An EU report has confirmed that English is the most popular foreign language in all but five European countries, and all of those are small nations that use the language of their larger neighbours. Two out of three people across the continent have at least a fair working knowledge of English, and not one country can be found where the preferred second language is French, once the language of international diplomacy.
French remains the European common language only in the offices of European institutions. It is one of the three working languages of the European Commission in Brussels, alongside English and German, and is the main language of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, alongside English.
The Eurostat report suggests that the dominance of English is likely to become even more pronounced in the future. It found that 94 per cent of secondary school pupils and 83 per cent of primary age pupils across the EU are learning English as their first foreign language, more than four times as many as learn French, German or Spanish. Only in Britain and Ireland is French the top foreign language in schools.
The findings raise a series of questions about the future of languages in the EU. They may also increase criticism of the EU’s estimated £1 billion expenditure a year translating all of its documents into the 23 official languages of the European Union.
English was best known in Denmark, where 94 per cent of people speak it, and least in Italy, where 60 per cent know some English but only one in 10 people consider themselves proficient. Other languages were more widely spoken only in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, neighbours of Russia and where there are many native Russian speakers, in Luxembourg, where German is an official language, and in Slovakia, where many speak Czech. English was the main language taught in schools outside the British Isles everywhere but Luxembourg, where German is categorized as a foreign language.
The popularity of English as everyone’s second language and the new lingua franca also opens the prospect of considerable difficulty if Britain should quit the EU. That would leave Brussels running a union whose real common language would be spoken as a native tongue only by the 4.6 million people of the Irish Republic – fewer than one in 100 of its population.
But worse than this may be the damage that English is doing to itself even as it becomes the world’s favourite second language.
Although already installed as the most common spoken form of international business, the language of Shakespeare faces an existential fight of its own to retain its unique dual root of Germanic and Latin origin.
With Business English now in full grey panoply, many are starting to worry about the quality and depth of the recent new graft, which is already suffering from the multiple lesions of clichés and formulaic speech and from the privations of a diminishing and unimaginative vocabulary.
Business English speakers are left in a dire struggle against a spiralling vortex of deprivation and in severe need of a shattering explosion of imagination and creativity.