The course of European integration has accelerated much these past ten years, or so. At present, not only are there great ambitions to expand the space of the European Union through the accession of countries to the East of the EU, that have come away from Soviet hegemony and are now ready to join the states of Western Europe. The intention is also to intensify the integration of Europe, most of all by means of a common currency.
And yet, there is a certain sense of uneasiness. Somehow, it seems, a lively democracy does not emerge. Elections for the European parliament remain somewhat stale, without the excitement that goes with electoral campaigns in national polities.
There is, in fact, hardly a common debate in Europe, a discussion that allows voices from all member states to disagree, but to disagree about the same issues, according to a common agenda of dissent. At present, political and cultural debate proceeds mainly in relative isolation within each national society, while intellectuals in one country mostly ignore what there peers in neighboring countries are up to.


A European public space

There is a European Union, with a European Commission and a European Council of Ministers, there is even a European Parliament chosen in European elections by the adult citizens of the member-states. But there is no public debate that captures the attention of a European audience. There is no such thing as a European public space, yet.
It is not for lack of a political culture of debate and polemics in each of the member countries. On the contrary, every national society boasts the full gamut of newspapers, from the popular ‘yellow’ press to the prestigious quality dailies that cater to the business and political elites. Each country is served by an array of TV-channels that give some place to the discussion of political issues. And, finally, in all those countries many politicians and intellectuals are perfectly capable and quite eager to discuss questions of politics, culture and morals. But time and again, the gravitational force of the national culture pulls back those intellectuals who might aspire to transcend the borders of nation, the barriers of language.

A European public space, a forum where people exchange their opinions does not come into existence by decree, not even by treaty. But how is it brought about? The history of the emergence and evolution of public space in European national societies offers a precedent but does not provide a blueprint to emulate. These nations have each been under the rule of a state for many centuries. For centuries, a court and a capital city were the focus of attention for the entire society. And, in these countries a single language prevailed for the high domains of politics and culture and for all purposes of wider communication. That language, admittedly, was not understood, let alone spoken by each and everyone in the land until by the end of the nineteenth century the vast majority of the population had attended elementary school. But anybody who was somebody and whose opinion counted could express an opinion in that central language.
Hence, there was an arena, or a forum, with a coherent audience. This opportunity called into existence a new kind of operators, who later were to be called ‘intellectuals’: people whose trade it was to deal in words and concepts and ideas, small entrepreneurs with an audience of newspaper readers and book buyers. Such intellectuals still exist, there are even many more of them, although today they work more often as wage earners in the Universities and the media, while only a minority operate independently as ‘free lancers’, on their own account.

The intellectuals in Europe are not the intellectuals of Europe. They have not acquired a European audience, but for some extremely rare exceptions. There are German intellectuals, and French, Greek, Portuguese and also Dutch intellectuals, each addressing their particular domestic audience. It is very seldom that they manifest themselves at the all-European level. Only a very small number among them have achieved a reputation that allows them to publish an article in translation in the media of several, or even most European countries.

In part, this is a consequence of what I would like to call the ‘cultural opportunity structure’ of the Union and its constituent states. There are very few career opportunities for intellectuals, for writers, journalists and scholars outside their national societies. If they want to find jobs, they will have to seek them not at the European level, but mainly on the national level. The same goes for those other resources, awards, subsidies, commissions, committee memberships and so on: they are proffered by national cultural and academic institutions rather than by European agencies. There are, admittedly, a few very prestigious prizes that select their laureates from all over Europe (e.g. Amalfi, Erasmus), but intellectuals must win their laurels and hence their reputation within their own national societies.

Granted, there is a circuit of conferences and exchanges that continually brings together intellectuals, scientists and artists from all over Europe. Moreover, a small number of periodicals already appears in several languages, or recruits its contributors from all over the EU or succeeds in finding subscribers in most of the member countries. It should be added that the most successful transnational media in Europe are all English or American: form the New York Review of Books and the Economist, to the International Herald Tribune and the Financial Times. And in the electronic media one is reminded of CNN, or BBC.

This impasse is characteristic for general cultural and political exchange, not for specific scientific, technological or commercial contacts. On the whole, the more specific the theme of the network or the periodical, the more easily it is put together and kept going. On the other hand, the broader the scope of the intellectual exchange, the harder it is to create and maintain a common agenda, to define a common ground, across borders and across languages.

As a matter of fact, the structuring of European channels of communication has hardly been studied at all. There is, however, no doubt that the major media of information and debate operate almost exclusively in a national context and for a national audience. Even in the absence of language barriers, when the same language is current in several countries, e.g. English in the UK and Ireland, German in Austria and Germany (and part of Switzerland), Dutch in the Netherlands and Belgian Flanders, French in France and Walloon Belgium (and another part of Switzerland), it appears that the exchange of information and opinion remains bounded by national frontiers. When nations are in addition separated by language barriers, they exchange even fewer facts and feelings.

