EU has no plans to downgrade the use of English after Brexit

The EU’s executive body has no plans to downgrade the use of English after Brexit, despite occasional barbs that the language would be less significant in Europe when the UK leaves the bloc.

Buried in the small print of the European commission’s budget for 2018 is confirmation that it has no intention to reduce the use of English in its meetings or documents.

“The withdrawal of the United Kingdom will result in a limited reorientation of some functions within the administration, but the scope of activities will not change,” the section on EU administration says. “Translation and interpretation services in the English language will also remain unaffected.”

The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said last year that English was losing its importance in Europe, although he later said he had been joking. “The French were happy. The British, I had a shitstorm coming from the other side of the Channel,” he told students in his native Luxembourg in October.

Rumours that Brexit negotiations would be conducted exclusively in French also appear to have been a joke at the expense of the British, who are among the least likely in the EU to speak various languages.

Only 5% of GCSE-age students were studying two or more foreign languages in 2015, compared with an EU average of 59%. Only Greek students were less likely to take languages than the British.

When the UK leaves the EU in 2019, only 1% of the EU population - in Ireland and Malta - will be living in countries where English is an official language.

The EU has 24 official languages, making 552 combinations of language pairings, allowing each to be translated into 23 others.

Only three, however, are classed as working languages - English, French and German. English has been used more widely used than French since Sweden, Finland and Austria joined the EU in 1995, bringing in more speakers of English as a second language. The dominance of English became entrenched when central and eastern European countries joined in the mid-2000.

France is keen to restore the pre-eminence of its language, but is fighting a constant battle. Its EU ambassador walked out of a meeting last week when officials decided to use an English-only translation of the budget proposal.


"Vorsprung durch Technik" - How German language is perceived

After 15 years of research and a 1,300 page book on the subject, sociolinguistics professor Dr. Ulrich Ammon found that German is surprisingly popular with language learners all over the world. 

Professor Ammon found that German is only ranked tenth globally in terms of native speakers, of which there are around 104 million, but is ranked fourth in terms of non-native speakers who have learnt the language.

The only larger languages in terms of learners are English, French and Mandarin.

"People get the impression that when you learn German, you are gaining access to countries that are flourishing economically, which in turn brings better career opportunities as well as education and training." he explained.

"The association between German and economic prosperity is nothing new and dates back to German unification in 1871." But Germany's role in the Eurozone crisis has also contributed to German's attractiveness.

Viola Noll, a spokesperson for Goethe Institute, said that the Eurozone crisis had led to a boom in southern Europeans wanting to learn German, mainly Spaniards, Italians and Greeks. Around 14.5 million people worldwide are learning German as a foreign language, according to the latest estimates from the Goethe Institute. It is taught in schools in 144 countries around the world.

Mark Twain famously said that German was too hard to learn in one lifetime, but Professor Ammon thinks the difficulties in German are exaggerated. "The grammatical structure in German is perhaps more difficult than other major European languages, but as soon as a language is considered useful, people forget about the difficulty," he said.

Currently more people are learning German than Spanish, despite the enormous number of Spanish native speakers around the world. Professor Ammon can see this continuing in the future: "German will never challenge English, which is the truly international language, but prosperity can continue to make a difference, particularly if Spain continues to struggle economically" he said.

What people associate with German

Another element of Professor Ammon's study is the associations that non-German speakers make with the language. For example, businesses in non-German speaking countries sometimes use German in branding or marketing to seem more official, professional, or successful. Businesses do it because German is frequently associated with higher quality.

Examples of this would be the use of German in the Audi slogan "Vorsprung durch Technik" (Advancement through technology) in adverts around the world to convey the quality of German engineering - although the notoriously language-shy Americans have to make do with "Truth in Engineering".

Whereas English stands for internationalism, other languages have other special qualities that fit to the stereotype associated with the language speaking community. "In the case of German, these are hard work, order, and coziness" he said.

GALLERY: Eight celebrities you didn't know spoke German

"It is clear that people who have learnt a foreign language more often than not have a positive attitude towards that country. For international relations that is really important" he added. But most people generally aren't aware of how popular their language is and of the advantages this brings, such as easier global communication which is better for international business. Head of the culture department of the foreign office in the 1980s, Bethold C. Witte, once said: "Wer Deutsch spricht, kauft auch Deutsch" (Whoever speaks German will also buy German).

A bright future?

Despite German's healthy standing, Professor Ammon still believes that more can be done. He would like to see more use of German in public, particularly on the European political scene where English and French dominate, as well as grants for foreign students to learn German, but acknowledged that funding will always be an issue.

