Monday, October 20, 2014
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Europe’s Crisis of Tongues

ROME – When history repeats itself, it is rarely gentle. Today, as in the era of colonialism, tens of thousands of ambitious young people from Europe’s periphery are escaping the old continent in search of better opportunities in America, Africa, and Asia. But, unlike in the colonial era, the human outflows are not compensated by inflows of natural resources or precious metals. European emigrants used to contribute to the glory of their homelands; now, their exodus is contributing to Europe’s decline.

In an extreme attempt to address his country’s job shortage, Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho recently urged his country’s young unemployed to emigrate to Portugal’s former colonies, such as Brazil or Angola. Last year, for the first time since 1990, Spain was a net exporter of people, with 31% of emigrants going to South America. Even in countries with no imperial past, but with an enduring migratory tradition, like Ireland, the brain drain to Australia and North America is accelerating.

The severity of Europe’s economic downturn, deficiencies in the euro’s design, and ill-conceived fiscal-austerity measures are all fueling the exodus. But the main driver is culture, not economics. Europe’s high degree of linguistic fragmentation does not allow the eurozone to absorb a self-inflicted crisis, so people move out of the currency area rather than within it.

Labor mobility within a currency area represents a key adjustment mechanism to preserve the effectiveness of monetary policy against asymmetries in regional shocks: in theory, workers from the eurozone’s shrinking periphery should flow to the expanding core. In practice, the language barrier impairs this safety valve. Thus, southern Europe is losing its best talent, northern Europe is struggling to fill its job vacancies, and all of Europe is becoming poorer.

Europe’s linguistic variety is immense. Thirteen official tongues from six distinct branches of the Indo-European group of languages – Germanic, Slavic, Uralic, Romance, Celtic, and Greek – are spoken in the eurozone. Add to this a plethora of regional dialects, which in Italy alone amount to around 20 (with several variants each). In many secessionist regions, like Catalonia in Spain, they are de facto the official idiom.

The implications of this linguistic variety are profound. A language is not just a systematic means of communicating. It is a sign of identity, culture, and national pride. According to most experts, linguistic processes shape the way people perceive the world, how they live their lives, and, ultimately, their mindset.

The same concept expressed with different words in different languages generates different emotions. Indeed, Germany’s indifference toward the pain inflicted on Greece is inscribed in its language. In English, as in several other European languages, the term austerity derives from the Greek austeros, which means harsh and severe, whereas for Germans it is merely a technocratic savings scheme, a Sparprogramme.

So far, political myopia and national interests have prevented European leaders from formulating a common language policy. According to EUROSTAT, the European Union’s statistical agency, just 18% of people aged 18-34 perceive themselves to be proficient in another language (usually English), and the percentage decreases dramatically with age.

In such a Tower of Babel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call for a political union to save the euro is wishful thinking, even for the staunchest European official. Linguistic barriers will obstruct continental political debate and impede the creation of a truly European identity. Citizens’ passion, rather than technocrats’ creativity, should inspire political unification. But Europe is still far from that point: after more than 60 years of economic integration, a truly European people, with its own identity and language, has yet to emerge.

The logical implication of a currency that brings together 17 countries is a common, official language. The EU’s founders believed that a lingua franca would emerge through economic and social interaction. But they were wrong. To strengthen the euro and establish the foundations for a political union, European leaders should undertake a rapid and explicit process of linguistic integration.

At the same time, national governments could minimize the political and transition costs of adopting a common language – whichever is chosen – by using their own languages for domestic affairs. Unlike a currency, languages can easily coexist in an economic area. Indeed, countries should promote their national languages and regional dialects – an invaluable cultural patrimony and source of identity in an increasingly globalized world.

Changing the course of European history requires bold action, particularly the adoption of a common language. Otherwise, European history will remain a vicious circle of fragmentation and aborted efforts at integration.

