Not known for his sparkling sense of humor, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker may be seriously underrated in the “zinger” department. In a well-reported speech (in French) a couple of weeks ago, he prefaced his remarks by noting (in English) that after Brexit the English language would gradually lose its commercial importance to the 24 continental European languages, notably French and German - the two post-Brexit EU “working languages.” His remarks, widely reported in the media and overanalyzed by the global elite, raised some interesting questions.
Imagine how much brainpower is invested by the thousands of Eurocrats, members of the European Parliament, national delegates, lobbyists and other hangers-on who are fluent or at least competent in four languages - the three current working languages plus the language of their home countries. The English, French and Germans get one exemption each as do the Irish and Maltese, for whom English is the official language. Plus many countries retain local dialects that have been remarkably persistent over the centuries, part of the enduring charm of Europe.
Becoming fluent in a modern foreign language takes a lot of time and effort, and comes at the expense of other activities that might be more productive. In the implicit cost calculus of the EU bureaucracy, it probably ranks with moving the annual plenary sessions of the European Parliament to Strasbourg from its HQ in Brussels due to political concerns early in the EU’s history. But things being what they are, within the halls of the EU and its agencies, the extraordinary commitment to modern foreign languages is likely to continue well after Brexit. Except maybe at the European Central Bank, which works in English despite the absence of the UK among its members.
Modern foreign languages have both personal and commercial value. Learning them involves investment in consumption or production, or both. Consumption-driven language investment allows access to literature in the original language, the performing arts, ability to converse across cultures, enhancement of tourism and a generally better informed and more cultured existence. Production-driven language investment allows better market access, lower information and transaction costs that ease commerce – international trade in goods and services, foreign investment and all kinds of financial flows. It can pay off very directly for a tour guide, for example, or in much more subtle ways that result in higher incomes that come from functioning more effectively in a multi-lingual world.
Languages are economic catalysts. They create lots of benefits without themselves being consumed in the process. And the more a language gets used, the more it gets used, with a tendency toward a winner-takes-all lingua franca. Unfortunately for Jean-Claude Juncker, it isn’t French or German. The drift toward English began in the far distant past, with the British exploration, trading and colonial history depositing the language the world over. Others like Spain and Portugal provided alternatives, but none had the domestic commercial, legal and business infrastructure to form a serious global challenge - or a powerful US acolyte. Even a credible newcomer like China stands little chance.
Today English is far enough down the slope of lingua francaness that arguing against it is like challenging gravity. Outside of commerce, English has come to dominate much of academia and technology as well, where ideas are heavily globalized. Other languages have liberally contributed key words or phrases for which English has no easy replacements - like entrepreneur and Schadenfreude, fait accompli and Wanderlust - and the English language is happy to incorporate them. It is also relatively easy to learn, constantly evolving (as annual additions to the Merryam-Webster English Dictionary show) and eager to export plenty of its own words and expressions to other languages free of charge.
Even in the EU. It seems that 66% of EU citizens are competent in a foreign language, according to Eurostat – the EU’s statistical office - with 94% of them studying English, 34% studying French and 23% studying German at the secondary school level. At the primary school level 79% are studying English versus 4% French.
In a recent study one of my students, Jessica Yang, conducted an interesting empirical analysis of the relationship between commercial and financial integration and cross-border migration in the EU and investments in learning foreign languages among pairs of member countries. The study was based on a data panel containing both language-education stats and economic flows among four countries - Spain, France, Germany and Italy – so that paired conclusions could be drawn.
The causality, of course, could run both ways. Language education could lead to higher intensity of economic relationships among the EU countries examined. Or stronger economic ties among these countries could increase the personal payoffs from investment in language education and encourage attainment of fluency.
The finding? Rien du tout, Garnichts, niente. nada. Nothing? For better or worse, is seems that English swamps everything else. Casual observation over a couple of decades savoring the delights of Paris or Madrid – on and off the beaten tourist track - confirms this English language-creep, and practical business-related motives doubtless have a lot to do with it. But go ahead and study modern foreign languages anyway. You will be better for it. But for most people it won’t pay the rent.
In the rarified EU halls in Brussels, of course, form doesn’t necessarily follow function and there seem to be plenty of resources to waste, including brainpower dedicated to mastering multiple languages. Even so, English will doubtless continue to gain market share in remaining 27 member states well after the EU’s official languages drop from three to two after Brexit. Britain will leave behind a gift that keeps on giving. Stay tuned for Jean-Claude Juncker’s next bon mot on the subject.