When asked if German was held back by the fact that Germans tend to have a good level of English, Professor Ammon suggested that his countrymen are prouder of their ability to speak foreign languages than of their own language. He put this down to Germany's "broken national identity", which means they aren’t as proud of their language as other nations such as the French.

GALLERY: Top 10 reasons to learn German

He gave the example of a group of English children who visited a school in the Rhineland. They took part in the exchange to improve their German, but to the German head teacher's delight, the two groups communicated with each other in English. He highlighted this as an area where Germans could actually promote their mother tongue. Instead of showing off their own language skills, they should realise when others want to learn German and embrace it.

He also added that: "Although Germans generally speak English well, they could do better in this regard, like the Dutch or the Scandinavians."



Communicating environmental issues effectively

There are many excellent scientists and leading experts in the field of environmental research. However, a common problem seems to be the communication of environmental issues. It is not easy to bring across the level of urgency and potential solutions to an audience of non-scientifically trained people, like you and me. The goal has to be not only for people to understand the truths behind environmental pollution and Climate Change, but most crucially, to want to step into action themselves.

My interest in the environment lead me to read many books, blogs and studies. However, I often feel that the reports or opinions come across as too impersonal. All these problems appear far away from my personal small world and although the emergency is clear, how will I be affected? The best way to have a genuine impact on you and me is to show us the benefits and that it is in our own best interest to protect the only planet we have. (At the time of writing the possibility of moving to Mars is still out of the question).

This idea seems so easy in theory, yet is so difficult to put into practice. Often scientists and organisations lose themselves in academic jargon and dry talk about environmental facts and the scary, but ever so far away, outcomes for the future. While research is undoubtedly the key for change, the biggest revolution will be created by the public and every single person. To reach them, it takes something else. Environmental communication, done effectively, is the key to action.

Our health. We all realise that certain toxins in plastics are not good for us. The chemicals and often cheaply produced plastic ingredients leak onto our food and thus get ingested. To top it off, they end up in our oceans, are eaten by fish and return onto our plates. Of course these cause disastrous environmental damage too, but I think the health reasons are often overlooked. Changing buying habits of packaged foods affects you and me on a personal level, 

Not only our health will improve, but the economic and financial benefits for each of us can be huge, while protecting the environment. Another example: The largely unregulated Cosmetics Industry uses a vast amount of hazardous chemical ingredients in eye shadows, lipsticks, deodorants, perfumes and many other makeup products and toiletries. The recent trend to go 'chemical free' is not only a good step forward to becoming healthier, it will also save us a lot of money. Countless recipes are available online on how to make your own personal care products and makeup, all natural, for a fraction of the price of conventional cosmetics.

The same goes for cleaning products. The harmful substances can cause a multitude of allergies, hormone imbalances, even cancer and infertility. To realise that age-old cleaning solutions such as vinegar and water do the vast majority of cleaning jobs perfectly well will save our health and our wallet.

Communicating the urgency of our worldwide pollution is absolutely essential. But to fulfil this crucial need for immediate action, we need to appeal to everyone on a personal level. And once the individual benefits are clear, protecting the environment will follow suit naturally. 

How getting language and culture wrong can cause you big headaches

An article I stumbled upon recently illustrates just how far-reaching consequences can be when documents and texts are not translated and understood properly. 

Translation Company and language consultancy 'Today Translations' has published the article in which it describes the case of Mr Jacques de Groote, former director of the IMF and CEO of the World Bank. What is commonly referred to as the 'MUS affair' concerns the privatisation of MUS (Mostecká Uhelná Spolecnost), one of the principal coal mines in the Czech Republic, which took place at the end of the 1990s. The case is complex: the privatisation of a coal mine, nearly €500m in seized assets, over 10 years of investigations, and 140,000 pages of evidence in the case file.

Astonishingly, nearly 120,000 pages of that evidence, in Czech and English, were not translated into French – the language of the court – and so were not available to judges when they were hearing the case. How did this happen? A Polish administrator, who lacked any legal training, but who the prosecutors chose to do the job on the basis that Czech and Polish are very similar (they are not) was the one who decided what documents were pertinent to the case and which should be translated for use in the court. The impact of not having a native-speaker, nor someone who truly understands the sensitive subject matter, cannot be overstated.

It lead to the conviction and prison sentences for the five Czech managers of MUS while de Groote himself narrowly escaped prison. He was however found guilty of fraud, no doubt a first for a former Executive Director of the IMF.

Not only in legal matters businesses are recognising the importance of hiring a professional translator. It acts like an insurance. In the legal sector, as an insurance against prosecution and to bring out the true details of a case, in all its fine nuances. In the business sector it is a crucial building block in a company's success strategy. Once an organisation has spent time and money into carefully crafting and wording their image and representation, it would be grossly negligent to let a layman translate their texts into another language. The impact can be devastating. In the environmental sector, it affects a customer's or the audience's trust: The reputation that has been worked so hard for is at stake, even worse, a bad translation can be the first impression with which an organisation presents itself in a new market.