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  1. Portrait of Christopher T. Mahoney

    CommentedChristopher T. Mahoney

    Any non-anglophone country which does not require English proficiency is making its people second-class citizens in today's world. It is pretty clear from local advertising that a knowledge ofEnglish is assumed (even in countries without the Roman alphabet). It is unfortunate that such a difficult, disorganized and poorly spelled language should be the lingua franca, but French and German are even more difficult for many people. Latin would be best but it's dead.

  2. CommentedPieter Keesen

    I completely agree on the necessity of a lingua Franca. I read today in the Dutch news paper "de Volkskrant" about an innitiative to combat youth unemployment. Language barriers are indeed a principle cause of the failing European labor market and consequent internal market at large.
    The Dutch want to adress youth unemployment at a EU summit. Perhaps the euro-crisis is an opportunity to make English the lingua Franca.

  3. CommentedCelt Darnell

    Europeans speaking one language? People are not going to abandon their language -- in fact, for the past 50 years, languages that appeared headed for the graveyard such as Irish, Welsh, Catalan etc., have come roaring back. Europe is probably more linguistically divided now than it was in the 19th century and don't get me started on the Middle Ages (when Latin was the language of the educated).
    Esperanto is a pipe dream. Governments in Europe are going to impose it in the schools at about the same time hell freezes over -- Esperanto is, and aways will be, a fantasy.
    But don't worry, Europe will have a common language eventually: Arabic.

  4. CommentedIan Carter

    "A language is ... a sign of identity, culture, and national pride," says Edoardo Campanella. Clearly, the adoption of any NATIONAL language (e.g. English or French) as a lingua franca in Europe is a threat to all the other "unadopted" linguistic communities. Threats > misunderstandings > wars.

    What is needed is an efficient and NEUTRAL bridge language, simple enough for even politicians to learn and use, and preferably with a documented track record.

    Bill Chapman and Brian Barker have both made significant points about Esperanto as the only logical choice. I can also testify to its efficacy as a bridge language which levels the playing field for all members of an international community.

    After 125 years of successful growth - despite determined attack by tyrants, despots and even "democratic" governments - Esperanto remains the only viable option. Before you knock it, try it out for yourself and you'll see what I mean.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    While I agree with the article that our language differences are making integration difficult, I still think we are missing the point.
    We are not treating the reason these people are migrating, which they are forced to do since they simply have no future prospects in their own countries.
    If we revealed and corrected the main socio-economic problems, the totally unnatural and unsustainable constant quantitative growth economy, that only cares about generating profit for a small minority, which is falling apart in front of us each day, we would not need to worry about how to teach billions of people new languages from one day to another.
    This is the main feature of this global crisis, we try to correct some superficial aspect of it while leaving the rotten core unchanged.
    It does not mater how many people start speaking the same language if at the end they will have no jobs, livelihood wherever they go. They might be able to complain about their plight on the same language but that will not give them bread or housing.
    In terms of choosing and teaching a common language for Europeans to facilitate easier integration for the future, this is a nice and useful plan.
    But at the moment we have to sort out our main problem and that is the building of a new human socio-economic system suitable for the present, returning to a necessity and resource based economy which is governed in a mutually responsible, truly global manner.

  6. CommentedGuillermo Campoamor

    I completely agree with the main issue of the article. I do believe that the fact of having so many different laguages creates a barrier to the freedom of movement within the EU. We need social integration in order to reach any other type of integrations and the first step is the common language.

    I also have to say that the official idiom in Cataluña is Spanish along with Catalán. In the Spanish particular case we can find barriers in our own territory which personally I find it absurd. Spaniards, in some territories, are obliged to speak both languages not being abled to learn English is one of the causes of our current situation.

    Not only we, the Europeans, need to speak a common language but also we need to understand that speaking your own national language is not the most important thing. It is part of our culture but it is also part of our culture being capable of speaking other useful languages.