What does easily cross frontiers in Europe, as elsewhere, are broadcasts of sports and entertainment, most of them global events controlled by media corporations in the United States, but some of them truly of European origin and scope, like the Eurovision song contest or the various contests for a European title. Hardly any programs on political, social, or cultural issues are aimed at an all-European audience [1].

In conclusion, there exists no European public space in the classic sense of the term, and this is due in large part to its enduring partitioning along national and linguistic lines. This implies that the language issue must itself be considered within the context of politics. The debate on the European language issue languishes for lack of a European arena of public debate, and such a public space will not emerge in a Europe that lacks shared languages. It is this vicious circle that explains the continuing, tacit inaction on the European language issue.

In the meantime, in the absence of a single European public space, there are myriads of European niches, each providing a distinct meeting place to participants from all member-nations who have shared interests. And, once again, the more circumscribed the agenda, the more smoothly the all-European exchange proceeds: experts, technicians, specialists have no trouble finding one another, nor do entrepreneurs from the same branch, believers from the same church, athletes from the same sport, or scientists from the same discipline find it hard to congregate and communicate. But these multifarious niches, neatly separated as they are, do not add up to a European space. On the contrary, as the agenda widens and comes to encompass broader cultural, social, and political issues, communication becomes so much more difficult. There are literally hundreds of specialized journals that carry the epithet ‘European’ or an equivalent in their title. But when it comes to general cultural and political reviews, there may be no more than a dozen that achieve a genuine European distribution, and almost all of these are in English.

On the one hand, the paucity of resources and opportunities discourages intellectual entrepreneurs from aiming at a transnational, a European arena. They must first of all exploit the possibilities of their home society. On the other hand, this relatively laggard nature of European cultural elite formation does little to prompt politicians or private sponsors to provide opportunities and resources at the European level. I have convincing experimental proof of my thesis: last year, I intended to submit to the Brussels authorities a research proposal on the emergence, or rather the non-emergence, of European cultural elites. I was strongly discouraged to do so. The EU, I was told, avoids cultural topics and eschews anything to do with elites. My point was proven even before I had a chance to make it.

But this inadequate structure of opportunities is coupled to a most persistent structure of obstacles: the coexistence of a dozen languages within the European Union. This multiplicity of languages of course greatly hampers the emergence of a public debate at the European level, and hence prevents the formation of a public space. This peculiar European constellation of languages deserves further examination.

A European language

The European Union now boasts a common currency, but so far lacks a common language. In fact, there hardly is a language policy for the European Parliament, or for the Commission’s bureaucracy, let alone for ‘l’Europe des citoyens’, for civil society in the European Union. Of course, from the beginning the official languages of the member states were recognized as languages of the Community, and later of the Union. At the time, the six founding members contributed four languages: Dutch, French, German and Italian, an almost manageable number. Without much discussion, French was accepted as the working language of the Community’s budding bureaucracy, as it had been the language of diplomacy until the end of World War Two and the sole language of the European Coal and Steel Community that preceded the EC. In those postwar years, the Germans and the Italians kept a low profile and the Dutch (even when counting in the Dutch-speaking Flemish of Belgium) were not numerous enough to insist much on the use of their language in the administration, moreover, beyond the Low Countries Dutch hardly anywhere was taught in the schools.

The first great expansion of the European Community in 1973 brought in the British, the Irish, almost all of them native English speakers), and the Danes who for the vast majority had learned English in school. In fact, English quickly became another working language of the Commission’s bureaucracy and an informal lingua franca in the European Parliament. The Germans still did not much push their language and, being generally more fluent in English than in French, they may have helped to promote English [2]. So far, French is used more frequently in oral and written communication by the Commission’s officials, except in contacts with states outside the Union, while the two languages are about equally current in the conversations among parliamentarians. German comes a far third, other languages hardly play a role in day to day communication [3].

With the addition of Greece in 1981, of Portugal, and Spain in 1986, and of Austria, Finland, and Sweden in 1995, the set of official languages in the European Union grew to nine and next to eleven, a quite unmanageable number that is bound to increase with so many languages once Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and subsequent central and eastern European countries will join the Union. This prospect has prompted much alarm, but so far rarely any serious debate.

In the meantime, from the nineteen sixties on, secondary education had been rapidly expanding throughout Europe. Quite independently from one another, the member states realized sweeping reforms of their secondary school systems, and in the process most of them reduced the number of compulsory foreign languages taught, henceforward prescribing only English, or leaving the choice entirely to the students who almost everywhere opted for English anyway [4]. As a result of the expansion of secondary education there are now more citizens in the Union who have studied one or more foreign languages than ever before. This applies to French, German, Spanish and Italian, but of course the numbers of English students have grown most spectacularly.

