Among the many consequences of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Community, an important issue is the status of the English language. At the moment English is the co-official common EU language along with French. All administrative communications are carried out in these two languages, although within the European Parliament any one of the 24 officially registered languages can be used.
Every EU country has the right to register one language for its communication, but the two other English speaking countries, namely Ireland and Malta, have registered Gaelic and Maltese as official languages, since English was already present. This means that when the UK withdraws from the EU, the registration of the English language will also be withdrawn and also the percentage of native English speakers across the EU will fall from 14% to 1%. If our language ceases to be official in Europe we will no longer be able to rely on official translations of European documents into English and English can no longer be used as the common “lingua franca” within the Community.
On a practical level this will be difficult to enforce, since English is by far the most common second language spoken by member states. However, internal legislation will have to be changed for English to continue officially and at present there appears to be little willingness on the part of EU officials to facilitate this. Even in the short time since the fateful Brexit vote, there has been an increase of written communications in French and German and the president of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker recently chose to speak publicly in French and German, rather than in English. There has been very little mention of this fact in the UK as we blithely assume our language will continue to dominate the world.
It is interesting to contrast our complete lack of concern about the future of our language, with the efforts made by Spanish speakers to raise the status of their language world-wide. Every three years since 1997 there has been a major international congress devoted exclusively to the promotion of the Spanish language. This year it was held in Puerto Rico and previous editions have taken place in Panama, Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Spain and Mexico. The conference is attended by eminent linguists and writers and discusses a wide range of aspects of Spanish literature and language and its role in the world. They have had specific successes, such as the recognition of Spanish letters and symbols on the Internet, to cite just one example.
The English language is a much wilder flower than Spanish and exists in multiple forms without any need for uniformity or control. As a former empire and in the shadow of the United States we happily take the status of our language for granted. However, we should be aware that linguistic competitors exist and that our new situation in Europe could have unexpected consequences.