  7. CommentedPenelope Vos

    The most painless and effective solution for Europe would be to teach Esperanto to all children in primary school. About 100 hours of instruction will suffice for most Europeans though Greeks, and some others, may need a little longer because the alphabet is less familiar. In any case, Esperanto requires about one sixth of the time needed for the next easiest alternative and is regular enough to be taught by any competent teacher "on the job" without prior instruction, if properly equipped.
    So all Europeans who want to learn can have a common language within a year, plus the additional advantage of a demonstrated head start in learning other languages.
    Here are some helpful links:
    http://www.mondeto.com/what-is-an-easy-language.html
    http://apprenticeshiplanguagelearning.weebly.com/index.html
    www.fluentin3months.com/2-weeks-of-esperanto/

  8. CommentedBrian Barker

    The comment by Bill Chapman is apposite. Why not common language for olympic athletes as well !

    Esperanto is more widespread than people imagine. It is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 29th most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook and Google translate recently added this international language to its prestigious list of 64 languages.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.

    Their online course http://www.lernu.net has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can't be bad :)

  9. CommentedFrank de Boer

    The topic is an interesting one, but some of the data and the conclusions are highly questionable.

    First of all the data: the fact that 31% of emigrants go to South America does not mean much in itself; I would think that at least that number of people moved to countries in the European Economic Area, where no Spanish is spoken (although I could not find these statistics). And it would be good to have the total number too.

    That only 18% of people age 18-34 are proficient in another language than their own is certainly not from the latest EUROBAROMETER-survey: the definition in that study is "speaking the language well enough in order to have a conversation" and yields completely different figures: for age 15-24 that is 74%, for age 25-39 it is 64%. Depending on the type of work, that should in many cases be enough to start working elsewhere.

    In comparison with other regions of the world, linguistic diversity is rather modest in Europe, and many of the major languages are relatively similar and not so difficult to learn if someone really wants to.

    I very much agree that language shapes the image one has of the world. I also think that learning more languages, preferably from an early age on, helps to be more flexible and creative. But I think language is not the most important obstacle to integration. Despite free movement rights, there are still many bureaucratic obstacles to movement in Europe, which make it hard to go somewhere else looking for a job.

    As for the end of the article, the author makes me becoming quite a bit confused; from the start of the article it would seem as if migration would have to be promoted to stem Europe's decline and that a lingua franca would be a prerequisite (which I oppose). But no, the member states should use their own languages for domestic affairs. And a common language for Europe should be adopted. But migration workers will come to work in a foreign "domestic" environment and whatever lingua franca will be spoken in the institutions of Brussels is in my opinion rather irrelevant for their daily work.

  10. CommentedBill Chapman

    The obvious choice for a common language for Europe would be Esperanto.

    This year is the 125th anniversary of the first publication of Esperanto. That's quite an achievement for what started as the idea of just one man. It has survived wars and strikes and economic crises, and continues to attract young learners, all without state subsidies.

  11. CommentedAlbert Hervàs

    An original dissection of the current situation but drawing unfortunate conclusions, I may say, since for the past decades people throughout Europe have moved from country to country, being the language never an obstacle to do so.

    A common language would logically imply a common identity, and that would hinder something that the author is, probably purposefully, leaving out of the scope: the diversity of Europe.

    The whole paragraph developing from "The logical implication of a currency that brings together 17 countries is a common, official language" is hardly defendable, not only wishful.

  12. CommentedStéphane Genilloud

    A rather relevant analysis, but the conclusions are more debatable.

    The adoption of a common language sounds like supersonic wishful thinking (either the political decision, or the adoption of the language by the people... the only realistic candidate language would be English, while UK is the country the less integrated within EU...).
    In centuries of integration, Switzerland never succeeded in adopting one common language. On the opposite, German evolved into a regional idiom... If anything, English is gaining some ground, but that does not happen without hurting some feelings.

    Finally, there is this sentence "Unlike a currency, languages can easily coexist in an economic area".
    The EU is neither more nor less an economic area than other geographical zones. Currencies can coexist in it more easily than a single currency can, as it becomes increasingly evident.

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