Letter: Babel in Brussels

Click to follow
Sir: Let's be fair to the Germans, they do have a point ("Germans outraged their language is ruled out at EU", 12 July). However, their official's assertion that German is the biggest language group in Europe raises national hackles instead of proposing a pragmatic solution.

Far better to argue that German is spoken and/or understood with a degree of fluency by almost 30 per cent of the EU's 372 million population, just ahead of French but some way behind English (44 per cent), with Italian (17.5 per cent) and Spanish (15 per cent) bringing up the rear among major European languages. Moreover, as the EU expands into Central and Eastern Europe it is English and German, rather than French, that are destined to become the favoured foreign languages.

None the less, the Finns are right to highlight the language problem in the EU. Whereas the six original members coped with just four official languages generating 12 possible language combinations to be translated (French-German, German-French etc), the current 15 members utilise 11 official languages producing 110 combinations. The addition of just five new prospective members will raise this figure to 240 and the following five to 420 and so on.

Quite apart from the logistics (and economics) of accommodating so many interpreters and translators, it is unlikely that all combinations (eg Portuguese-Hungarian) could be covered. Of necessity, therefore, EU business will have to be translated from any member language into one of the key working languages (certainly English, French and German, possibly also Italian and Spanish) and from those into all other official languages of the Union.

If, as seems likely, English will be the "relay" language in greatest demand, who better to satisfy this demand than our home-grown linguists, offering any two foreign languages from French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian (a crucial language in the process of enlargement of the EU and expansion of Nato) and, in addition, one of the lesser-known languages (Finnish, Slovenian etc)? The employment prospects throughout Europe in the new millennium for such graduates are exceptionally good.


Head, Department of Modern Languages

University of Bradford