English still rules according to a new European Commission report, but it only goes so far in the world of business. The study was at the heart of the maiden speech by Europe’s new Multilingualism Commissioner, a job that has become essential with the expansion of the EU and its adoption of new languages. There are now 23 official tongues.
The study focuses on how small and medium sized companies win exports. While English is still way out in front, the study notes 10 percent of firms lose contracts because of language shortcomings, and while English is vital in getting the foot in the door, developing trade relationships depends on being able to engage in the culture and language of the target market. Commissioner Leonard Orban: “I want to encourage the lifelong acquisition of foreign languages, and in my opinion the best time to learn foreign languages and stimulate interest in them, is in childhood”.
Europe’s tower of Babel is becoming increasingly unmanageable, with translation costing a billion euros a year, and producing mountains of paper. It is also a politically sensitive topic, with English increasingly eclipsing French as the EU’s main working language. However complacent English speakers in Europe should note that, in politics as in business, speaking the other’s language is key to having more than just a superficial dialogue.