Europe’s Tower of Babel

BRUSSELS – The problem of the multiplicity of languages in the European Union is not new and the solution suggested by European Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou is only one of many approaches. There are actually two aspects to the issue. The first is technical, that is, the actual cost of maintaining translation facilities for the current 11 official languages and possibly more than 20 after enlargement. The second and more important issue is political and has to do with the countries’ position in the EU’s internal balance of power. The issue essentially emerged with the departure of Jacques Delors from the presidency of the European Commission and the end of the supremacy of the French language within the Commission. Counterattack The revenge of the Anglophones was quick in coming and to a great extent successful, despite resistance from the Francophones. Particularly after the accession of Sweden and Finland, a balance between the two major European languages was achieved. Just two years ago, Germany was thrown into an uproar when the Finns, who then held the rotating presidency of the EU, wanted to stop publishing official documents in German. Germany managed to have the decision overruled, threatening to withdraw from the EU’s sessions, particularly the ministers’ councils, if their language was not respected. Even earlier, in December 1994, there was another explosion of particular interest to Greece. Paris had suggested, for reasons of economy, to restrict the number of official EU languages to just five – not including Greek, of course. Then Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou wrote to his French counterpart Eduard Balladur to protest. Naturally the proposal was not approved, as none of the member states whose languages were not on the priority list would agree to the French proposal. Three groups There are three main language groups in the EU: the major languages – English, French and to some extent German, then Italian and Spanish, and finally the exotics, as they are called in Brussels and which, of course, include Greek. The greatest problem, paradoxically, is not faced by the countries of the exotics, which have to some extent become used to the idea that they will always be second-best. The problem is usually with Spanish, a language that is extremely widespread throughout another part of the world, i.e. in Latin America. For the time being, the EU functions very well with 11 languages, including Greek, as well as two working languages (English and French) for negotiations on a technical level. However, the entry of 13 other languages within the next few years will create new conditions and perhaps increased pressure to restructure the number of official languages, into which just about everything has to be translated. These pressures will have to be dealt with, without of course ignoring another factor – that a sound knowledge of English, the language of the world village, the official language of the Internet, is these days fundamental. Bilingual graduates get the best jobs A knowledge of English is nowadays considered vital for any ambitious young person, along with computer literacy and a tertiary degree. It’s only in the lower echelons that English is no longer required. For some positions, a postgraduate degree is considered mandatory even early in one’s career, Theodoros Georgeles, head of the polling organization ICAP’s human resources department, told Kathimerini. All the more so, given that mobility is seen as a fundamental characteristic of the new labor market, demanding a strong foundation of knowledge. Competition between businesses that want to increase productivity, as well as rapid developments in technology, lead to the need for continual restructuring within companies. As a result, employees who cannot adapt to the new model run the risk of being left behind. English is considered necessary during university studies and particularly important in the acquisition of further knowledge and in increasing new graduates’ chances of employment. In Greek universities, English language bibliographies are very important. Two foreign languages are compulsory for students applying for postgraduate studies. The State Scholarships’ Foundation examines all applicants in one foreign language. The globalization of the labor market within the European Union is another reason English is becoming a compulsory qualification. With regard to the labor market, proficiency in English is seen as necessary for a range of professions because of the free movement of goods, persons and services within the European Union and third countries, Iro Stefanou-Nikolakopoulou, assistant professor in European Social Law at Panteios University told Kathimerini. English is useful in giving Greek workers’ wider mobility in filling vacant posts within the EU and other states, she added. A linguistic proposal that divided the PASOK deputies European Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou’s proposal to make English a second official language in Greece met with diametrically opposed reactions among Eurodeputies and national deputies in the ruling PASOK party. While G. Katiforis hastened to fully agree with the Greek commissioner, his colleague Myrsini Zorba issued a statement that appeared to disagree completely with the proposal. What is needed is for parents and children to recognize the need for a deep knowledge of one or two languages spoken in the European Union, said Zorba. The European Commission has made a proposal as regards the teaching of at least two foreign languages from the very youngest ages. Nevertheless, most of those people who expressed opposition to the statements Diamantopoulou made in her interview with Kathimerini (November 18) – even Zorba – did not disagree with the substance of the proposal, but only with the idea that English should be an official second language. Several Eurodeputies said it would be illogical for someone to disagree with the need for better teaching of English or even French in Greek schools. Therefore, the question raised by Diamantopoulou’s detractors was whether the mention of the word official was aimed at provoking public opinion on an issue which was in fact self-evident.

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