The English Language in the EU after Brexit


Surely English is Far too Popular Too Stop Using?

Globally around 360 million people speak English as their native language, making it the third most common language. However, contrary to popular perception, according to a survey published in 2006*, only 13% of EU citizens speak English as their native language. The majority of these would obviously be the residents of the United Kingdom (though not all, some Maltese and Irish people would be born with English as their first language and there would be bilingual children born in other countries). Perhaps it is right then, for English to no longer be an official language of the EU. After all, the UK is the only country to use it as their official language, and 13% is not a large proportion at all—especially when most of them will be leaving the EU along with the UK.

Isn’t Everything in English Already, Though?

The short answer is in most cases yes—but it is also written in all the other official languages of the EU. The vast majority of official EU papers are translated into all of the official languages, creating a monumental task which explains the need to employ 5,000 translators and interpreters. Dropping one language wouldn’t pose a problem.

English as the International Language of Choice

The main difference between English and any other language though is that English has unofficially become the international language of commerce. It is almost always the first foreign language that is taught, regardless of which country you come from. The same 2006 survey found that while only 13% had English as their native language, another 38% had sufficient skills to hold a conversation so the total reach of English in the EU currently is 51%. When two diplomats meet, the language they are most likely to speak in common is almost without fail English. French is still a distant second. Some of this is due to the soft power of US culture through cinema, fashion etc as well as the world of business, some is due to the comparative ease with which English can be picked up.

The Evolution of English

English however, when it is under the guardianship of largely non-native speakers, will inevitably evolve quite differently. It will be quite interesting to see how English spoken with the EU comes to differ from that spoken by the general UK populace.  In time, it could be that we will see as clear a differentiation as can already be seen between UK English and US English. For example, Europeans commonly use “actor” to mean “participant” native English speakers would typically reserve the word for somebody in the acting profession. This fudging of boundaries happens most commonly where the same word exists but means something slightly different.  Another example is “establish” used within the EU to mean “draw up or draft”, but within English speaking circles only to set up or found something.

In time, it could be that we will see as clear a differentiation as can already be seen between UK English and US English.

*Study conducted by the European Commission in February 2006

Share your thoughts