Dr. Michele GAZZOLA
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
The LAPO project

European multilingualism after Brexit

Michele Gazzola, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany

As a result of the referendum held the 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union. The negotiations to formalize the farewell could last up to two years, and we do not know what the future EU is going to look like. Nor can we predict whether the United Kingdom, if you will allow the pun, will still remain united, or whether Scotland, which voted 62% to stay in Europe, will decide to follow a destiny different from that of the English and the Welsh. 

But we know that Brexit could have a significant impact on the EU language regime. The largest European English-speaking country is going to leave the EU, and English will be the mother tongue of only 2% of the population in the new EU with 27 Member States (essentially the Irish and some Britons living on the Continent). What effect this change could have on the language regime of the European Union? Some people say that Brexit solves the problem of equity and efficiency in the Union's communication. English could become the only official language of the Union, lowering translation costs, and putting everyone on an equal footing as regards communication between the European institutions and citizens. 

This would be a bad mistake. Brexit instead makes multilingualism even more necessary than before. In the new EU without the United Kingdom, English will be spoken as a mother tongue or a foreign language by a minority of citizens, precisely by 44% of the population (Croatia is excluded for lack of data). By way of comparison, the percentage of citizens that can speak German as a native or foreign language is going to be 30% and that for French 25%. German and French are likely to become more important than today in the new EU with 27 countries. 

Most of the people who speak English as a foreign language, nevertheless, declare to have an elementary or intermediate level of competence. This is not enough to follow a debate in the European Parliament, to understand the webpages published by the European Commission, and to read the European directives. Only 8% of Europeans declare to know English as a foreign language at a very good level, according to official Eurobarometer statistics, and data from the Adult Education Survey reveal that proficiency in English is much more common among the better educated people and among those who have a high income status. In Italy, for example, the percentage of residents who speak English as a foreign language among those who belong to the 10% of the population with the highest income (the "rich" to simplify) is almost twice the percentage of speakers among those who belong to 10 % of the population with the lowest income (the "poor"). 

To sum up, only 10% (8% + 2%) of EU citizens speak English as a mother tongue or as a foreign language at a very good level, and this elite largely consists of people who have a high income and a high level of education. The exclusive use of English as the language of the EU, therefore, would exacerbate inequalities rather than reducing them. A monolingual language policy would give a tremendous advantage to a small minority of native English speakers (2%), and it would worsen social inequalities as regards the access to communication with the EU. European institutions are going through a severe crisis of legitimacy, and they need anything but being perceived as “elitist”.

We should not believe in the magic formula of the three working languages, nor think that the problem will be resolved in the near future. Sure, 90% of European children learn English at school, according to official data from Eurydice, the European agency for education. But the effectiveness of European education systems is still low. The results of the First European Survey on Language Competence, published by the Commission in 2012, show that only a quarter of pupils who finish the first two years of high school reach a level in English equivalent to the B2 level of the Common European Framework for Languages. Recall that B2 means an intermediate level and not an advanced level.

There is no or little money to invest in education in order to improve children language skills. In Italy, for example, the art. 1, paragraph 7, of Law 107/2015 provides that the teaching of foreign languages through CLIL methodology (acronym for "Content and Language Integrated Learning"), that is, to teach a non-linguistic subject in a foreign language, should be implemented "without draining further resources on public finances", i.e. free. Fiscal austerity and weak economic growth do not allow us to be too optimistic as regards the amount of new resources that European countries can invest in education in the near future.

Perhaps it has never been as urgent as now for EU to be close to its citizens by using their native languages, and to prevent fuelling euro-sceptics and populist movements further. Avoiding the elitist temptation has never been so important. Even in the field of language policy.