irish Times wrote a piece about an open letter signed by Irish, Welsh, Scots and Cornish groups stating with Britain’s withdrawal from the EU there would no longer be access to funding to support those languages. The letter stated: “If our countries left the European Union, we would be excluded from the rights shared by European citizens. We would furthermore be at the mercy of governments that have shown neither the interest nor the desire to protect and promote the rights of speakers of our nations and regions’ languages, and have throughout much of our shared history conducted aggressive language policies designed to eradicate our languages. Neither would we have access to European language project funding.”

When it comes to translations, the UK will still need to address these minority languages according to EU law. The blog Signs and Symptoms of Translation, written by Spanish-English medical translator Emma Goldsmith, reported that “Legally, the UK will need to transpose the EU clinical trial Regulation into English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish laws or incorporate its own new legislation.  At a practical level, the EMA (European Medicines Agency) will have to move its headquarters out of London and relocate elsewhere.”

Goldsmith concludes, “The future is indeed uncertain for the UK and its drug development process. We can rest assured, however, that medical translators will not be out of work any time soon.”

The future of English 

At the end of June, several papers ran the Associated Press story “EU’s most widely used language, English, endangered by Brexit.” The Wall Street Journal‘s June 27 headline was “English Loses Currency as Europe’s Lingua Franca After Brexit Vote.” Ironically, as lingua franca has become a metaphor for the main language of a country, it now could become a reality if French could ascend to the linguistic apex once again.

Currently, 51.5% of EU citizens can speak English as a first or second language, 26% can speak French, and 32% can speak German, making the case for English as a continued de facto language in the EU. However, after Brexit, the only EU countries speaking English as a first language will be the relatively unpopulated Ireland and Malta — and neither have English listed as their first official language. This has already caused speculation about the future of English in the EU, particularly in France.

As Dave Keating, a journalist in the France-based The Local points out, the French “have waged a long battle against the English language under the guise of maintaining ‘multilingualism’ (a thin veneer for enforcing the French language on others). The French government even pays for journalists and diplomats in Brussels to learn French, something I took advantage of for many years (thanks French taxpayers!)”

Guy Chazan and Jim Brunsden noted in The Financial Times that “English did not always play such a prominent role in the EU. British journalists covering the European Commission had to wait for more than 20 years after the country joined the EU in 1973 before the language of Shakespeare became permitted in the institution’s daily press conferences. Before that French ruled alone.” The journalists pointed out that some politicians believe that English can no longer be the third working language in the European Parliament, and “the English language has no legitimacy in Brussels.”

French or German may rise in importance, but Don DePalma of CSA Research put it this way: “English as a language within the EU won’t go away. It’s one of the most widely studied languages in the world, not just within the EU.” This is due to factors such as “likely continuing trade relationships, its use as an interlingua among residents, diplomats and businesspeople of many countries, including those outside the EU that set up shop in the UK.” Additionally, “translation and interpreting in and out of English will remain a necessity for government and business. And, of course, the EU trades heavily with another country that uses English — the one that made the AmExit in 1776.”