“We want to have the right to work in French … ” French daily Les Echos noted that a group of European officials had decided to alert their future president, Ursula von der Leyen, to the increasingly overwhelming role of English within the European Commission.
“In just a decade, the situation has deteriorated dramatically. […] Even when the whole hierarchy is French-speaking, we are given oral instructions not to produce documents in languages other than English”, one of the authors of this open letter stated.
According to Les Echos, French is nevertheless, with English and German, one of the three “procedural languages” of the European Commission. But the ‘three working language’ rule has never been codified into law, and an attempt to add it into the EU constitution of 2004 was rejected by voters. The provision was eventually removed from its successor, the Lisbon Treaty.
The French public servants wish to have the opportunity to express themselves, to take tenders or to communicate on social networks in French, they say. “You are our last resort,” they told Ursula von der Leyen who is trilingual herself (German, English, French).
“When one wants to speak French, one is quickly accused of arrogance, whereas nobody uses this word when the Anglophones impose their language. […] English is becoming a smaller common denominator, we read the same media, we speak the same language in an impoverished form, and we no longer conceptualize the world in our own language, which is a shame for a European Union supposed to apprehend reality in its diversity!”
This document is currently circulating within the European Commission to collect the maximum number of signatures.
Currently, 51 percent of EU citizens can speak English as a first or second language. Some 26 percent can speak French while 32 percent can speak German. Even if the UK leaves with Brexit, that would still leave 45 percent of the EU population able to speak English.
Moreover, some 90 percent of European schoolchildren learn English at some stage of their compulsory education and this figure is rising, according to a study by the Eurydice network on behalf of the European Commission.
The study, from 2008, entitled ‘Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe’, revealed that in 13 EU countries, English was the mandatory first foreign language. Moreover, some 90 percent of students in upper secondary education learn English even if it is not compulsory to do so.
French is competing with English as one of the 12 global “supercentral languages”. They are: English, French, German, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili – each of which (except for Swahili) boast 100 million speakers or more. But English is the only truly global language.
Researchers at the IULM University in Milan have noted that, over 50 years, Italian syntax has shifted towards English patterns, for instance in the use of possessives instead of reflexives to indicate body parts and the frequency with which adjectives are placed before nouns.