According to European Union statistics, 88% of secondary school students in the European Union (in 1992/’93 and excluding Ireland and the U.K.) were taught English as a foreign language. French as a foreign language was taught to 32% , German to 19% and Spanish to 9% (again excluding students in the countries were the language concerned is the medium of instruction). The great majority of high school students in Europe studies a single foreign language, (the all-European average is 1.2) and apparently the one language they learn in overwhelming numbers is English [5]. Young people (15-24 years) in the European Union, asked (in 1997) what languages they speak well enough to carry on a conversation, mention English most often (55%), French (20%), and German (11%), another 29% answer that they do not speak a foreign language at that level [6].


Four domains of communication

For the present purposes four domains of communication are to be distinguished within the European Union: in the first place, the official, public domain: it consists mainly of the sessions of the European Parliament and the external dealings of the European Commission. Here, the founding treaty applies, which recognizes all official languages of the member states as languages of the Union, and, moreover, the principle holds that decisions by the EU should be published in all these languages, since they affect the laws of the constituent states.

In the second place, there is the domain of the Commission bureaucracy, where the officials have more or less informally adopted a few ‘working languages’ in their everyday contacts and internal correspondence.

Then, there is a third domain, neither official or institutional, the ‘civic’ domain of the citizens of Europe, where several languages compete for predominance in various areas of the Union and in many different spheres of communication.

The fourth level is that of domestic communication within each present (and future) member country. There the official language is the mother tongue of a large if not vast majority, taught in school at all levels, and protected by the national state in every which way. Nevertheless, these ‘central’ or national, official languages increasingly coexist with a supercentral language for transnational communication, at present in all cases English, spoken by a fast growing proportion the population.

In fact, the eleven official languages of the Union are used for public and ceremonial occasions and for official documents, but only two languages, English and French are used for informal communication in the corridors of Parliament and the meeting rooms of bureaucracy (German lags far behind, in third position). When it comes to the third domain, that of civil Europe, statistics and survey data all concur that in, English is the first language of transnational communication, while French, German and Spanish play secondary roles in the corresponding regions and for a limited scope of cultural or commercial exchanges.

At the fourth level however, within each member country, the national language will continue to function on most levels of domestic social interaction, while transnational functions will be provided by the supercentral language(s) that ensure all-European communication. As long as each state acts as the protector of its national language there is no immediate threat from the supercentral language, not even when a large majority of citizens has learned it as a foreign language. A state of diglossia, a precarious equilibrium between two languages in one society will prevail.

‘The subject of languages has been the great non-dit of European integration [7]. ’ Apparently, so far it has turned out to be easier for the EU to settle upon a common medium for monetary exchange than on one for verbal exchange. But, in this case too, not taking decisions amounts to taking ‘non-decisions’ – and these will affect the European language constellation as incisively and lastingly as any explicitly adopted policy ever could. The Union’s mute inaction is accompanied by a non-discussion, interspersed by an occasional conference or publication that necessarily must remain rather ineffectual (like this one, I am afraid). On the rare occasions that the European language issue is raised nevertheless, a cabal of experts in the relevant disciplines and of representatives for the affected interest, will use the occasion for a high display of convictions and commitments, most of them equally pious in their respect of the language rights of each and every party involved as pretentious in their ambitions for a grand scheme of European cultural rapprochement [8]. But one can not earnestly promote the two at the same time.

In the meantime, the EU continues to spend considerable effort and great expense on simultaneous interpretation from and to all recognized languages during public ceremonial events, such as the sessions of the European parliament and the major meetings of its commissions, and on the translation of all official documents in the Union’s eleven languages (adding in some cases Irish and Catalan). In informal encounters among officials or members of parliament, the working languages are still French and increasingly English. Since 1990 the German chancellor once a year demanded that German be included among these working languages, and recently he has insisted in public on the use of German in EU meetings [9].
From time to time a member state instructs its delegates to require - at least in public - an equal status for its national language. But behind closed doors, when decisions must be reached, the participants want to avoid the handicap of expressing themselves in a language that is not widely understood and prefer to use either or both of the two working languages.


In all these respects, the dynamics (and the inertia) of the European language constellation are very similar to those of other multilingual and multinational entities, such as India, Nigeria, or South Africa, both at the institutional level and in the context of civil society. Language groups will resist the official adoption of a language that is identified with another ethnic or national group, even if its widely used throughout the territory, even if it generally spoken in their own ranks, on account of a ‘language jealousy’, an unwillingness to grant the other language recognition and afford its native speakers the prestige, symbolic capital and communicative advantage that go with it. This is a quite understandable and even justifiable position, but all the same it is as paralyzing as it is inefficient. Moreover, under such conditions, politicians and individual citizens in public will tend to take a high-minded stance in defense of their group language, while in private they are wont to discretely exploit all the advantages that the other, widely-spread, language has to offer, using it to carry on their own affairs and choosing a school that will teach it to their children. David Latin aptly identified this tendency with Mandeville’s ‘private vice and public virtue’. But in this case no ‘hidden tongue’ works to assure an optimal linguistic outcome for all [10].

