Tomas Ambra looks at languages and how vital they are in our future Europe.

Free movement of goods and services, one of the EU’s core pillars, is a great achievement that results in higher efficiency, economic growth and overall prosperity. However, the true potential of the EU single market is not fully exploited due to various language barriers and laws that hinder businesses and natural social interaction. It is still the human being that engages in providing services and trading. Given the diverse cultural landscape of Europe, it is not always as easy to move around and communicate as it is, for example, in the US, where the overall political, economic and social systems are more integrated. In this regard, the EU has 24 official languages and even the best linguists, not to mention regular citizens, cannot master all of them.

First step to unification: choosing a common language

As a matter of fact, if a person intends to provide services in another European country, he or she is faced with a bureaucratic nightmare and protectionism. More specifically, if a Finnish citizen wants to open a consultancy firm in Spain, if a Dutch person lives in the Czech Republic, if an Italian student gets around in Germany, or if a Slovak national works and lives in Belgium – the state and regional language laws prevent these citizens from communicating effectively with the authorities, in the banks, insurance companies, bakeries, stores, etc. These hurdles are sometimes too discouraging for people to relocate or engage in business activities elsewhere in Europe. Lack of communication leads to misunderstandings, consequently missing out on new business and life opportunities. A federal language is needed to facilitate the communication and information flow, but also to stand as a reference point to whatever we do. This idea is not to erase all the existing languages, but rather to offer an add-on while keeping regional identity and pride. This leads to an obvious question: which language should it be then?

Most used foreign (second) language per country. Source: Author, based on Special Eurobarometer 386 published by the European Commission.

Figure 1 depicts the most widely used second languages in the EU. English is spoken by more than 75% of the EU countries and, having the UK out of the union, it may as well serve as a neutral language for communication. Brexit is a negative, but also a positive development for the EU.  There would be no association with superiority of one nation and inferiority of the rest.  Also in terms of efficiency and difficulty, German and French languages are not the easiest to learn. Lastly, it is not only the inner dynamics of the EU that play a significant role, but also the outside world relations. According to Ethnologue, a trusted language research database published by SIL International, the second most spoken language in the world is English with more than 940 million users, right after Chinese with over a billion users.  French takes the 7th place with 270 million and German the 10th with 210 million world-wide users. It is thus safe to say that English is rooted deeply in today’s globalized world, influencing businesses, markets, music, movies etc. But, more importantly, it is a communication means for conferences, scientific publications, project proposal/research grants, university master programmes. Not to mention all the technological devices and nifty applications that are coded by using English syntaxes (in Java, Python, C++ and many more). And these are the aspects of our modern digital economy and scientific progress that are highly likely to evolve further.

A Federated platform

Refocusing back on Europe, all European citizens should have the right to carry out important tasks independently, without having a translator behind their back. A European federated platform would solve a lot of problems, but it will surely not happen overnight. We can and should start slowly by introducing a platform with a common language for official documents, such as tax forms, insurance policies, bills, contracts and various correspondence sent by public authorities; and this should be accessible for all European citizens in order to gain independence when carrying out these tasks, as well as to gain necessary understanding of the laws and requirements of the given European country. With regard to long-term goals, it would not be so uncommon to establish bilingual signs. Examples can be found in the US, Wales or the city of Brussels. European public spaces such as train stations, bus stops and hospitals should function bilingually not just for working European citizens, but also for tourist who would pretty much appreciate to know how to navigate and take care of themselves. It is needless to say that billboard signs and police announcements should follow the same pattern for safety purposes.

We should make use of the existing foundations which are deeply rooted in our system. Re-purposing the current structure(s) to French or German would be extremely costly in terms of time and money, which is why English should be embraced in future discussions related to federation platforms and other European functioning/integration schemes.

Tomas Ambra
Tomas Ambra is a researcher with a background in Geography developing certain applications in the field of applied economic sciences. Tomas has lived, studied and worked across Europe,

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    1. I am no expert of this, though I dare to ask. Your main idea seems focused around the essential and unavoidable necessity of a common language to make the EU work. It seems to me that there are and were some organisations and countries where the lack of a common language worked just fine for centuries. Think of Switzerland, where most persons know English alongside their own mother-tongue and at least one different official language of the confederation – usually together with one or more dialects of there. Even though resorting to English is not at all rare, most of the conversations between persons of different mother-tongues tend to take place in one of the three bigger official languages (German, French, Italian) according to the context and the circumstances with none particularly prevailing more than they do in population proportions. Of course, the obstacles put on by 30+ languages are very different from the choice of two languages out of three, but could efforts to make the European population know two or three non mother-tongue languages lead to worse results than establishing solely English as a possible lingua franca? If not, is any possible scenario among those with European citizen studying more languages more desirable than others in your opinion?
      I think being able to use 2-3 languages that are not your own could be more enriching and may have EU citizens get more involved with the activities of one another than establishing English as lingua franca, but that is solely an opinion of mine.

