English-Only Europe? Challenging Language Policy by Robert Phillipson4 October 2007
Considering that I’ve studied quite a bit of European Union history, it surprised me to look back through the reviews I’ve written and find that I haven’t really posted many reviews for the books I’ve read on that subject. Here’s one of them, at least.
English-Only Europe? Challenging Language Policy by Robert Phillipson
It is no secret that over the course of the last century, English has gradually replaced French as the international language of diplomacy and business and even general conversation. One might say that the path to English-language dominance began shortly after the end of World War I, when English and French were used as the official languages of the peace negotiations at Versailles. But with about 20 official languages used in the institutions of the European Union — not to mention the scores of other languages commonly spoken in Europe today — the predominance of the English language has caused no small amount of controversy amongst EU member states. Language is an extremely sensitive subject across the board in Europe, intricately tied to national and regional identities and never far out of the forefront of political and social debate. And while many people in Europe can converse or do business in languages that are not their native tongue, language policy in the European Union is far from cohesive…or even, at times, coherent.
Robert Phillipson is a research professor in the English department of one of Denmark’s largest business schools. His book, English-Only Europe?, examines current EU language policies and makes a fairly convincing argument for the EU to take a more active approach to safeguarding a multilingual Europe into the coming century. The book examines the dangers of leaving general language policy up to individual countries, as well as the problems of merely adopting a laissez-faire attitude toward languages and expecting them to look after themselves. By looking at statistics on language use and language learning both inside and outside the EU, Phillipson considers a wide range of options for creating a more forward-looking set of language policies. Granted, I found some of his ideas a little peculiar — one example being his push for the use of Esperanto as a pivot language in intra-EU communications. Yet most of his suggestions make perfect sense to me: do more to promote and encourage the study of foreign languages and foreign study on all educational levels from pre-primary through post-secondary, look more closely at how non-EU countries manage their language policies (Phillipson mentions Canada and South Africa in this context, as countries worthy of closer study), along with other ideas and suggestions that encourage the learning of another language as a key to better understanding one’s native tongue. And as a native English speaker myself, I am very thankful that Phillipson does not make the critical mistake of completely demonising English, or regarding it as some horrible destructive force that should be feared and shunned in favour of a narrow, insular focus on language defence. The prospect of an ‘English-only Europe’ is not a pleasant one, or one that I would ever like to see come to pass, but the blame cannot be placed solely on the English language and its speakers. A more active and positive approach to the study of other languages has the potential to preserve European multilingualism on all levels — and that multilingualism may very well be one of Europe’s greatest assets in this new, information-driven century.
Reading about language policy is not, I will admit, the most thrilling or engrossing means of spending one’s time unless it happens to be your particular field of study. (It’s only tangentially related to mine.) Phillipson nonetheless does an excellent job of keeping his study in plain English, as the saying goes, and not going off on unrelated tangents or throwing in anecdotes that add nothing to the discussion. I’ve looked through books that make points similar to his in language that appears to be twice as complicated and ten times as unreadable. On the whole, anyone who might be interested in the politics of language and how these kind of politics affect international cooperation might find English-Only Europe? worth investigating.