The European Parliament in its public sessions should continue to allow the official language of every member state to be used and translated into every other official language. This has been laid down in the treaties that determined the conditions of accession to the Union; as has been argued before, this would help to foster the emergence of a cultural opportunity structure in Europe which might first of all engender a European corps of cultural mediators: the translators of the Union. (The same reasons apply to the publication of documents in all official languages, especially those that affect national laws). But there is a third reason: the members of the European Parliament represent the voters of their respective countries and if at any point they wish to speak the language that their constituency understands they have the right to do so. Quite likely, they also want to persuade their fellow parliamentarians and whenever it suits them to do so, they will speak a language that is directly and widely understood in the benches. Thus, as a European parliamentary culture evolves, it will produce a linguistic etiquette, allowing the use of national languages for the homefront and promoting the use of all-European languages for mutual debate.

In the everyday, informal encounters between parliamentarians, or officials practical considerations prevail; the use of two working languages, English and French, appears to function as a workable compromise. It will not be easy to ward off the claims of other countries, Germany in the first place, to include their language, too. As a matter of fact, a latent ‘voting cycle’ quite likely operates in the selection of languages for the European Union, at the parliamentary, the bureaucratic and the civil level.

Table

For the third domain, that of civil Europe, no explicit language policy exists. It was education policy that determined in stead the spread of languages in Europe. Most often, national governments decided on the curriculum without minding the consequences for the European language constellation in its entirety, nor did they realize how the policies of other countries might interact with their own in shaping the overall situation in Europe. In many western countries, German, French, or Spanish were dropped as compulsory components of the secondary curriculum, and either English alone remained obligatory, or it became the most popular option wherever students were allowed a choice. As a result, English is now by far the most widely spoken language on a continent where no one speaks it as a native tongue. And this prominence will still increase now that young Europeans learn it in such great numbers, in every region of the Union. No doubt, students and their parents are aware of the predominance of English and that is a major reason why the children choose to learn it [11].
European countries separately can do little to counter this trend. The French government has tried long and hard, but all the time it contributed one of the largest contingents of students of English (and the UK taught French to more students than any other country). It is very doubtful whether the institutions of the European Union are in a position to change the course of the language constellation in Europe.

The wisest policy in this case seems to be no policy at all. The citizens of Europe will pick their own languages to learn and will find their own ways to cope with their language differences. Almost all of them will adopt English for transnational communication. Many of them will use their passive understanding of a closely related language when meeting with the inhabitants of a neighboring country; this ‘stratégie de l’intercompréhension’ will much be facilitated if language teaching in high school better prepares the students for it.

When it comes to the fourth level, that of the separate countries that make up the Union, English will continue to spread as the first second language in the member states. Sooner or later the moment will arrive in one country after another that one can speak English, fluently, with practically every fellow-citizen. What is more, all functions that carry prestige may be fulfilled by English. At that point people might begin to neglect their mother tongue, switch to English even among friends and relatives, and, finally, not even bother any longer to speak their mother tongue with their small children who then will learn English as their native language. In the end, the indigenous language might entirely disappear. This would seem a disastrous outcome to most people, others might envisage it with equanimity [12]. At the very least it means that the entire collective cultural capital, the totality of texts in that language that were ever registered in any form, becomes inaccessible [13]. As long as the state protects the national language it may not be in much danger of extinction, but the prospect, even if it were remote and unlikely, needs to be recognized and evaluated.

Conclusion

For representative and for legal purposes, there are compelling reasons to maintain all languages of the member states as official languages of the Union. For everyday informal use in the corridors of Parliament and the Commission, French and English will most likely continue to predominate. In the day to day contacts between citizens of the Union, English will increasingly function as the means of transnational communication, while in the relevant regions French, German, Spanish, and Italian will probably play a secondary role, often in dialogues of passive understanding. At the fourth level, that of the respective member countries, diglossia will prevail, as long as governments remain alert and citizens continue to do what they have always thoroughly enjoyed: to talk about everything they like with everyone they choose to in the tongue they speak best, their own.
This outcome seems to do justice both to the great variety of languages in Europe and to the need for efficient communication. Moreover, it appears that it will come about more or less by itself, as the largely unplanned result of the myriads of spontaneous language choices by the representatives, officials, and above all, the citizens of the European Union.

