The European Union has 27 member countries and 23 official languages, but its official business is carried out primarily in one language — English. Yet the striking findings of a new study show that barely a third of the EU’s 500 million citizens speak English.
What about the other two-thirds? They are linguistically disenfranchised, say the study’s authors.
For the EU’s non-English speakers, their native languages are of limited use in the EU’s political, legal, communal and business spheres, conclude economists Shlomo Weber of SMU and Victor Ginsburgh of the Free University of Brussels (ULB), the authors who conducted the study. Those who are disenfranchised have limited access to EU laws, rules, regulations and debates in the governing body — all of which may violate the basic principles of EU society, the researchers say.
“Language is the proxy for engagement. People identify strongly with their language, which is integral to culture and traditions,” Weber says. “Language is so explosive; language is so close to how you feel.”
Weber and Ginsburgh base their findings on a new methodology they developed to quantitatively evaluate both costs and benefits of government policies to either expand or reduce diversity. The method unifies previous approaches to measure language diversity’s impact, an area of growing interest to scholars of economics and other social sciences.
“With globalization, people feel like they’ve been left on the side of the road. If your culture, your rights, your past haven’t been respected, how can you feel like a full member of society?” says Weber. “It is a delicate balance. People must decide if they want to trade their languages to increase by a few percentage points the rate of economic growth.”
Beyond the EU, the Weber-Ginsburgh methodology can evaluate linguistic policies in other nations, too, including the United States. It builds on a body of earlier published research by Weber, Ginsburgh and other economists.
They report their findings and present the methodology in their new book, How Many Languages Do We Need? The Economics of Linguistic Diversity (Princeton University Press). The research is noted on the web site of the International Monetary Fund in a review by Henry Hitchings.
Previous researchers found that 90 percent of the EU’s official documents are drafted in English and later translated to other languages, often French and sometimes German. Previous research also has documented frustration among EU officials with the political entity’s multitude of languages, as members wonder whether they are being understood.
Against that backdrop, the Weber-Ginsburgh analysis of the EU used official data from a routinely conducted EU survey of member states carried out in 2005 and later. The data came from answers to questions that included: What is your mother tongue? Which languages are you conversant in? How do you rate your fluency on a scale of very good, good or basic?
Weber and Ginsburgh found that of all the languages, English embraces the most EU citizens, followed by German second and French third. Yet those languages fall far short of including all people. Nearly two-thirds of EU citizens — 63 percent — don’t speak or understand English, while 75 percent don’t readily speak or understand German, and 80 percent don’t speak or understand French.
“English is spoken almost everywhere around the world,” the authors write, “but it is still far from being spoken by almost everyone.” At the same time, many non-native speakers of English feel the onslaught of that language’s global domination, a phenomenon that wasn’t generally foreseen and that evolved only within the past 60 years.
Weber and Ginsburgh discovered one EU age group that is less marginalized by English than other groups: youth ages 15 to 29. Fewer than half the young people – 43 percent – are disenfranchised, the researchers found.
Written by Margaret Allen