What’s the most common choice for a second language in Europe? It’s not French, German, Spanish, or Italian. It’s English.
In Europe, English is the most widely spoken non-native language. Thirty-eight percent of the population speaks English and in 19 European Union member-states, it’s the dominant foreign language. The popularity of English in Europe may not come as a shock, since it’s commonly referred to as “the language of business” globally.
On a (rather small) continent with over 60 indigenous languages and 50 countries, English became a common denominator. It started with the politicians and bureaucrats from all over Europe who come together at the EU institutions in Brussels. Filled with delegates and staffers from all over Europe, they have come to rely on English over the years. The UK also had quite a bit of sway in pushing English as a dominant language.
Within the halls of the EU institutions, Euro English was born.
At the EU, variations of English became standardized. So standardized, in fact, that senior translator at the European Court of Auditors Jeremy Gardner published an official report on it. In “Misused English words and expressions in EU publications” you can find a comprehensive guide to English as it’s used by the EU institutions.
Gardner’s report is a great starting place for Euro English, but it definitely doesn’t encompass the entire English-speaking world in Europe today. EU officials are no longer the only ones speaking English on a regular basis. The language has seeped into the everyday life of many Europeans.
Parlez-vous Euro English?
What is Euro English, exactly? Euro English, also called “Globish,” are words, phrases, or manners of speaking that non-native English speakers in Europe have developed. These terms are either derived from their native languages or from a different interpretation of words as native English speakers would use them.
In his report, Gardner breaks up Euro English words into three categories:
- Incorrect words that derive their meaning from other languages. (the French word “planification” substitutes for “planning”)
- Words that have basically the same meaning but are used in contexts unfamiliar to native speakers (“possibility” used in a context in which we’d normally say “opportunity”)
- Words typically related to modern technology that users prefer because they’re more local (“SMS” instead of “text”)
In his publication, Gardner doesn’t focus as much on the third category of words because they’re related more to spoken English. But this category, or spoken Euro English in general, is far more applicable to everyday life.
How will you recognize Euro English when you hear it? Here are some of the more common examples:
possibility = opportunity
actually = currently
propose = offer
we were two at the party = there were two people at the party
how do you call it? = what is it called?
finally = in the end/after all
punctual = occasional or periodic
eventually = maybe
Making things plural that aren’t plural
planification = planning
I am coming from France = I come from France
caution = deposit (like a security deposit for an apartment)
What Gardner aimed to do with his publication was demonstrate how English in Europe deviated from a “standard.” His standard, however, was British and Irish English. For example, he pointed out that it’s incorrect to say “GPS” instead of “satnav.” They call navigational devices satnavs in the UK. But in American English, there is no such thing as a satnav and we call them by the same name the French do — GPS.
From this line of thinking come arguments against Euro English. There are those who say that if it doesn’t conform to an existing standard (read: British or American standard), then it doesn’t count as a real dialect.
Brexit cut down the UK’s authority to push “proper” forms of English in Europe and in EU institutions. Now, rather than French rising to the top of the European linguistic food chain, as a French politician had hoped, this new form of Euro English will likely dominate.
In favor of Euro English
On the other side of the argument are linguistic experts such as Marko Modiano, an American who’s lived in Sweden and taught English for many years. He thinks Brexit will let Euro English flourish, and doesn’t think those born into speaking English should dictate how the language is spoken in Europe.
In his English Today article, Modiano points out three arguments critics use against making Euro English its own dialect, and pokes holes in each of them.
Supposed problems with Euro English
- Euro English has no native speakers, so it can’t be an official dialect
- Euro English is too diverse to pin down as one distinct dialect
- Without any standard for Euro English, it can’t be taught
Modiano argues that by not adhering so strictly to British or American English standards, European English speakers can carve out their own identities. They can use English to express their worldview, in a way that native speakers cannot. Teaching non-native English speakers British or American words for things skews the way they see and experience the world toward a British or American perspective.
He also says it’s a bit ridiculous to force English-learning students to conform to “British English” when the English spoken in the British Isles varies so much that even British people from different regions may struggle to understand each other.
Finally, Modiano points out that English teaching in mainland Europe today focuses on multicultural communication, not on impersonating a perfect British or American accent.
“Correct” English is about power
In an interview earlier this year with Berliner Zeitung, Modiano argued that purism, or pushing Europeans to accept an English that native-speakers prefer, no longer has a place in European English. He maps “correctness” or “incorrectness” in language to social and class groups, saying that it’s really about power and trying to influence the behavior of others.
Following Brexit, the UK no longer has a position to assert its English in Europe. American English is popular in Europe thanks to movies, music, and other cultural imports, but Euro English will develop independently of either of these dialects, according to Modiano.
Politico’s EU Confidential podcast featured both Jeremy Gardner and Marko Modiano in a segment about Euro English and whether it’ll feasibly develop into a full-blown dialect or not.
The future of Euro English
Children across Europe are learning English as their second language. Slowly, the number of adults who speak English fluently in Europe is rising, and will continue to do so. As it evolves, some standards may be put in place, but they’re still a ways off.
One thing is certain. However Euro English becomes standardized in the next 10–15 years, at its heart will always lie multicultural communication and the ability to express oneself with people from a variety of places.