Courtney Withrow

Dec 5, 2021

5 min read

English the Most Common Language in Europe? Not If the French Can Help It

A while back, I wrote about Euro English, or “globish,” and how it’s taking root throughout Europe. The English language is developing and shifting as non-native speakers use it to communicate with each other, a phenomenon I find utterly fascinating.

Not everyone is happy about Euro English, though. One European country that seems particularly miffed by its increased usage is France. It shouldn’t come as a shock that many French diplomats and politicians (and average citizens, judging by this Reddit thread) feel a bit peeved about the rise of English as the de facto language of the EU, given that French was the language of diplomacy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Photo by Alex Azabache on Unsplash

Language is a zero-sum game for the French

France pushing back against the primacy of English isn’t new. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the French have felt threatened by the increased use of English. In her book When in French, author Lauren Collins sums up the French attitude toward English at mid-century as a “zero-sum game. Gains for English were a loss for the French.”

Politicians like Clément Beaune use Britain’s exit from the EU as a springboard for pushing back against English. The AUKUS agreement, solidified in September 2021, likely also fueled French ire towards anglophones as Australia backed out of a submarine deal with a French company in favor of a trilateral pact with the US and the UK.

One French philosopher, Michel Guérin, argues that Europeans speaking English as a second language is “intellectually deplorable” because it lacks all nuance and is ultimately un-European. When EU officials give public addresses in English, Guérin asserts, they’re speaking more to the US and the UK than to Europeans.

Purity of language is a big deal for the French. The recent controversy over the French dictionary Le Petit Robert adding the gender-neutral pronoun “iel” proves just how much linguistic purity matters to the French. It’s also indicative of the increasingly popular French sentiment that ideologies about race and gender from the US are intruding on traditional French culture and language.

Linguistic purity

The general French argument concerning Euro English is not that we should all revert to French as the language of diplomacy, or use it in lieu of English. The issue is with the cobbled-together way Europeans are speaking English. It’s not “pure.” By using words or phrases derived from their own native languages, Euro English speakers aren’t talking as clearly as they could in their own languages, resulting in miscommunication, the argument goes.

This point is valid. It’s tough to be as clear in a second language as you are in your first. This French take on Euro English misses the mark, however. The point of Euro English is facilitating communication, not hampering it. Although new words have been invented and some phrases aren’t always used the same way a native speaker would use them, it doesn’t make them “wrong.”

What exactly is “wrong” when it comes to language? If enough people recognize and start using a word, it becomes part of a language. The French issue with Euro English seems to be the lack of formality governing the language’s rules. English has no language academy like French, no committee to debate and approve the creation of new words. In English, new words develop on their own and the only real “recognition” they get is when well-established dictionaries add them. Merriam-Webster and Oxford English editors add new words to their editions a few times per year, sometimes totaling as many as 1,000 words annually.

To be fair, French dictionaries like Le Petit Larousse, which are independent of the Académie Française, add new words each year as well. But for 2021, Webster added 455 words and Le Petit Larousse only added 170, a new record for the French dictionary.

How much is lost in translation?

The French argument against Euro English rests on the fact that Europeans lose something when they can’t express themselves in their native languages. That resorting to broken, less-than-native English is an aberration. And that might be true. However, if everyone spoke their own languages, rather than English, we would go from mostly understanding each other to not understanding each other at all without the help of translators.

The question becomes: Do you lose more in translation, or in speaking a second language?

Another point that the French argument might overlook is that EU politicians have access to the Continent’s best translators. Sticking to native tongues and relying on these professionals to help you communicate is manageable. Euro English started at the EU, but it’s moved beyond the political sphere, into everyday life. Employees in multinational companies or roommates hailing from different countries don’t have official translators with them to make their message clear to others. If an Italian graduate student moves to Brussels for an internship and rents an apartment with a young professional from Estonia, what language do you think the two of them will speak when they’re at home?

Photo by Yuedongzi CHAI on Unsplash

Euro English in everyday life

Euro English has not only facilitated diplomacy at the EU level but it’s also made cross-border communication easier. When people can easily speak to each other, they feel more comfortable moving to other countries. As freedom of movement within the bloc is one of the core principles of the EU, wouldn’t it make sense to support the use of a language that facilitates that movement? On the other hand, the ability to speak your native language and preserve your heritage is also fundamental to the European project, and it’s on this point that some French politicians and commentators take issue with the rise of “globish.”

We don’t want Europe to become monolinguistic and stamp out national cultures and identities. Hundreds of languages have already disappeared in Europe and according to the 2017 UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, another 640 are threatened with extinction. So maybe we should encourage the increased use of mother tongues across the Continent.

The other side of that coin is that Euro English makes conversing with people from other places so much easier. It’s not hard to envision a Europe where both realities occur, where people still take pride in their first, native language, and learn English as a tool to help them connect with people outside their own culture.

Pushing French as a political move?

The French argument against Euro English brings up some valid points about the preservation of culture. But I don’t think the French Euro English detractors are as concerned about cultural diversity as they are about French dominance, in this case.

France will take over the rotating presidency of the European Council for the first half of 2022, and has already announced that all official communication will be in French. Presidential elections are also taking place in France in 2022. In this context, the insistence on using French feels less like the defense of linguistic purity and more like a political agenda.