Saturday, April 24, 2004

French an also-ran as English tops the EU

The Daily Telegraph, 24 April 2004
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in Brussels

Maybe it is a Tower of Babel, but at least they will be able to understand the word "no".

The entry of 10 countries into the European Union next week marks the ascendancy of English as the undisputed common language of the Brussels institutions, relegating French to an also-ran. When the incoming commissioners gather on the 12th floor of the Breydel Building in early May, some may mutter a few words in German or French out of politeness, but almost all will flip spontaneously into English once real business begins.

Poland's Danuta Hubner was educated at Sussex University and Berkeley; Latvia's Sandra Kalniete went to a Foreign Office boot camp in Leeds; Slovakia's Jan Figel and Lithuania's Dalia Grybauskaite went to Georgetown in Washington. The Cypriot and Maltese duo speak English almost as a mother tongue.

A French offer of free language teaching and gourmet cuisine at the Chateau de Correnson near Avignon does not seem likely to change the habits of a lifetime. More than 57 per cent of all European Commission documents are already drafted in English compared to 29 per cent in French and five per cent in German - the three core languages. English is automatically chosen for economic and financial reports.

Only a decade ago English was still banned in the press room, while Brussels sometimes seemed little more than an extension of the French civil service. Now the switch seems irreversible. Only 14 per cent of the candidates for EU jobs from the East European states have so far chosen French as their working language, while 69 per cent opted for English.

Jonathan Faull, the director-general of justice and home affairs, who is bilingual, said a revolution had taken place since he arrived in 1978. "It's changed enormously. Then everything was in French and it was very rare to see an internal memo in English."

With the switch in language comes conceptual advantage, subtly feeding the "Anglo-Saxon" way of thinking into the EU system. "Some of my French colleagues complain that we have not only brought Shakespeare but also Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher, and they may have a point," said one British official.

France's EU ambassador, Pierre Sellal, has been fighting a rearguard campaign to save French in Brussels, saying language is crucial to "the modes of perception that shape the European system". But if day-to-day business changes to English, or rather "Le Bad English" as the mash of mangled syntax and bureaucratic jargon has come to be known, all new rules and directives will still have to be translated into a tongue that can be read by all 450 million citizens of the enlarged EU.

Never easy - "copyright" was once translated as "a right to copy" in the French text - the turnout will soar from 1.4 million to 2.4 million pages a year as the newcomers raise the number of official languages from 11 to 20. A growing army of 1,200 translators and 700 interpreters will be on call at a cost of £700 million a year. They can earn up to £80,000 a year, plus perks and allowances. The ultimate target: 80 interpreters per language per day for 11,000 meetings each a year, even if most end up speaking with nobody listening.

The scale of the challenge was all too visible when Sandra Kalniete tried to conduct her ratification hearing by MEPs in Latvian. By the time questions on farming had been relayed from Greek and Italian through the "pivot" language of English into Latvian they had become so garbled that she ripped of her earphones and switched to English.

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