      1. A little correction nickanc, Switzerland has four national languages with Romansh, although three are the ones used for all official documents, except in Graubünden canton where they are in all four. The Swiss study the three on the basis of their mother tongue, plus the other two. My wife, being from Ticino, speaks Italian first, her French is fluent and German better than she thinks. However, English is not an official language, so that in a totally international city, Geneva, it is very easily possible to have to speak French. It is taught as an optional language, far more successfully among urban than rural German speakers, least successfully among French speakers, Italian speakers of the last couple of now adult generations are pretty good, but earlier very few people learned English.
        In fact, all told there are far more ‘official’ languages in the EU than one imagines. France now accepts there are four, Basque, Breton, Corsican and standard French. In the fullness of time they may include Flemish and Alsatian German, perhaps even Occitan. It is complex because actually we quickly go over 40 languages, although each of the member states uses its official and standard diplomatic language generally. However, for example, speeches have been made to the EP in Irish Gaelic, presumably costing a small fortune in interpreters. At present use of the normal business language makes 27 languages over 28 nations. So the Swiss option of rotating between three in each of the levels of parliament, but with the assistance of interpreters, is magnified to become a terrifying linguistic barrier. Until relatively recently, in fact French was the language of diplomacy, so is an option. The assumption ‘everybody’ learns English, therefore can speak it to some degree, quickly falls apart as well. So there is the possibility of starting from scratch, but what is clearly necessary is a common language, not just as a lingua franca but as the core business language of the EU.

      2. IF the EU wants to be a world leader and attract more investments, the trio pointed out by you (German-French-Italian) will not accomplish anything. As a matter of fact, it will yield more complexity in a system that can be so simple. If I were non-European and saw your scenario, I would just turn my back on you and say: “Let them struggle in their tiny box”. Just imagine you have a groundbreaking application and you want to sell it… a sane person would do that in the US since it has a unified market based on one simple language. Who would feel like translating everything into 24 languages + all the diverse laws you have to cope with (hence, we need a good digital market). I am a practical person and even if someone spends time on learning 2 or 3 extra languages, the final result is that you have the ability to “talk” in 2 or 3 languages. This learning time can be spent on creating genuine added value and not on rehearsing structures and meanings one learnt years ago. I admire people who can speak 3 languages and I know a few of them who are seriously fluent in French, Dutch and English. But lets face the truth, not everybody has the brain cells to do that. To end on a personal note, I already speak English, Slovak, Czech and a bit of Dutch…I do not have time to learn French, German and Italian on top of that, and do research (here’s the added value) in the meantime!

    2. I agree with the posting. A theoretical explanation of the current position of the development of the European community. As a Dutchman, with English as second compulsory language from the age of 12, I had enormous advantages in doing business worldwide. Now action: start English on school for everyone in Europe from the age of 6. This will accelerate the true unification of the continent for future generations. But what is the reality of today, the European parliament chairman Antonio Tajani, the one that needs to bridge the gaps, speak Italian only..

      1. I grew up bilingual and have other languages since, plus several I understand and read rather than speak well or write, so I am prejudiced. Universal bilingualism was a goal in quite a few countries in the 1960s and 70s, it seems to have been forgotten. The USA is too easily valued as a monolingual state but of the roughly 325,000,000 population, 41,000,000 are Hispanic of whom about 20% speak Spanish and have no English, 55% have limited English and well under 20% bilingual. Then there are some hundreds of thousands of indigenous people who do not speak English, plus enclaves of various languages that are archaic European ones and then around 3% of the population speak one of the Chinese languages only. Approximately 430 languages are spoken or signed, of which 176 are indigenous surviving languages. When we look at that then we see that stereotyping on the basis of what a state appears to use is ridiculous. There is no reason why all people should have more than one language but it is a practical proposition. For the sake of governance in the EU of course it is very useful, but to raise Antonio Tajani’s monolinguality at all is almost judgemental. It must not be obligatory or else democracy is lost among the regulations that allow people to stand for or take office as he has done. If that because a requirement then democracy falls apart because people are disqualified for no reason other than their education. The question as to whether it should be English or another language is semantic. If a common language is ever chosen then it must be by popular consent but not imposed, that English is the front runner is fair enough but things do change.

        1. 可能是中國人 🙂

    3. I fully agree with you!

    4. This article, published a few days after, also strengthens my message: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170317-the-international-companies-using-only-english

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