Killer English

You’ve probably seen the mass media coverage of the language economics of EU enlargement (€2.55 per Euro citizen a year for Community interpretation and translation). This is one of the rare occasions where ‘language activity’, for want of a better term, is publicly costed in this way, even though the localization industry is confronted by pricing issues every day. One can only hope that people do not confuse that couple of euros per head per year with European translation activity in general.

For a completely different take on the idealized 420 language-pair combination game for Community interpreters, check out the interview that Eurolang, the European minority language news service, published with linguistic rights activist Tove Skutnabb-Kangas on the linguistic power play of European enlargement:

“English is the world’s worst killer language. When a language is learned subtractively, at the cost of the mother tongue, instead of in addition to the mother tongue, it becomes a killer language. So far, most people in Europe have learned English in addition to their own languages, unlike many people in Asia and, especially, Africa, but there are already researchers, civil servants, who know certain things much better in English than in their own languages. Sometimes they are unable to discuss them or write about them in their own languages. This trend may become stronger with the enlargement, also because using English has an even higher status in many of the accession states. In the “best” case, only English and the other official EU languages will develop while minority languages lose out.

“Britain profits hugely from the image that their “brand” of English is the most sought-after. Some researchers have started counting how much the UK and the USA save and/or benefit from others learning their language unilaterally, and suggest compensation. We need to make sure that all languages in Europe are learned, used and developed, in all areas. And of course Catalan, Basque and Welsh should be both official and working languages in EU.”

“This depends on the language policy awareness among the politicians and civil servants. In a comparison in 2001 I looked at which countries had signed and ratified both international and European language and minority related human rights instruments, for instance the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

“The accession countries were either at the same level or better than the then EU member countries. And they were doing better than the EU countries in several aspects of implementation. There is a lot of hypocrisy in the “old” EU countries which have consistently demanded more of the “new” countries than they have been willing to do themselves.”

“The interpretation and translation costs, even with enlargement, will probably be considerably under 2% of the EU’s administrative budget – this is a very low figure … The costs for supporting linguistic diversity are low, and it is money well spent, according to several economists.

“In the future, when a large part of the world’s population has near-native competence in English, it will not pay off to invest in English only in the way EU schools do now. High levels of English will be like literacy long ago and computer literacy now, something that is a necessity but not a sufficient prerequisite for most jobs, especially well-paid jobs. Competence in other languages will give higher salaries. High levels of multilingualism enhance creativity, cognitive flexibility and divergent thinking – and these are the capital that Europe will need if we want to manage in global competition.

“Europe is linguistically the poorest part of the world, with only 3% of the world’s languages. And we are busy killing off even that small diversity … The critics usually unfortunately know very little about both language policy and economics.”

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.


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