Should Ludwig Wittgenstein have taken a linguistic view of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union post-2007, he would have been forgiven for mistaking the nascent integrated institutions for the UK’s domain, following the logic of his thought: ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. After the inclusion of ten Eastern European countries into the EU between 2004 and 2007, English replaced French as the lingua franca of the institutions in Brussels, with its importance to modern communication transcending the socio-economic levels of European society. Today, English has almost evolved beyond being just a language belonging to a single country or countries, but is now “an international means of communication, one that doesn’t belong to any country”, and that is spoken by a majority of the EU’s population.
Following Brexit, there are now just two Member States left which have English as an official language – Ireland and Malta, which both have their other languages registered for the purposes of EU engagement. And yet, despite representations by French President Macron and former Commission President Juncker to return French to the top, English looks like it’s set to stay. This is in part due to decades of American cultural influence on the continent through films and music, and partly thanks to mandatory English education in the former Eastern-bloc following the end of the Cold War. It also seems that officials are now content with the status quo, with former German ambassador to the UK and US, Wolfgang Ischinger, saying: “I think we’ve all gotten used to the fact that the lingua franca of Europe, and of the EU, is English, regardless of whether the United Kingdom is a member or not”.
Regardless of the language, there are many benefits to having a single, shared, dominant language in the EU, especially for such an international political and economic union. Language essentially acts in the same way as having a “common culture, legal norms or unit of measurement: engaging in mutually beneficial exchange is possible without them, but it is generally more costly and the outcome is less predictable.” Indeed, where it is possible to observe the positive correlation between voting on the Eurovision Song Contest and increased bilateral trade, multiple studies invariably demonstrate that “sharing a common official language increases trade intensity”, along with other common factors such as shared borders or colonial heritage.
Putting a figure on the exact level of economic benefit that can be achieved through having a shared language varies from study to study, but an early estimate arose in a 1998 paper by Frankel and Rose who approximated that countries who shared the same official language tended to have 1.8 times higher trade than two otherwise similar countries without the shared linguistic roots. Later studies have since delved deeper and examined the effects of unofficial languages and diaspora communities on trade between their host and origin countries, but all agree on the positive economic impacts of trading with a shared dictionary.
In addition to economics, a shared language, or the ability to communicate in multiple or foreign languages, also holds political benefits for the diverse Union. In a new book released this year called The Language(s) of Politics, Nils Ringe, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Jean Monnet European Union Centre of Excellence, describes how “multilingualism depoliticises policymaking, meaning that it reduces its political nature and potential for conflict.” The way that the European Union uses language, primarily out of necessity given the rapid translation requirements, results in a form of ‘EU English’, that can be simple, standardised and non-inflammatory, and forces politicians to use less complex linguistic constructs and more de-ideologised language. Professor Ringe explains how EU policymakers “tend to discount ideologically charged language – terms like ‘austerity’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ – because it may not be used with purpose by non-native speakers. Politicised, ideological, or partisan language thus becomes neutralised.” This utilitarian use of language helps to keep debates at the EU level calm and rationalised, and removes ambiguity from legislation due to the fact that documents and laws will need to be translated and implemented evenly across the Union.
Today, it is clear that English plays an important role in facilitating foreign trade, even between countries without English as an official language, and especially within the EU. Following Brexit, its neutralising effect is now also amplified within the EU, as usually-“idiomatic, rhetorically rich language” in mother tongues is supplanted by depoliticised EU English. However, it is important to remember that, whilst English is the language at play in this example, it is not the language itself that is important, but the ability for a population, businesses, policymakers and countries to communicate multilingually which is the key to unlocking the above benefits. It is not that the majority of Europeans speak English that is the main factor, it is that the majority speak multiple languages, and especially so among the younger generations. As of 2016, 73.3% of the EU’s population aged 25-34 reported that they knew at least one foreign language, a number which will have undoubtedly risen with the removal of the UK statistics, which have always lagged behind the EU averages.
This is an area of weakness that the UK has finally started to wake up to. Fresh out of the EU, the UK’s Global Britain strategy looks to forge new trading ties around the world, yet the foundational linguistic skills necessary for this are currently worryingly absent. Back in 2013, the British Chambers of Commerce carried out a survey of over 4,500 British businesses and found that up to 70% of respondents had no foreign language ability for the markets they served. Just less than two-thirds of non-exporters looking to export considered language as a barrier to doing so, and only 0.5% knew Russian or Chinese Mandarin well enough to conduct business in those languages.
Following this report, in 2017, the British Council urged the Government “to move on from the mantra that English is ‘the’ international language of business to understanding more about the importance of other languages”. They summarised: “the capacity of our country’s population to engage internationally will be central to strengthening successful economic, political, cultural and people-to-people relationships in Europe and globally in years to come”, a position which the UK Government has now acknowledged. Immediate action will be needed with just under two-thirds of Britons currently unable to hold a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue.
Whilst multilingual proficiency is much greater in the EU, and ever growing as the next generations grow up and enter the workplace, there is always room for improvement. One model suggests that, “if all European countries had Scandinavian levels of proficiency in English, trade would be some 30-60% higher than what can be ascribed to economic and geographic factors”. Of course, whilst English currently looks to remain the primary working language of the EU, this too could evolve in future. In speeches, Commission President von der Leyen will often switch between the primary three languages of English, French, and German, depending on the content and context of her address. Some commentators believe that German will soon replace English as the main operating language, owing to the prevalence of the tongue among the top tiers of the Commission’s hierarchy, and the removal of “any lingering historical sensitivity around promoting German as an international language”, which has been replaced by “the gravitational pull of Europe’s largest economy.”
If Wittgenstein was indeed correct, and the limits of our world are determined by our language proficiency, then multilingualism ought to be a priority for all citizens, exporting-businesses and states, for the myriad of political, economic, and even health benefits that it can bring.
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Biggins, E. (2022) Limits of My World: The politics of language, IDRN, 10 November. Available at: https://idrn.eu/limits-of-my-world-the-politics-of-language/ [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].