Could Brexit be the end of English in the EU?

June 30, 2016
Could Brexit be the end of English in the EU?

The world was surprised to wake up to the news, on Friday 24 June, that the UK had voted to leave the European Union. The result of the referendum held on the previous day was almost equally split, with 52% of those in the UK voting to leave the EU and 48% voting to remain.  

Brexit – the impact

The UK is struggling to come to terms with the decision of its citizens. The Prime Minister has resigned and the main opposition party has descended into chaos. Scotland and Gibraltar are trying to work out how they can remain in the EU despite the UK as a whole having voted to leave. The pound’s value has plummeted and some international companies have begun pulling services and staff out of the City of London in order to relocate them elsewhere in Europe. And that’s just in the few days following the referendum result. 

Brexit – the end of English in the EU?

The UK’s vote to leave the EU is likely to have wide-scale ramifications. Not only will it affect the UK, but the EU as well. The Head of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, Danuta Hübner, has already been considering what the post-Brexit EU will look like and has warned that English will no longer be an official EU language after the UK’s departure. 

The EU (or the European Community, as it was then) had just four official working languages when it was founded: Dutch, French, German and Italian. Since then, the organisation’s growth has seen it expand to a total of 24 official languages, along with a number of co-official languages like Catalan and Welsh. 

The EU’s official languages ensure that any EU citizen can write to the European Commission and receive a reply in their own language. They can also receive documentation in a language that they can understand. This commitment is a huge undertaking and in order to deliver it across the EU, the European Commission has a team of 1,750 permanent staff linguists and a further 600 support staff. There are also 600 fulltime and 3,000 freelance interpreters who help to meet this commitment. 

The case for removing English as an official EU language

Danuta Hübner’s argument is simple. Britain is the only country that has notified English as its official language to the EU. Although English is widely spoken in both Ireland and Malta, those countries have noted Gaelic and Maltese as their official EU languages. 

“If we don’t have the U.K., we don’t have English,” Hübner has stated. 

The case for English remaining as an official EU language

In reality, the matter may not be quite as clear cut as Ms Hübner has presented it. The original EU regulations governing official languages were written in French and the French version of the regulations does not clearly state whether a country can have more than one official language. If the rules were interpreted as allowing this, Ireland or Malta (for example) could notify they EU that they also wished for English to be their official language. 

However, the English translation of the same regulations appears to rule out the possibility that a country can notify the EU of more than one official language. Such an interpretation would mean that English as a language would need to exit the EU at the same time as Britain officially does. If nothing else, the discrepancy between the English and French regulations certainly shows the importance of using a good translation service when translating official documents! 

Final thoughts

What other linguistic consequences of Brexit can you foresee happening? Are there other ways in which English will lose out as a result of Britain’s decision to leave the EU? Share your thoughts via the comments. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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