Notes

 

 

 

 

The course of European integration has accelerated much these past ten years, or so. At present, not only are there great ambitions to expand the space of the European Union through the accession of countries to the East of the EU, that have come away from Soviet hegemony and are now ready to join the states of Western Europe. The intention is also to intensify the integration of Europe, most of all by means of a common currency.
And yet, there is a certain sense of uneasiness. Somehow, it seems, a lively democracy does not emerge. Elections for the European parliament remain somewhat stale, without the excitement that goes with electoral campaigns in national polities.
There is, in fact, hardly a common debate in Europe, a discussion that allows voices from all member states to disagree, but to disagree about the same issues, according to a common agenda of dissent. At present, political and cultural debate proceeds mainly in relative isolation within each national society, while intellectuals in one country mostly ignore what there peers in neighboring countries are up to.


A European public space

There is a European Union, with a European Commission and a European Council of Ministers, there is even a European Parliament chosen in European elections by the adult citizens of the member-states. But there is no public debate that captures the attention of a European audience. There is no such thing as a European public space, yet.
It is not for lack of a political culture of debate and polemics in each of the member countries. On the contrary, every national society boasts the full gamut of newspapers, from the popular ‘yellow’ press to the prestigious quality dailies that cater to the business and political elites. Each country is served by an array of TV-channels that give some place to the discussion of political issues. And, finally, in all those countries many politicians and intellectuals are perfectly capable and quite eager to discuss questions of politics, culture and morals. But time and again, the gravitational force of the national culture pulls back those intellectuals who might aspire to transcend the borders of nation, the barriers of language.

A European public space, a forum where people exchange their opinions does not come into existence by decree, not even by treaty. But how is it brought about? The history of the emergence and evolution of public space in European national societies offers a precedent but does not provide a blueprint to emulate. These nations have each been under the rule of a state for many centuries. For centuries, a court and a capital city were the focus of attention for the entire society. And, in these countries a single language prevailed for the high domains of politics and culture and for all purposes of wider communication. That language, admittedly, was not understood, let alone spoken by each and everyone in the land until by the end of the nineteenth century the vast majority of the population had attended elementary school. But anybody who was somebody and whose opinion counted could express an opinion in that central language.
Hence, there was an arena, or a forum, with a coherent audience. This opportunity called into existence a new kind of operators, who later were to be called ‘intellectuals’: people whose trade it was to deal in words and concepts and ideas, small entrepreneurs with an audience of newspaper readers and book buyers. Such intellectuals still exist, there are even many more of them, although today they work more often as wage earners in the Universities and the media, while only a minority operate independently as ‘free lancers’, on their own account.

The intellectuals in Europe are not the intellectuals of Europe. They have not acquired a European audience, but for some extremely rare exceptions. There are German intellectuals, and French, Greek, Portuguese and also Dutch intellectuals, each addressing their particular domestic audience. It is very seldom that they manifest themselves at the all-European level. Only a very small number among them have achieved a reputation that allows them to publish an article in translation in the media of several, or even most European countries.

In part, this is a consequence of what I would like to call the ‘cultural opportunity structure’ of the Union and its constituent states. There are very few career opportunities for intellectuals, for writers, journalists and scholars outside their national societies. If they want to find jobs, they will have to seek them not at the European level, but mainly on the national level. The same goes for those other resources, awards, subsidies, commissions, committee memberships and so on: they are proffered by national cultural and academic institutions rather than by European agencies. There are, admittedly, a few very prestigious prizes that select their laureates from all over Europe (e.g. Amalfi, Erasmus), but intellectuals must win their laurels and hence their reputation within their own national societies.

Granted, there is a circuit of conferences and exchanges that continually brings together intellectuals, scientists and artists from all over Europe. Moreover, a small number of periodicals already appears in several languages, or recruits its contributors from all over the EU or succeeds in finding subscribers in most of the member countries. It should be added that the most successful transnational media in Europe are all English or American: form the New York Review of Books and the Economist, to the International Herald Tribune and the Financial Times. And in the electronic media one is reminded of CNN, or BBC.

This impasse is characteristic for general cultural and political exchange, not for specific scientific, technological or commercial contacts. On the whole, the more specific the theme of the network or the periodical, the more easily it is put together and kept going. On the other hand, the broader the scope of the intellectual exchange, the harder it is to create and maintain a common agenda, to define a common ground, across borders and across languages.

As a matter of fact, the structuring of European channels of communication has hardly been studied at all. There is, however, no doubt that the major media of information and debate operate almost exclusively in a national context and for a national audience. Even in the absence of language barriers, when the same language is current in several countries, e.g. English in the UK and Ireland, German in Austria and Germany (and part of Switzerland), Dutch in the Netherlands and Belgian Flanders, French in France and Walloon Belgium (and another part of Switzerland), it appears that the exchange of information and opinion remains bounded by national frontiers. When nations are in addition separated by language barriers, they exchange even fewer facts and feelings.

