English language under threat as UK leaves EU

Speaking our language: Proficiency rates in English as a second language around the world.

Two French politicians say EU officials should stop speaking English after the Brexit vote. The language has spread rapidly in an era of globalisation, but could political decisions kill it?

The widespread use of the English language irritates many in France. So when the UK voted to leave the EU, French politicians seized the chance to send the anglophone world into retreat.

‘The English language no longer has any legitimacy in Brussels,’ tweeted Robert Menard, the far-right mayor of Beziers. Far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon agreed. ‘English can no longer be the third working language of the European Parliament,’ he said.

English is currently one of the EU’s 24 official languages and one of the three used by the European Commission to conduct day-to-day business. MEPs used it more often than any other between 2008 and 2012.

Soon English will only be an official language in two EU member states, in neither case exclusively so, reducing the proportion in the EU population of native English speakers from 14% to 1%.

But will this matter? English has arguably outgrown its creators. It is the most popular foreign language in all but five European nations. In the EU, two in three citizens have at least a fair working knowledge of it and 94% of non-English-native secondary school pupils are learning it.

In 2014, an estimated 1.5 billion people were learning English worldwide. The British empire spread it for centuries; US supremacy, increasing trade across borders and the internet have sped up the process. English is now often seen as the international lingua franca, dominating industries including aviation and cinema.

But this may not last. One expert estimates the proportion of online content in English has already halved since 1996. If the USA elects Donald Trump as president, imposes steep tariffs on imports and heavily curbs migration, it would be likely to reduce its economic and cultural reach — slowing the spread of English.

When the Roman empire fell in the fifth century, Latin’s slow decline as the major language of the known world began. Could English go the same way as the influence of anglophone countries wanes?

Pardon my Anglo Saxon

Yes, say some. People only learn English because it creates opportunities and is exported by open, liberal societies which are attractive to emulate. Fewer people will need to speak it if English-speaking countries become more closed. It will be replaced by another tongue or, as the world divides, there will be no international language.

English is here to stay, others respond. Leaving the EU does not necessarily mean Britain’s global influence will decline. The growth of English has made it easier to travel, trade and share information; these processes will continue. And Latin was replaced by a smorgasbord of local dialects — a similar trend would be impossible in a globalised world.

You Decide

  1. Would you want to learn English if you did not speak it natively?
  2. Will political decisions kill the English language?

Activities

  1. Write a one-page ‘Beginners’ guide to the English language’. What advice would you give someone new to learning the language (if you could communicate with them)?
  2. Contact someone from a non-English speaking country of your choice. Interview them about their country’s attitude to English. How many lessons do children have? How proficient are people? Return to class and explain your findings.

Some People Say...

“If the human race all spoke the same language, people would be far happier.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I live in the UK. So what if people stop speaking English abroad?
You are currently in a privileged position when travelling, particularly in Europe, as plenty of people speak English well. And even if you work in another field, if you go into a professional environment, you will probably need to communicate with people from around the world. If English declines, this may become harder for you.
Could speaking English give me a chance to travel and get a job?
Yes: in 2012, about 250,000 native English speakers taught English in non-English-speaking countries. Some volunteer, meaning they contribute to good causes, gain work experience and spend time in new environments. You could also be paid and, if you are willing to get qualifications and take it seriously, you could even build a career.

Word Watch

Working language
All 24 languages are working languages of the EU; any may be used in the Parliament. Melenchon may have confused the Parliament with the European Commission.
Three
German, French and English.
MEPs
Members of the European Parliament. The data is from European parliamentary debates.
Two
Ireland and Malta.
Exclusively
Irish Gaelic is also an official language in Ireland, and Maltese in Malta.
Popular
According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical arm.
1.5 billion
According to the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL).
Lingua franca
A language adopted as common.
Aviation
English became the standardised language of air travel in 2001. All aviation personnel have since had to pass an English proficiency test.
Expert
Alvaro Blanco, of FUNREDES (Foundation for Networks and Development), believes less than 40% of online content is now in English; in 1996, around 80% was.
Fell
The date of the empire’s end is contentious. Some cite the sack of Rome in 410; others Emperor Romulus’s overthrow in 476; others say it lasted until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

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