Multilingual Europe “English is smothering the great cultural languages”

Language as a sort of bulk commodity in the world community.
Language as a sort of bulk commodity in the world community. | Photo: Tuomas Kujansuu © iStockphoto

Jürgen Trabant, a professor from Berlin, thinks the major losers in the unbridled expansion of English in business, science and everyday life will be French, Italian and German.

The linguist and professor, who lives in Bremen, supports having an adoptive language. Every EU citizen should, in addition to his/her native tongue and global English, take on a third language. It would help Europe stick together.

“We have to find a place for the European cultural languages, otherwise they will sink into languages of the vernacular, informal languages,” warns Jürgen Trabant. It disquiets him that in some of the more prestigious arenas less German, French and Italian is being spoken and written. In the past, English was certainly a global language, primarily in the natural sciences, but many in the humanities these days are increasingly speaking and writing in English as well. For the professor, this decrease in the world’s German-language students is cause for alarm. “The EU should promote the concept of a personal adoptive language,” he says. This second foreign language should be a permanent part of every European’s life. Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese-French author, holds the same opinion and argued for adoptive languages at the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Still, Trabant thinks the rule “Native tongue plus two additional languages” is losing its momentum; aside from English, fewer students are really learning another foreign language.

Why not learn Maltese?

Trabant is primarily concerned with historical, cultural and literary aspects related to that additional language. Whether it’s Maltese, Slovenian or Estonian, the global citizens of tomorrow could surprise their fellow humans by mastering a “smaller” language. The point is not the usefulness of the language. In that sense, English is unbeatable. It’s about expanding your horizons, educating yourself, understanding other Europeans and, it follows, people being able to address each other in their respective languages: Germans speaking French with French people and vice versa.

Hypocritical policies

The EU, according to Trabant, is practicing hypocritical politics by officially declaring multilingualism as a part of European identity, and yet performing all of its communications in English. There is no more language superintendent, as such, laments Trabant, who first addressed multilingualism in Europe in his pioneering book from 2003, Mithridates im Paradies, kleine Geschichte des Sprachdenkens (Mithridates in Paradise: a Little Story of Language Thought). Mithridates was the king of the Black Sea who apparently mastered 22 languages. The last true adversary of the Roman Empire, he was successful for a while in fending them off. “Both of these things are important,” says Trabant of the former leader’s skills and efforts. For him, Mithridates is a legendary symbol of the battle against the culturally destructive onslaught of Latin monolingualism in the region.

English belongs to us all

The professor of European plurilingualism at the private Jacobs University in Bremen, however, teaches in English and was even a guest professor in the USA. He is by no means demonizing the language. To him it is the “language of paradise” in the globalized world. He simply sees it as a sort of bulk commodity in the world community. “English belongs to us all,” he says, meaning not every expression or every accent has to be like a “native speaker”. “People who wrote in Latin didn’t always send their texts to Rome for proofreading,” Trabant reminds us. The most important requirement of a language is to be understood.

German linguist Jürgen Trabant is a professor of European plurilingualism at the private Jacobs University in Bremen. After studying Romance and German Languages and Philosophy in Frankfurt, Tübingen and Paris, he completed his PhD in 1969 in Tübingen. He was director of the French program at the Institute for Romance Philology at the Free University in Berlin and places particular focus on the teachings of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Giambattista Vico.


Books by Jürgen Trabant:

Mithridates im Paradies, Kleine Geschichte des Sprachdenkens (lit. Mithridates in Paradise: a Little Story of Language Thought, Verlag C.H. Beck, 2003)

Der Gallische Herkules, über Sprache und Politik in Frankreich und Deutschland (lit. The Gallic Hercules – On Language and Politics in France and Germany, Francke-Verlag, 2002)

Was ist Sprache? (lit. What is Language?, C.H. Beck, 2008)

Die Sprache (lit. The Language, C.H. Beck, 2009)

Das Große Lesebuch / Wilhelm von Humboldt (lit. The Big Storybook, Fischer-Verlag, 2010)