What does easily cross frontiers in Europe, as elsewhere, are broadcasts of sports and entertainment, most of them global events controlled by media corporations in the United States, but some of them truly of European origin and scope, like the Eurovision song contest or the various contests for a European title. Hardly any programs on political, social, or cultural issues are aimed at an all-European audience [1].

In conclusion, there exists no European public space in the classic sense of the term, and this is due in large part to its enduring partitioning along national and linguistic lines. This implies that the language issue must itself be considered within the context of politics. The debate on the European language issue languishes for lack of a European arena of public debate, and such a public space will not emerge in a Europe that lacks shared languages. It is this vicious circle that explains the continuing, tacit inaction on the European language issue.

In the meantime, in the absence of a single European public space, there are myriads of European niches, each providing a distinct meeting place to participants from all member-nations who have shared interests. And, once again, the more circumscribed the agenda, the more smoothly the all-European exchange proceeds: experts, technicians, specialists have no trouble finding one another, nor do entrepreneurs from the same branch, believers from the same church, athletes from the same sport, or scientists from the same discipline find it hard to congregate and communicate. But these multifarious niches, neatly separated as they are, do not add up to a European space. On the contrary, as the agenda widens and comes to encompass broader cultural, social, and political issues, communication becomes so much more difficult. There are literally hundreds of specialized journals that carry the epithet ‘European’ or an equivalent in their title. But when it comes to general cultural and political reviews, there may be no more than a dozen that achieve a genuine European distribution, and almost all of these are in English.

On the one hand, the paucity of resources and opportunities discourages intellectual entrepreneurs from aiming at a transnational, a European arena. They must first of all exploit the possibilities of their home society. On the other hand, this relatively laggard nature of European cultural elite formation does little to prompt politicians or private sponsors to provide opportunities and resources at the European level. I have convincing experimental proof of my thesis: last year, I intended to submit to the Brussels authorities a research proposal on the emergence, or rather the non-emergence, of European cultural elites. I was strongly discouraged to do so. The EU, I was told, avoids cultural topics and eschews anything to do with elites. My point was proven even before I had a chance to make it.

But this inadequate structure of opportunities is coupled to a most persistent structure of obstacles: the coexistence of a dozen languages within the European Union. This multiplicity of languages of course greatly hampers the emergence of a public debate at the European level, and hence prevents the formation of a public space. This peculiar European constellation of languages deserves further examination.

A European language

The European Union now boasts a common currency, but so far lacks a common language. In fact, there hardly is a language policy for the European Parliament, or for the Commission’s bureaucracy, let alone for ‘l’Europe des citoyens’, for civil society in the European Union. Of course, from the beginning the official languages of the member states were recognized as languages of the Community, and later of the Union. At the time, the six founding members contributed four languages: Dutch, French, German and Italian, an almost manageable number. Without much discussion, French was accepted as the working language of the Community’s budding bureaucracy, as it had been the language of diplomacy until the end of World War Two and the sole language of the European Coal and Steel Community that preceded the EC. In those postwar years, the Germans and the Italians kept a low profile and the Dutch (even when counting in the Dutch-speaking Flemish of Belgium) were not numerous enough to insist much on the use of their language in the administration, moreover, beyond the Low Countries Dutch hardly anywhere was taught in the schools.

The first great expansion of the European Community in 1973 brought in the British, the Irish, almost all of them native English speakers), and the Danes who for the vast majority had learned English in school. In fact, English quickly became another working language of the Commission’s bureaucracy and an informal lingua franca in the European Parliament. The Germans still did not much push their language and, being generally more fluent in English than in French, they may have helped to promote English [2]. So far, French is used more frequently in oral and written communication by the Commission’s officials, except in contacts with states outside the Union, while the two languages are about equally current in the conversations among parliamentarians. German comes a far third, other languages hardly play a role in day to day communication [3].

With the addition of Greece in 1981, of Portugal, and Spain in 1986, and of Austria, Finland, and Sweden in 1995, the set of official languages in the European Union grew to nine and next to eleven, a quite unmanageable number that is bound to increase with so many languages once Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and subsequent central and eastern European countries will join the Union. This prospect has prompted much alarm, but so far rarely any serious debate.

In the meantime, from the nineteen sixties on, secondary education had been rapidly expanding throughout Europe. Quite independently from one another, the member states realized sweeping reforms of their secondary school systems, and in the process most of them reduced the number of compulsory foreign languages taught, henceforward prescribing only English, or leaving the choice entirely to the students who almost everywhere opted for English anyway [4]. As a result of the expansion of secondary education there are now more citizens in the Union who have studied one or more foreign languages than ever before. This applies to French, German, Spanish and Italian, but of course the numbers of English students have grown most spectacularly.

