When Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commssion, quipped to the recent State of the Union conference in Italy that English was “losing its importance in Europe”, he hit a nerve.
It was doubtless the very nerve he intended to hit.
English is the only truly international language the world has right now, thanks largely to America's dominance of business and aviation.
Nobody's going to stop being able to speak English overnight. As Michael Skapinker wrote in reaction to Juncker in the Financial Times: “If there is to be any decline in English’s status as the EU’s lingua franca, it is more than a generation away.”
But, as Skapinker also observed, just because you can speak a language, it doesn't mean you like it.
Our Brexit negotiators had better have good language skills, because I can't imagine their EU counterparts volunteering to conduct proceedings in English. Indeed, they would be neglecting their duty to the EU and its nations if they did. It's their job to make life hard for us.
The All Party Parliamentary Working Group on Modern Languages recognised this need when it called, last autumn, for a national plan to produce linguists in the light of Brexit.
Katrin Kohl, Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford, says in this blog post that Brexit makes it harder to implement the most obvious solution to the “downward spiral” of language learning in the UK: recruiting language teachers from mainland Europe.
International businesses from Anglophone countries have bases in the UK because we speak English and are in Europe. Inevitably, they will move to the mainland because the more important of those two factors – the one that makes money – is being within the world's largest trading bloc.
So yes, over a generation, English will lose its importance in Europe. It's hard to imagine that MFL teaching in UK schools and universities won't uptick accordingly in that time. But that won't come soon enough to meet our immediate language needs as we try to make favourable deals with the EU and non-Anglophone nations around the world.
Juncker's prod was enjoyably mischievous, mocking Brexiteers' Basil Fawlty-esque attitude to Europe and weird, blind optimism that somehow everything will be okay if we just believe in ourselves. He was also, perhaps, poking fun at the American Empire's slapstick decline and fall, its descent into Trumpish clumsiness.
It's pointless being outraged by Juncker's comments. Europe is simply looking to a future without the UK in it. They want to get on with their lives after the divorce.
Far better to recognise that Juncker was doing us a favour, warning us that our over-reliance on English is a big problem in the short term, and that we ought to be planning now for the long term.
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