Language is bound to countries, culture and heritage.
Now that the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union, the debate about English as the de facto official language of Europe is likely on the mind of many.
One senior EU lawmaker has suggested that English will be removed from the list of the EU’s official languages, despite the fact that it is the language most often heard in the corridors of European institutions.
Danuta Hübner, head of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, told a news conference on Monday:
“Every EU country has the right to notify one official language. The Irish have Gaelic and the Maltese have notified Maltese, so you only have the UK notifying English.
“If we don’t have the UK, we don’t have English.”
Hübner conceded that English could remain a working language even if it were stripped of its ‘official’ status.
In any case, as Irish representatives have reiterated, changes to the EU’s language regime must be agreed upon unanimously by the Council of Ministers, including Ireland, making the removal of English from the official languages list unlikely, albeit not impossible.
Here are some facts about the English language and languages in Europe:
- Ninety-eight percent of UK residents speak English as a first language. It is the official language of Gibraltar and one of the official languages of the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Malta, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey.
- There are 24 official and working languages in the EU.
- It is said that 13% of EU citizens speak English as their native language and nearly 40% of EU citizens claim to have sufficient skills in English to have a conversation.
- English is the most commonly spoken foreign language in 19 out of 25 European Union countries.
- German and French are spoken by 14% of the European population, Russian and Spanish at 6% each, and Italian at 3%.
- Scandinavian countries have a very high working knowledge of English.
English as the unofficial language of Europe has been a hot topic of discussion even ‘pre-Brexit’, with Debating Europe having deliberated it in 2014.
France’s The Local, an English language website, had a tongue-and-cheek article on the topic on April Fool’s Day of this year with the headline Could France really oust English as official EU language? A guest blogger said:
“Right now UK citizens have the right to live and work in France, and the government cannot require them to speak French in order to do so. Were the UK to leave the EU and not be allowed to join the European Economic Area, it would mean Brits would have to apply for a visa to live in France. And France could easily require language proficiency as a requirement for granting visas.”
The European Union identifies Dutch, French, German and Italian as the official working languages of the EU and says on its website:
“As more countries have become part of the EU, the number of official and working languages has increased. However, there are fewer official languages than Member States, as some share common languages.”
Since news of the Brexit “Leave” campaign winning, Twitter users have tweeted:
“I guess, no need for #English #language to be taught at European schools anymore, right?!
Another said, “The British leave Europe but the Europeans keep on learning English language and culture.”
No doubt, with the UK on its way out of the EU the English-language debate will only intensify.