i don't speak no hablo

Why every citizen of the EU should speak exactly two languages

And what two languages they are

“Please help. I think my daughter has broken her leg … please send an ambulance.”


One union. Thirty plus languages.

In the European Union, goods have been allowed to move across borders without restrictions for years. European citizens, too, are invited to pack up and go seek their fortunes in other EU countries.

A key objective in helping the countries of the European Union to integrate is “harmonisation”: Creating common standards that should make it easier to both do trade, and to work together – making the work force mobile and rendering country borders invisible and insignificant.

The EU has done a fairly good job of it too. While we are still waiting for a harmonised VAT system, many other standards have been put in place. One of them being, that if you find yourself in another EU country and your daughter happens to break her leg, you don’t need to leave her screaming in agony while you desperately try to figure out what number to dial. Instead, you can calmly extract your smartphone, safe in the knowledge that you just need to press the the same three digits that you would in your own EU country: 112.

All good. The problem arises when you then need to actually speak to the person on the other end. Because depending on exactly where you are, there is a very good chance that you will not be able to communicate with that person. The leg stays broken. Daughter starts screaming in agony. The Union is not really a union.

Diversity is also fragmentation
The EU is an area of great diversity and of many languages. 24 official languages, to be precise. And then there are all the unofficial ones, of course. Like Catalan and Welsh.

The politicians in Brussels deal with this potential communications issue by employing a corps of translators. So at least, with a little help, they are able to discuss further advancements in the area of harmonisation.

But the meta layer, the mother of all potential harmonisation, is left virtually untouched: language. It’s just pretty hard talking to each other in the EU.

This can sometimes have very tangible effects – like when no ambulance arrives when you really want one. But, more subtly, it is also holding the EU back.

Seen as a whole, The EU is the world’s largest economy, closely followed by the US. But it is generally believed that the EU economy will grow slower than the US’s in the coming decades. High taxation and an ageing population is often cited as being the reason, but another one – for arguments sake, we don’t want to get religious here – is that the US is a Tower of Babel-economy. You can get in your car and drive in the same direction for days. When you get out, you can order your milkshake, or discuss socioeconomics, in the same language you used when you turned on the engine.

The EU, on the other hand, is the linguistic mess that, according to a certain book, God left behind when he figured that humans were getting just a little bit ahead of themselves:

“And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

Tower of Babel

In the story of the city of Babel, with the Tower of Babel in its centre, humanity has united and is speaking a single language.

With around 500 million inhabitants, the EU is a little bigger than the US with its 320. But, apart from a small Spanish-only minority, the US speaks a single language: English. The EU, as we have seen, speaks 24. And then some. The cultural diversity adds some spice to life in Europe, but the language diversity also brings fragmentation.

No working language
So even with the EU’s borders wide open and free movement of people being encouraged, the Europeans usually stay put. The US, on the other hand, is a country of migrators with a long tradition of saying “hey, things didn’t work out for me here – I am gonna try my luck somewhere else.” Talented people move across the nation, and this complete freedom is, for example, one reason that 9 out of every 10 big IT companies you know are American: Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Intel, HP. All American.

Because of the complete freedom of movement, not just on paper but also easily achieved on a practical level, “clusters” of expertise form in the US, as it is the case with the IT-clusters – the biggest of them in Silicon Valley, of course. Within these clusters, free agents stimulate each other and drive the industries forward. If one company, cluster, or even city, does not satisfy you, you just move on.

In the EU, much fewer highly skilled people do this, simply because it is much harder. We do not speak the same language and we lack a secondary one that can be used as a lingua franca – a bridge language used by people not sharing the same mother tongue.

Not just for paella
Now, the EU’s own non-sensical approach to a long-term solution to this problem is that all EU citizens should “acquire practical knowledge of at least two foreign languages”.

This is a poor solution indeed. Besides the fact that it is way beyond feasible that all EU citizens should master two foreign languages well enough to use them as working languages, it would only part solve the problem. Some would learn French and Italian. Some Spanish and English. Some German and Dutch. Some perhaps Romanian and Greek. Who knows. Europe still wouldn’t have linguistic mobility across borders.

It simply makes no sense. Learning a foreign language to near-perfection is a lifelong undertaking. The language needs to constantly be maintained and built on. Concentrating one’s efforts on one foreign language greatly enhances the level of proficiency achieved, and if all Europeans concentrate on the same one, well then, one day, Europeans will truly be able to communicate with each other. It is not a matter of learning enough to order two paellas in Torremolinos and two moussakas on Crete. What Europe needs is a true bridge language to unite the Europeans as people.

So, instead, every EU citizen should speak exactly two languages: Their own mother tongue and then one, shared lingua franca that all Europeans master at a high level – benefitting not just business, but, equally important, cultural life and understanding of each other.

Chinese in Chinatown, New York

English is the world’s most spoken language – apart from Mandarin Chinese which is spoken almost entirely in China and a few expat communities such as here, in New York’s Chinatown (image © Anders Ojgaard).

And what should this language be, you ask? The answer is quite simple, really, but is unfortunately being obstructed by petty pride – as good answers often are. This is made evidently clear every time someone suggests that English should be this language, such as when a Flemish minister suggested that Flemish children should learn English, rather than French, as their second language. The response from Belgian francophones, of course, was outcry.

Usually it is the French speaking parts of the EU who are most opposed to English being granted any special privileges. If any language should get a little extra attention – a smack in the bottom and a fast track to the top, it should, of course, be French. So, instead, the EU ends up with muddled politics on language issues – not stretching beyond a long term goal of all citizens acquiring some “practical knowledge” of two unspecified languages. And that, of course, brings us nowhere.

