EU/Eurozone – Start Again or Plod On?
A Common Language
The cost of operating in so many languages in the EU is obscenely expensive, and probably enough to lift all children in Europe out of poverty. If we look to our template of the United States of America, and energise my rusty memory of the formation, and formulation of the US Constitution, one of the debates was which language would be adopted – English, French, or German. Even though there were strong, conflicting opinions as there were many immigrants from many European countries all speaking different languages, they all agreed that inclusion of everyone was important in the process and thus they had to select one language which would become the language of the country. Shakespeare won the argument. We see today that Spanish has emerged as a minor second language of the USA as a result of widespread immigration from South America, and there are still small pockets of German and Dutch (primarily Amish communities), French (New Orleans), albeit none are a replacement for the use of English.
During a discussion last year with a former Federal Councillor and Minister of Justice of Switzerland, and Swiss business people, there was a clear pride that Switzerland was able to function in 4 languages, i.e. German, French, Italian, and Romantsch. I posed a question regarding what language they would use for the military command centre in the event that Switzerland was attacked by a foreign invader. After a long silence of pondering, the answer came back as ‘English’. I could only congratulate this inspired response.
This question reminded the former Swiss Federal Councillor of a funny story where this language principle was taken to extremes. In Switzerland they have 2 cantons (federal states) where the boundary passes through the city of Basel, and even along the middle of the street. The language of one canton is German, and the other is French. Each canton, without consultation with each other, introduced different regulations regarding the behaviour of dogs on the street. However they did not succeed in teaching the dogs how to read these different regulations so the dogs could not know how to change their behaviour when they crossed over the street into the other canton.
This is a great illustration on 3 different levels. The first is the natural human reluctance of neighbours, who speak different languages, to try to communicate with each other – language creates its own barriers. The second is the breakdown in the democratic pillar of subsidiarity – there is no point decentralising government if there is a lack of communication at the lower levels. The third is the problem of someone living in the community but who does not converse in either of the languages of the regulations.
Language is about communication, and is meaningless if communication does not result. Even within one language a multitude of dialects can cause lack of communication (look what the Americans did to the English language), but the written word will invariably succeed.
Having used interpreters for business discussions for many years, and even afforded the time to work with the interpreter prior to the main event in order to familiarise the interpreter with my use of words and phrasing, much still gets lost in translation – result: lack of communication.
Therefore I propose that our United States of Europe move towards a single language for, at least in the first instance, government, business, finance, and law, as it already exists today in part. I would also propose that the most widely spoken language in Europe, including as a second language, is English. As English is also the most widely spoken international language in the world, especially for business, adopting this language also makes trading in the global markets much easier. It is also the easiest language for the younger generation to learn in that they are surrounded by media primarily in English. I remember one person I know, having studied English, was amazed at the increase to her watching pleasure on hearing the real voice of John Wayne, and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
As regards relative population size the next logical choice word be German. However even Germany has recognised that the German language is practically exhausted in that there is little realistic capacity for expansion, and as such is not really a realistic choice for the future. Indeed the German language is already littered with English words where no suitable word exists in German.
In the late 1980’s I attended the annual American Banker’s Club dinner at the Savoy in London. The speakers were Jacques Delors, a senior French economist (I think Jacques Attali before he was head of the European Bank of Reconstruction & Development), and an Executive Vice President of CitiGroup. One comment from the French economist stunned the room into silence as he spoke of European integration and stated ‘of course the language of the resulting integrated Europe will be English’. The stunned reaction revealed the thunderous thoughts around the room that a French politician is stating that the language of Europe can only be English, and this was over 20 years ago.
I fully appreciate that, for the older generation and traditionalists, learning a new language can be a step too far. However, under the tenet of democracy, provision will exist for this situation, and I do not expect the other European languages to disappear in social society just as they have not disappeared in the USA or indeed in Brazil where a number of such languages survive, including Welsh. Full transition to a single language system will take at least a generation in any event. What is important in our model is to state that there will be a single language so that people can see the target and thus slowly, but surely, move towards it.
The major emerging economies of the future, such as India – a potential major trading partner, – already speak English. Thus the global nature of business and banking has already started the transition to a common language within Europe to meet the demands of global corporations, so all we need to do for our model is to formalise this process.
Thank you for your continued interest in this European venture.
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