Word! The Language Column
The European Language Question and the Use of German in the EU

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In his final piece for our “Word” column, Henning Lobin looks into the use of German in EU institutions. What’s the difference between an official language and a working or “procedural” language? Which language has become established as Europe’s “lingua franca”? Our columnist has the answers.

By Henning Lobin

The European Union is a modern-day Babel of 24 official languages. The status and use of these languages are governed by an EU regulation: as a rule, official documents are to be drawn up in all 24 languages, and every EU citizen has the right to address EU institutions in any of these languages – and demand a reply in that language too. So how are German and English used in the EU?

Official and working languages

Under the EU regulation, English is to remain an official EU language even after Brexit. Ireland and Malta – the only two EU Member States in which English is an official language – actually named Irish and Maltese as their official EU languages when they first acceded to the Union. But that was after English had already been included among the official languages following the UK accession in 1973, and that remains unchanged post-Brexit. 

However, “official” language is not the same thing as “working” or “procedural” language. Only three of the official languages are so-called “procedural” languages of the EU institutions: English, French and German are the principal working languages used. Proceedings at the European Court of Justice, for example, can be conducted in any official EU language, but French is the official procedural language. At the European Central Bank it’s English. English is the main working language in the European Commission and Parliament, too, to the detriment of the other procedural languages, French and German. German is not the first – let alone only – working language at any European institution. 

This state of affairs has been repeatedly decried in recent years, along with calls to boost the use of German as a working language in EU institutions. German political parties are continually airing demands for German to be accorded equal standing. Some commentators go so far as to call for an end to the EU’s “language colonialism”. But the fact of the matter is that for many years Germany did not pursue a language policy aimed at promoting the use of German in the EU, and German wasn’t even an official “procedural” language in the precursors to the present-day EU institutions.

The solution: multilingualism

Even if accusations of "language colonialism" may be going a bit far, there are a number of good reasons to shore up the use of German in the EU institutions. German is spoken as a first language by about 20 per cent of EU citizens, plus several million speakers of German as a foreign language. Germany is also the most populous EU country and the biggest net contributor to the EU budget. 

Then again, all this hardly matters to the practical work of the EU institutions when it comes to simple and direct communication. Even if only about 1 per cent of the EU’s post-Brexit citizenry actually speak English as their mother tongue, English is by far the most widespread foreign language and will presumably continue to be used in the EU as the “lowest common linguistic denominator” even without UK membership.

So the only viable solution to the EU's language conundrum is multilingualism. People have always been confronted with multilingualism: proficiency in a local language as well as in a lingua franca for communication in a wider context. Many speak an additional native language as well. 

We can self-confidently make efforts to promote German, the language of more than 90 million people in the German-speaking EU countries, even as we recognize with equal self-confidence the need to share the job of serving as a working language with European English, the widely established lingua franca.

The “lingua franca” is not a national language

The use of a lingua franca alone has never led to the demise of regional native languages. Languages that have developed into a lingua franca, such as Latin in the Middle Ages and English today, are subject to developmental forces that gradually disconnect and distance them from native speakers of the language. So the problem with English as a lingua franca isn’t so much the risk that German might “die out”, it’s that native English speakers are experiencing their own language being gradually “taken away” from them. Eventually, every true lingua franca completely breaks away from the original language and takes on a permanently different form. 

In the past, one recurring objection to English as Europe’s lingua franca was that 65 million Britons had the unfair advantage of not having to learn the lingua franca. But that objection ceased to apply in 2020. Brexit has been formally completed, so only a small proportion of native English-speakers now remain within EU borders. Unlike the pre-Brexit situation, this proportion is insufficient for the English language to dominate EU bodies and committees, which for the very first time levels the playing-field for the fair use of European English as a lingua franca in the EU.


Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.