English it is
But the good minister of Flanders was very right, of course. Because the language game is over and has been for a very long time. Very few people outside of France speak French. With English it is a very different matter. It has 330 million native speakers and half a billion speakers all together. Most of these are found in the more affluent parts of the world, like The United States, United Kingdom or Australia. It is also geographically widespread. Counting both native speakers and secondary speakers, only Mandarin Chinese has more speakers in the world, but apart from a few small expat communities, they tend to all be found in China.

Why did English become the world’s language? Well, it’s arbitrary, of course. It might as well have been French. Or Inuit for that matter. But the world’s language is the language that most people speak – and want to speak. The French can blame the settlers of Jamestown and Queen Victoria, Empress of India. England colonized the Americas and Australia, India and half of Africa. And then some. In all these places, north and south, east and west, they speak English today. Not French. Or Inuit.

The century old trend has been self-enforcing as the anglophone cultural industry, led by Hollywood, has made the anglophone world a common cultural reference much more so than the francophone or any other world. ‘The summer of love’ in San Francisco in 1967 sparked a cultural shift in many parts of the world. The punks on the streets of London in the 1970s inspired youth on the streets from Tokyo to Mexico City. Today, the entertainment industry is putting cultural references from the anglophone world into households across the world.

And even in the parts of the world not usually associated with the anglophone world, like China, the language they want to learn is English. At a TED talk in 2009, American entrepreneur Jay Walker described today’s hunger for learning English as an “English mania”:

And it’s no different in the EU. The EU’s own statistics from 2012 show that 38% of its citizens are able to have a conversation in English. Even though the number is not overly impressive, it is a clear winner as the “common language” of the EU – far ahead of number 2: French at 12%. English is the closest thing Europe has to a lingua franca. 

With English so far ahead on both a global and a European scale, the only thing that makes sense is to cultivate this and make English the true lingua franca for Europe. One that all EU citizens speak well enough to allow for total cross border mobility: Well enough to use it as a work language when working with complex matters. Well enough to figure out the bureaucracy in new places. Well enough to find a school for their kids when settling in a new city.

But this is not the case today.

What’s best for the children
The EU said that 38% of its citizens can have a conversation in English. But wait. “A conversation” is not enough to have true movement of people across borders with all that this entails. In fact, the same statistics reveal that only 21% speak “very good” English. And these numbers are self-assessed. Having worked with polls and analytics in the past, I know first hand that people always shoot high when rating themselves.

The numbers indicate that less than one in ten of non-English native speakers in the EU speak English well enough to use it as a working language. This is well in tune with my life experience being a European and having lived or travelled in virtually all EU countries. Indeed, only 8% state that they use their second language, whatever that may be, every day or nearly every day. Second languages are usually not maintained and slowly forgotten.

But, at the same time, 61% identify working in another country as a key advantage of learning a new language. So clearly, the Europeans of today actually desire the benefits of being work mobile.

And now it gets really interesting: No less than 98% think mastering foreign languages will be useful for the future of their children. And what languages do parents mention would be useful? Well the numbers speak their own clear language:

  • English (79%)
  • French (20%)
  • German (20%)
  • Spanish (16%)

English is so far ahead, and the desire to speak it is trending up while German and French is trending down, that it really is the only contestant for “Official lingua franca of the European Union.” Europeans need to speak two languages really well: Their mother tongue and English

Just as fascinating, even today, in 2014, while the EU is still highly fragmented linguistically, more than half of the EU citizens (53%) think that EU institutions should adopt a single language when communicating with citizens. Given the numbers above, that language can be only one.

The bilingual EU
How do the Europeans get there? The problem is, that even with English-learning being embraced as a concept by the Europeans, not much actual progress is being made. In 2005, the percentage of all EU citizens that, self-assessed, could hold a conversation in English was … 38. Meaning no progress has been made between 2005 and 2012. In fact, while the percentage of English speakers has remained constant since 2005, it has dropped for French and German speakers. So, as a whole, the EU is getting worse at languages! 

So what does Europe need to do? It’s simple, really:

First, the EU needs to shift their long term goal from “having (some) knowledge of two unspecified foreign languages” to “having (a lot) of knowledge of English”. The French may complain for a while, but they will come around. Even the French will surrender to reason. And if someone chooses to learn French as a third language, then by all means.

Second, English needs to be made mandatory from the first grade all over the EU. Preferably from nursery, because, as I make a case for in another post, up to the age of about 6, children suck up languages like lollipops. After that, it gets harder. 77% of Europeans actually think that improving language skills should be made a policy priority. So the Europeans should just get on with it. Better now than tomorrow.

Third, and this is a little harder to implement politically, all countries of the EU need to stop dubbing and start subtitling all films and TV shown in the country. Europeans need to constantly be exposed to English to learn it well. Not dubbing has greatly assisted The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries in becoming the best speakers of English as a foreign language in the EU. Hearing a language every day not only helps you learn it, it also motivates you to do so as it becomes a part of your everyday life.

Of course, it will be a few decades before this will truly make EU a bilingual haven where cultural exchange and economic progress is driven by complete mobility of people. But in just a few years’ time, when holidaying in other countries, Europeans would see their children converse, without effort, with children from Germany, France, Italy and Poland. Sweden, Spain, Slovenia and Slovakia. The mere sight of it would inspire and motivate the parents to learn some more themselves, so also they would be able to expand their worlds through communication. When in doubt, they could just ask their children for help.

This way, Europe would build their own Tower of Babel, and I will virtually guarantee that no one will turn up to tear it down this time.

The Europeans would have one language to communicate in, and if we are to believe that old tale, then “nothing will be restrained from the Europeans, which they have imagined to do.”