In the aftermath of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, there has been much debate about the consequences for how Europeans communicate. Will calls for English to cease to be an official EU language be heeded? If so, would native speakers of other languages feel less disadvantaged? Does Boris Johnson’s ability to read a speech in French make up for everything else?
However the next few months and years play out, the status of English as a common language in the institutions – and outside them, of course – is likely to endure. The erosion of the once all-powerful position of French, which began as the Union expanded north and east in the 1990s and 2000s, will not be reversed. This could ultimately mean that English, despite often being seen as the de facto working language of the EU (although in practice this varies), will not be the first official language of any of its member states.
But a world that is both English-dominated and multilingual at the same time already has the potential for paradox, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about being a native English speaker – one from the UK at that – living and communicating abroad. One thing that has always struck me (not least as the child of a retired modern languages teacher) is that very often native Anglophones are not expected to speak other languages. A Twitter poll provided further evidence; I particularly liked how one person testified how colleagues ‘regard my efforts in French with the same amused condescension as they would a dog walking on its back legs’.
(There wasn’t the space to define ‘now’ and ‘before’ but this doesn’t seem too important)
I imagine the respondents to my poll are in the same relatively well educated/living abroad/regularly interacting with other nationalities bracket as me, and probably speak at least one foreign language. We probably do not correspond to the longstanding stereotype of the British person on holiday who shouts and gesticulates in order to be understood (here at 1:08 is one of my favourite examples), but rather operate in multinational environments where it’s often easiest to use English to communicate. So if someone addresses us in English, it may well be for this sensible, practical reason. Still, the fact remains that there’s a good chance they also think we cannot understand any other language.
Complaining about this is not very gracious: the UK educational system’s approach to language learning is nothing to be proud of (while, to be fair, globalisation means it’s now far easier for someone with a different native language to become fluent in English than vice versa), and in Brussels and elsewhere native English can in fact be a highly prized attribute on the job market. As in many other respects, pro-European Britons just have to put up with assumptions about their nation as a whole. Despite the protestations of some Leave campaigners, the analogy between British monolingualism and isolationism in Europe is fairly obvious, and the expectation that a newly independent UK would be welcomed on the world stage is not unlike a belief that if you go abroad everyone will without exception understand English.
More personally, when I speak English with friends and colleagues from other countries, I feel that they are giving up more of themselves, an extra commitment to international comprehension and unity, while I can’t offer the equivalent in English however hard I try. That’s probably a metaphor for something too.