English-Only Europe? Challenging Language Policy by Robert Phillipson

4 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.


  1. Tim Renton is unusual in Britain because he encourages multilingualism. The comment heard elsewhere, that, “everyone speaks English”, is untrue. How many Polish plumbers speak English fluently? Including those working in London!

    He jumps to the usual vox-pop judgement on Esperanto however. Esperanto is a living language and provides both a sensible and practical solution.

    Please check http://video.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670 before claiming Esperanto is not a living language.

  2. It is good to see a positive review of this important work. It is a shame, on the other hand, to discard his ideas about the potential of Esperanto as a common language in Europe, which, unlike English or other mainstream languages, does not threaten regional languages. A recent report submitted to the French government, the Gryn report, confirmed the advantages that the U.K. derives from the use of English and likewise saw advantages to greater use of Esperanto.

  3. My reservations on the use of Esperanto as a working internal language of the European Union tend to stem from existing criticisms of the perceived impenetrability of EU bureaucracy. The anti-Brussels lot would like nothing better than to leap on Esperanto as yet another instance of the disconnect between the rarified world of EU administrators (and politicians) and the average European voter. Esperanto certainly doesn’t pose a threat to regional languages in the way that English does, and in many ways could mitigate the awful jargon that tends to show up in EU documents in any language, but it would take a very clever and articulate politician or public policy push to make the case for Esperanto as the best choice for the EU’s lingua franca (and I’ve used that term deliberately).

    That was really the primary reason why I found his suggestion ‘peculiar’ at the time. Clearly, I have more reading to do.

    Many thanks for the comments, by the by.

    — SG

  4. If Robert Phillipson holds, without mentioning resentment, that English is widely used in general conversation, he has not sensed what anglophobes think of the assumption that Britain should do relatively nothing while Continental countries beat a path to its door. Because of the power of the American dollar, Continental Europeans are obliged to spend a lot and work hard to learn English, whereas if Britain and its fellow-Europeans were to put the same effort into learning the neutral language, Esperanto, the present resentment would disappear. A handshake requires an equal effort from both sides. The project, Springboard to Languages, available on internet, shows the solution.

  5. Esperanto, far from being linked to words like “peculiar”, is alive and well linking peoples of the world with its message of love and peace as an auxiliary language.
    The European Commission, however, is going in exactly the opposite direction and is highly protective of member states in a policy which says, and I quote from a letter to me by Harold Hartung, head of the
    EUROPEAN COMMISSION, Education and Culture,
    Culture and Communication, Multilingualism. Dated 28 March 2007.
    “As a matter of fact, the European Commission has no competence insofar as the content of teaching and the organisation of the education systems of Member States are concerned. Its policy in this field is rather aimed at helping Member States in developing the quality of their education while protecting their cultural and linguistic diversity.
    The language policy of the Commission includes administrative, cultural and practical aspects. It concerns the languages to be used by the institution in its interactions with citizens; it promotes mutual respect and understanding between people of different cultural and linguistic origin, opening up the rich literary traditions of our neighbours and giving a real freedom of movement to European citizens, who by improving their language skills can study and work abroad and engage in trade with partners elsewhere in the Union and third countries.

  6. […] Languages by Mark Abley October 23rd, 2007 I was quite surprised to see the response to my last language-related post. I doubt I’ll get the same reaction for this one, but it’s as interesting a book as the […]

  7. We need to distinguish between anglophobes (relatively few despite British people being lazy linguists) and those resisting English for broader reasons. The American dollar and American culture are resisted by other Europeans because they threaten national autonomy and national (and local) culture. Other English users, non-native speakers mainly – both inside and outside Europe, tend to use the American version of English as that lingua franca. One, small but significant, way of diluting this and thus assisting cultural diversity would be a wide agreement by European users of English to adopt British English spelling and other usage.

  8. […] works about English-language policies and language death reviewed on To Bed With a Trollope include Robert Phillipson’s English-Only Europe? and Mark Abley’s Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages.) Possibly related posts: […]

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