According to European Union statistics, 88% of secondary school students in the European Union (in 1992/’93 and excluding Ireland and the U.K.) were taught English as a foreign language. French as a foreign language was taught to 32% , German to 19% and Spanish to 9% (again excluding students in the countries were the language concerned is the medium of instruction). The great majority of high school students in Europe studies a single foreign language, (the all-European average is 1.2) and apparently the one language they learn in overwhelming numbers is English [5]. Young people (15-24 years) in the European Union, asked (in 1997) what languages they speak well enough to carry on a conversation, mention English most often (55%), French (20%), and German (11%), another 29% answer that they do not speak a foreign language at that level [6].


Four domains of communication

For the present purposes four domains of communication are to be distinguished within the European Union: in the first place, the official, public domain: it consists mainly of the sessions of the European Parliament and the external dealings of the European Commission. Here, the founding treaty applies, which recognizes all official languages of the member states as languages of the Union, and, moreover, the principle holds that decisions by the EU should be published in all these languages, since they affect the laws of the constituent states.

In the second place, there is the domain of the Commission bureaucracy, where the officials have more or less informally adopted a few ‘working languages’ in their everyday contacts and internal correspondence.

Then, there is a third domain, neither official or institutional, the ‘civic’ domain of the citizens of Europe, where several languages compete for predominance in various areas of the Union and in many different spheres of communication.

The fourth level is that of domestic communication within each present (and future) member country. There the official language is the mother tongue of a large if not vast majority, taught in school at all levels, and protected by the national state in every which way. Nevertheless, these ‘central’ or national, official languages increasingly coexist with a supercentral language for transnational communication, at present in all cases English, spoken by a fast growing proportion the population.

In fact, the eleven official languages of the Union are used for public and ceremonial occasions and for official documents, but only two languages, English and French are used for informal communication in the corridors of Parliament and the meeting rooms of bureaucracy (German lags far behind, in third position). When it comes to the third domain, that of civil Europe, statistics and survey data all concur that in, English is the first language of transnational communication, while French, German and Spanish play secondary roles in the corresponding regions and for a limited scope of cultural or commercial exchanges.

At the fourth level however, within each member country, the national language will continue to function on most levels of domestic social interaction, while transnational functions will be provided by the supercentral language(s) that ensure all-European communication. As long as each state acts as the protector of its national language there is no immediate threat from the supercentral language, not even when a large majority of citizens has learned it as a foreign language. A state of diglossia, a precarious equilibrium between two languages in one society will prevail.

‘The subject of languages has been the great non-dit of European integration [7]. ’ Apparently, so far it has turned out to be easier for the EU to settle upon a common medium for monetary exchange than on one for verbal exchange. But, in this case too, not taking decisions amounts to taking ‘non-decisions’ – and these will affect the European language constellation as incisively and lastingly as any explicitly adopted policy ever could. The Union’s mute inaction is accompanied by a non-discussion, interspersed by an occasional conference or publication that necessarily must remain rather ineffectual (like this one, I am afraid). On the rare occasions that the European language issue is raised nevertheless, a cabal of experts in the relevant disciplines and of representatives for the affected interest, will use the occasion for a high display of convictions and commitments, most of them equally pious in their respect of the language rights of each and every party involved as pretentious in their ambitions for a grand scheme of European cultural rapprochement [8]. But one can not earnestly promote the two at the same time.

In the meantime, the EU continues to spend considerable effort and great expense on simultaneous interpretation from and to all recognized languages during public ceremonial events, such as the sessions of the European parliament and the major meetings of its commissions, and on the translation of all official documents in the Union’s eleven languages (adding in some cases Irish and Catalan). In informal encounters among officials or members of parliament, the working languages are still French and increasingly English. Since 1990 the German chancellor once a year demanded that German be included among these working languages, and recently he has insisted in public on the use of German in EU meetings [9].
From time to time a member state instructs its delegates to require - at least in public - an equal status for its national language. But behind closed doors, when decisions must be reached, the participants want to avoid the handicap of expressing themselves in a language that is not widely understood and prefer to use either or both of the two working languages.


In all these respects, the dynamics (and the inertia) of the European language constellation are very similar to those of other multilingual and multinational entities, such as India, Nigeria, or South Africa, both at the institutional level and in the context of civil society. Language groups will resist the official adoption of a language that is identified with another ethnic or national group, even if its widely used throughout the territory, even if it generally spoken in their own ranks, on account of a ‘language jealousy’, an unwillingness to grant the other language recognition and afford its native speakers the prestige, symbolic capital and communicative advantage that go with it. This is a quite understandable and even justifiable position, but all the same it is as paralyzing as it is inefficient. Moreover, under such conditions, politicians and individual citizens in public will tend to take a high-minded stance in defense of their group language, while in private they are wont to discretely exploit all the advantages that the other, widely-spread, language has to offer, using it to carry on their own affairs and choosing a school that will teach it to their children. David Latin aptly identified this tendency with Mandeville’s ‘private vice and public virtue’. But in this case no ‘hidden tongue’ works to assure an optimal linguistic outcome for all [10].

