Brexit, the English language and us

To what extent will Brexit change the language balance in the EU?

The Leave victory has brought about a debate on the linguistic consequences of Brexit: if the British leave, what role should the English language play in the EU? A good deal of the voices that demand a new peripheral role for English, such as French politicians Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Robert Ménard —the Besiers mayor—, are merely chauvinistic outbursts. Still, are we sure that is the extent of it? On June 27 the WSJ reported that European leaders had started to use German and French more than before. To what extent will Brexit change the language balance in the EU?

First of all —and from a purely quantitative point of view— Britain’s exit means that native English speakers will now carry marginal weight within the EU. If we extrapolate the figures from the 2012 Eurobarometer to a new Europe minus the UK, native English speakers drop from 13 per cent to 1.8 per cent of all EU residents. Still, if we add up native and non-native speakers, English remains the most widely spoken language: in 2012 38 per cent of Europeans reported that they spoke English as a second language, with French and German trailing behind at 12 and 11 per cent, respectively. In that same year, two thirds of the European population believed that English was one of the two most useful languages, followed by German (17 per cent) and French (16 per cent). English is the most widely-spoken language in most EU countries and its lead on other languages is highest among the more educated and younger demographics. In fact, its use has become increasingly widespread within the European institutions and nowadays English is the original language of the vast majority of written documents, as well as the top choice in bilateral and multilateral relations, and even the only official language of some institutions such as the European Central Bank.

In this context, is it realistic to expect the UK’s departure to bring any significant changes? Former European Commissioner Danuta Hübner warned that, in the event of a Brexit, there may be some legal issues when it comes to preserving the current status of the English language, as the request for it to become official initially came from the UK. If that were so, though, the European institutions would predictably exhibit their proverbial political finesse and Ireland would presumably rush to request official status for the language spoken by over 95 per cent of its population on a daily basis. In fact, Brexit might turn out to be a blessing for English, as it may take on the role of an allegedly neutral, pragmatic language, much like what it has become in post-colonial countries.

Nevertheless, none of that should be an excuse to ignore other factors that point in the opposite direction and advise us to exercise caution on this issue. Paris and Berlin are well aware that this time they might truly attempt to fix a situation which they perceive as unfair. There would be no need to wipe out the English language, but merely to “keep it in check”. There are ways you can go about it. To begin with, it would be easy to urge the EU to comply with its own regulations. At present, many European rules appear first in English and versions in other languages are often never released. Steps might be taken so that multilingual versions become more commonplace, always starting with German and French. Likewise, considering who foots the EU bill, does it make much sense for the president of the European Central Bank —today, an Italian, but soon a German, perhaps— to have to speak English in Frankfurt? This might also be the time to boost the presence of the main European languages in education, for instance. In terms of popular support, we mustn’t forget that everywhere on the continent growing anti-EU sentiment promotes regaining spaces of national sovereignty, and in the conflict between the local and the cosmopolitan that hides behind europhobic tensions in half the continent English could easily be linked to those who support more Europe. For many, less English would be akin to less Europe.

It is too early to know how it will all end, too soon to even know whether Brexit will actually take place. Still, it would be useful if we all learnt a lesson that is as old as it is essential: in this unstable world where we live, it is risky to put all your eggs, even your language eggs, in one basket, no matter how large and powerful it may seem. At the end of the day, a lingua franca is but an instrument that we should be able to use to our advantage, not a sacrificial altar where no lives are spared.