English in the EU: folk linguists have their say


The Guardian has published a short piece that speculates on whether English should be adopted as the official language of the EU. The article doesn’t specify whose English this should be, but the author is aware that things have slipped out of native-speakers’ hands: “Eurospeak may not sound pretty to native English ears, but it may just be a lingua franca forming in front of our eyes”.

Straight to the point – I don’t think English should be the official language of the EU. I’m a citizen of one of the small EU countries whose main language (Finnish) is spoken by just over five million people. I don’t believe they’d agree to an English-only policy, and neither would I. The policy of multilingualism is an affirmation of the linguistic and national equality of all EU members, and without that I don’t think the EU makes sense. The article points out that the EU translation regime costs 300 million euros a year, but this is hardly a treasure in our modern era of mega-billion euro/dollar/Monopoly-money bailouts.

But that’s not why the article is interesting. The real action is found in the comment section, which has over 500 comments at the time of writing. I’m always curious to see what “ordinary people” think about these issues, and especially what British English speakers think about English in the rest of Europe. The comments include a contingent of English teachers and translators who don’t qualify as “ordinary people”, but there’s an interesting mix of native and non-native English speakers weighing in. Opinions overall are quite mixed, but I’ve selected a few comments I’d like to discuss that I think are worthy of mention.

Everyone’s a linguist

A discussion like this is an interesting window into folk linguistic perceptions of English. A number of time-worn myths get discussed, such as how English is the easiest/hardest language to learn, English is more or less expressive than other languages, the language itself is “clear and concise”, or alternatively, it’s “one of the most expressive and nuanced languages known”. Moreover, we find that people have strong emotional ties to English – it’s a “lovely language”, or as one writer commented, “I love the English language probably more than my own”.

I’m a native speaker of English, and I most certainly don’t love English. I’m pretty sure I never will. In the midst of these emotionally charged Guardian comments came one that rang true:

Some people have funny notions about language, like it’s more than just a convenient way of sharing what’s in our heads. (ogbg)

This might be seen as an extreme position, but it’s preferable to the tired old myth that using a language somehow metamorphoses your personality and view of the world:

… languages express cultures, mentalities and mindsets, and thus switching to english means switching to the anglo-american mindset (notndmushroom)

“Anglo-American mindset”? I guess if you speak American English you might suddenly have an insatiable urge to drive a monster truck and drink Bud Light. But an Anglo-American mindset? Bollocks, dude.

The revenge of “hashed-up English”

Even if English isn’t lovable, it ought to be intelligible. Unfortunately, English native speakers who see themselves as the center of the linguistic universe typically equate intelligible English with “real English”, i.e. “my English”. This comment from LariaA is a case in point:

And often, even the ones who do “speak English” make a terrible job of it. Honestly, some “English” you see out there, including at the EU, is literally incomprehensible. They have to employ editors to “translate” hashed-up “English” into real English. And honestly, it’s very often much easier to translate from a foreign language than it is to translate from hashed-up “English” into real English.

This type of thinking is hardly unique, but I was more surprised to find deeply entrenched anglocentric views even among those who have worked in the EU. The following comment was made by someone who claims substantial experience as an EU translator:

I work with texts written by Francophones in English and they often require a great deal of editing and correction because people working in Brussels see this sort of pseudo-English/ Globish/ Franglais/ whatever you want to call it, being produced by European institutions and think that it is real English and perpetuate its use. I am not saying that a language should not evolve and develop. But that is not the case here. (ChrisFitzsimons)

I have no comment on these views, except to say that they speak for themselves. Like I said in an earlier post concerning linguistic intolerance, there’s no point in trying to reason with people who think like this. All you can do is walk the other way when you see them coming, as I’m sure the previous commenter’s French colleagues regularly do.

Behind these “Bad English” alarmists is a sense that the bearers of “real English” will soon be linguistic outsiders. A comment by “postageincluded” expresses this particularly well, and accurately, I think. In opposing the idea of English as the official EU language, the commenter suggests

If English were the European language they would have to have a common standard, and it wouldn’t be us, or the writers of the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] even, who standardised it.

After speculating what these changes might look like, the commenter concludes with what I believe is the most insightful comment of them all:

Eventually we’d end up on the wrong side of the linguistic border, having to learn a Euro-dialect of our own language or be condemned as yokels. No thanks.

In fact, I believe the yokelhood of English native speakers has already begun. Those bearers of “real English” who journey outside their own linguaculture without adjusting their speech (or expectations) and without accommodating to their interlocutors are increasingly out of place in today’s world. Other forms of intolerance have gone out of style in educated circles, and I expect linguistic intolerance will go the same route.