The European Parliament in its public sessions should continue to allow the official language of every member state to be used and translated into every other official language. This has been laid down in the treaties that determined the conditions of accession to the Union; as has been argued before, this would help to foster the emergence of a cultural opportunity structure in Europe which might first of all engender a European corps of cultural mediators: the translators of the Union. (The same reasons apply to the publication of documents in all official languages, especially those that affect national laws). But there is a third reason: the members of the European Parliament represent the voters of their respective countries and if at any point they wish to speak the language that their constituency understands they have the right to do so. Quite likely, they also want to persuade their fellow parliamentarians and whenever it suits them to do so, they will speak a language that is directly and widely understood in the benches. Thus, as a European parliamentary culture evolves, it will produce a linguistic etiquette, allowing the use of national languages for the homefront and promoting the use of all-European languages for mutual debate.

In the everyday, informal encounters between parliamentarians, or officials practical considerations prevail; the use of two working languages, English and French, appears to function as a workable compromise. It will not be easy to ward off the claims of other countries, Germany in the first place, to include their language, too. As a matter of fact, a latent ‘voting cycle’ quite likely operates in the selection of languages for the European Union, at the parliamentary, the bureaucratic and the civil level.

Table

For the third domain, that of civil Europe, no explicit language policy exists. It was education policy that determined in stead the spread of languages in Europe. Most often, national governments decided on the curriculum without minding the consequences for the European language constellation in its entirety, nor did they realize how the policies of other countries might interact with their own in shaping the overall situation in Europe. In many western countries, German, French, or Spanish were dropped as compulsory components of the secondary curriculum, and either English alone remained obligatory, or it became the most popular option wherever students were allowed a choice. As a result, English is now by far the most widely spoken language on a continent where no one speaks it as a native tongue. And this prominence will still increase now that young Europeans learn it in such great numbers, in every region of the Union. No doubt, students and their parents are aware of the predominance of English and that is a major reason why the children choose to learn it [11].
European countries separately can do little to counter this trend. The French government has tried long and hard, but all the time it contributed one of the largest contingents of students of English (and the UK taught French to more students than any other country). It is very doubtful whether the institutions of the European Union are in a position to change the course of the language constellation in Europe.

The wisest policy in this case seems to be no policy at all. The citizens of Europe will pick their own languages to learn and will find their own ways to cope with their language differences. Almost all of them will adopt English for transnational communication. Many of them will use their passive understanding of a closely related language when meeting with the inhabitants of a neighboring country; this ‘stratégie de l’intercompréhension’ will much be facilitated if language teaching in high school better prepares the students for it.

When it comes to the fourth level, that of the separate countries that make up the Union, English will continue to spread as the first second language in the member states. Sooner or later the moment will arrive in one country after another that one can speak English, fluently, with practically every fellow-citizen. What is more, all functions that carry prestige may be fulfilled by English. At that point people might begin to neglect their mother tongue, switch to English even among friends and relatives, and, finally, not even bother any longer to speak their mother tongue with their small children who then will learn English as their native language. In the end, the indigenous language might entirely disappear. This would seem a disastrous outcome to most people, others might envisage it with equanimity [12]. At the very least it means that the entire collective cultural capital, the totality of texts in that language that were ever registered in any form, becomes inaccessible [13]. As long as the state protects the national language it may not be in much danger of extinction, but the prospect, even if it were remote and unlikely, needs to be recognized and evaluated.

Conclusion

For representative and for legal purposes, there are compelling reasons to maintain all languages of the member states as official languages of the Union. For everyday informal use in the corridors of Parliament and the Commission, French and English will most likely continue to predominate. In the day to day contacts between citizens of the Union, English will increasingly function as the means of transnational communication, while in the relevant regions French, German, Spanish, and Italian will probably play a secondary role, often in dialogues of passive understanding. At the fourth level, that of the respective member countries, diglossia will prevail, as long as governments remain alert and citizens continue to do what they have always thoroughly enjoyed: to talk about everything they like with everyone they choose to in the tongue they speak best, their own.
This outcome seems to do justice both to the great variety of languages in Europe and to the need for efficient communication. Moreover, it appears that it will come about more or less by itself, as the largely unplanned result of the myriads of spontaneous language choices by the representatives, officials, and above all, the citizens of the European Union.

Notes