The era of English as the lingua franca in Europe is at an end, and businesses in the United Kingdom will have to start communicating in French or German if they want to survive after Brexit. This was the light-hearted view from a British Irish friend of mine as we chatted over a pint of extra-cold Guinness in the City a couple of weeks ago. I told him, this was “Complete nesąmonė!” as I took another sip of my pint. I informed him this was Lithuanian for ‘nonsense’ and proceeded to explain that I expect to see the English language flourish, and I had evidence to back this up.
My friend acknowledged you’re more likely to hear English than Gaelic in Dublin. It was also impossible to ignore the fact that the refined English pronunciation of the young Spanish gentleman who served us, was superior to that of many native English speakers.
While some MEPs have suggested that English will lose its status as an official language after Brexit, this seems most unlikely. It was the UK that nominated English as an official language, and the other two main English-speaking EU member states, Ireland and Malta, therefore proposed Gaelic and Maltese respectively.
However, 93% of the Irish population would call English their mother tongue according to statistics from the European Commission. Furthermore, the EU has been unable to translate all public documents into Gaelic due to a shortage of translators. Therefore, English will not be disappearing from the EU.
The other suggested change to the status of English is that while it will remain an ‘official’ EU language, it will cease to be a ‘procedural’ language, meaning that business conducted in Brussels would be limited to French and German. This scenario also seems implausible. In fact, most EU officials use English. As the UK and Ireland were not founder members of the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community, the vast majority of legislation in the early years of the EEC was drafted in French.
According to a former EU translator, it was not the UK’s accession that dethroned French as the main procedural language of the EU, but rather the arrival of diplomats from Austria, Sweden and Finland in the mid-90s. From this point onward, officials from new member states had English as their second language, not French.
In European Commission statistics from 2012, 38% of adults outside countries where English is an official language are able to have a conversation in that language. The same figure for French was just 12%. By 2014, the European Parliament estimates that 95% of European Commission texts are drafted in English, and English was spoken almost twice as much as any other language in the European Parliament.
This does not mean, however, that businesses can be complacent and hope the world will speak to us in English if we shout loud enough. Since Article 50 was triggered, we have seen an increase in the number of UK firms translating documents for incorporation of companies in EU member states, staff handbooks, and regulatory compliance material. There has been a modest increase in demand for translation of website content into Chinese and Arabic, linked to inward investment and export opportunities.
This article first appeared in the Make Europe Work! ® magazine published by COBCOE