The Colour Question

The above comment by “postageincluded” set off an interesting thread of responses. At issue is the question of “colour”, a quality inevitably linked to “real English”. It’s well-known that both American and British English contain culture-specific, idiomatic language with non-transparent meanings that are inaccessible to those who haven’t spent a great deal of time in those cultures. This response sums up the problem:

@postageincluded – This is the problem really. There’s native English, and there’s this Globish hybrid creole-type language free of idiom, complexity or colour. God help me if this become the dominant flavour of my language. (HyypiaIsBoss)

I was unsurprised to find that the most intelligent comments in the discussion were written by a Finn. Here’s the reply of JohannesL:

It already has, and will be more so. Native speakers are a minority of English-speakers already. The new English is a language of communication.

I’d extend this further by saying, “The new English is a language of communication, not culture”. The hundreds of millions of people who have learned English didn’t do it so they can recite Wordsworth on a mountaintop. Clarity of message, not color, is what is valued today, and idiomatic language by its very nature is unclear to cultural outsiders. Sensible English native speakers already know this and adjust their speech accordingly. Those who don’t, well, they look like yokels. Consider this comment by HarmoniousFrog:

When I used to attend scientific conferences, the Germans, Scandanavians and so on were much easier to follow than the Brits, who tend to lace their speech with all sorts of figurative expressions that don’t mean anything outside the UK (and often inside). I’m not referring to regional accents, which are usually OK. Probably most British contributors were unaware of using an excess of colloquialism, but it was really cringe-worthy to those of us who had spent a fair part of our careers in non-English speaking countries.

But what about the color?

I find it odd that you call it “cringeworthy” that someone speaks with all the natural poetry and colour of their native language. I also think it is sad that working and living abroad has caused you to lose some of that colour and look down on those enjoying it… (translators_LD)

I only look down on those who enjoy their “natural poetry” at the expense of others’ understanding. And having been out of the US for the past seven years, my “colour” has not been lost, but supplemented with new values. One of them is intelligibility. Another is consideration for my interlocutors. But the fact is that when you leave a native speaker setting and interact mainly with non-native speakers, your English does change. This is no cause for sadness; instead, it’s a natural reflection of the human ability to adapt to one’s surroundings. Inflexible English speakers with their “natural poetry” may someday find that they’ve failed to adapt to a language that has left them behind.

4 thoughts on “English in the EU: folk linguists have their say

  1. KaisaPie says:

    I’m tired of the debate between native and non-native English (which one’s better?) when all comes down to understanding and being understood, in other words adjusting your English according to your interlocutors and learning how to listen to different styles of speech. In the end, it’s not like a Texan and a Scotsman can automatically understand each other even though they are both native, “inner circle” English speakers. They have to adjust and pay attention too in order to understand each other.

    About cultural features such as idioms, I always find it refreshing if someone “tries the ice with a stick” and introduces idioms from their native language into a conversation, so long as they are prepared to explain their meaning (this one is a Finnish saying for trying out an idea that may not be the conventional method). In text, as you are not able to explain, idioms can be quite difficult, so more neutral language is preferable and I would even try to avoid idioms altogether.

    • Ray Carey says:

      Hei Kaisa! “tries the ice with a stick” — love it! This is a good point I hadn’t thought of, because the claim of “colourless” ELF is also a myth. People bring in images from their own first languages, create metaphors in real-time, and generally use English quite creatively. Our friend Valeria Franceschi has an article on idiomatic language in ELFA/SELF data in the latest issue of Journal of English as a Lingua Franca. I’m planning to blog on it soon.

      I know I’ve generally reduced my reliance on obscure idioms since living here, but some of my idioms have also changed form. Now I pretty much always use “kill two flies at once” instead of “kill two birds with one stone”, from the image in Finnish. I really like Finnish idioms, but some of them like älä nuolaise ennen kuin tipahtaa (don’t lick before it drops) seem to defy translation. It’s the equivalent of “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”, but I’ve yet find someone who can explain to me the source of the Finnish imagery — everyone knows what it means, what no one can tell me where it’s from!

  2. Matt Halsdorff says:

    I love the idea of using the comments section as a jumping off point for discussion here… Avoiding idioms is one of those key strategies that a Native Speaker needs to know about when speaking internationally. That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t use them! 🙂 Just being aware of them… and explaining or checking for understanding… is key in not confusing the audience.

    In my own opinion, speaking clearly internationally isn’t about cutting out all the “colorful” expressions – it’s about being aware enough to adapt & use the correct ones for the group. You may speak like a poet, but if only 10% of the audience understands… what’s the point? Who is to blame for the miscommunication?

    We Native Speakers need to meet the non-native speakers in the middle. (Even 20% of the way would be appreciate, I’m sure!)

  3. […] was recently addressing some common folk linguistic myths about English, especially the English used as a lingua franca (ELF) between its non-native speakers. One of these […]

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