You can read the full article about the MUS affair and Jacques de Groote here:

Europe's summer 2017: Just extreme weather or climate change?

It is end of July 2017, and it has been pouring down all day. In fact, it had been raining all week, and with an intensity that is unusual - even for a British summer's standards.

Since last weekend, the whole of Northern Europe saw heavy rainfall with thunderstorms. In some counties of Germany, over 100 litres hit every square metre, which was too much for some areas. Many roads had to be shut and people were forced to leave their flooded homes. 

Ironically at the same time, Rome is facing an extreme heatwave and water shortage. The lack of rainfall is so severe that the Vatican eventually decided to switch off all water fountains. 

Croatia is also fighting the heat as strong winds have sparked many forest fires, particularly in the area surrounding its capital Split. A very similar scene can be observed on the French mediterranean island of Corsica. Due to several out-of-control forest fires many houses had to be evacuated.

Even Saint Petersburg saw extraordinary weather: Last weekend, it hailed.

Are these the signs of climate change?

According to the German TV station ZDF's recent Twitter posting, no, but yes. Their meteorologist Katja Horneffer explains that we should not immediately connect isolated weather events to climate change. However, the rising number of extreme weather events are exactly corresponding to what climate scientists predict for the coming years.

Her statement is supported by British meteorologists. The Met Office published a study in mid 2011, in collaboration with Newcastle University, in which it already outlined the effects of climate change on our seasonal weather. 

The Met Office's study used a state-of-the-art climate model providing the first evidence that hourly summer rainfall rates could increase. According to their findings, summers are expected to become drier overall by 2100. However, at the same time, intense rainfall and consequently serious flash flooding could become several times more frequent.

The results from the study are the first step towards building a more complete picture of how rainfall in the UK may change as our climate warms.

Dr Lizzie Kendon, lead author of the research at the Met Office, said: "Until now, climate models haven't been able to simulate how extreme hourly rainfall might change in future. The very high resolution model used in this study allows us to examine these changes for the first time.

"It shows heavier summer downpours in the future, with almost five times more events exceeding 28mm in one hour in the future than in the current climate - changes we might expect theoretically as the world warms. However, we need to be careful as the result is only based on one model - so we need to wait for other centres to run similarly detailed simulations to see whether their results support these findings."

The full article can be found here:


Der, die or das? Germany's discussion about abolishing gender articles

For centuries, the seemingly arbitrary allocation of masculine, feminine and neutral gender articles in German has driven non-native speakers to despair. "In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has," the American writer Mark Twain once complained. "Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl."

But hope may finally be in sight. Changing attitudes to gender are increasingly transforming the German language, and some theorists argue that scrapping the gendered articles altogether may be the most logical outcome.

Predictions vary: one suggestion is that Angela Merkel will eventually no longer be die Bundeskanzlerin but a neutral das Bundeskanzler, as she would be in English. Others believe that the feminine gender, already the most common fallback form used by non-native speakers, will become the default article: a policeman would no longer be der Polizist but die Polizist.

The changing nature of German is particularly noticeable at university campuses. Addressing groups of students in German has been problematic ever since universities stopped being bastions of male privilege. Should they be sehr geehrte Studenten or sehr geehrte Studentinnen?

In official documents, such as job advertisements, administrators used to get around the problem with typographical hybrid forms such as Student(inn)en or StudentInnen – an unfair compromise, some say, which still treats the archetype of any profession as masculine.

Now, with the federal justice ministry emphasising that all state bodies should stick to "gender-neutral" formulations in their paperwork, things are changing again. Increasingly, job ads use the feminine form as the root of a noun, so that even a male professor may be referred to as der Professorin. Lecturers are advised to address their students not as Studenten but Studierende ("those that study"), thus sidestepping the gender question altogether.

In the long run, such solutions would prove too complicated, linguists such as Luise Pusch argue. She told the Guardian that men would eventually get so frustrated with the current compromises that they would clock on to the fundamental problem, and the German language would gradually simplify its gender articles, just as English has managed to do since the Middle Ages.

"Language should be comfortable and fair," said Pusch. "At the moment, German is a very comfortable language, but a very unfair one."

Many linguists question whether language can be changed through human will. "It's hard to transform grammar through legislation, and even if so, such changes often happen over centuries," said Anatol Stefanowitsch, a linguist at Berlin's Free University.

But he also points out that some dialects, such as Niederdeutsch (Low German), have lost the cumbersome distinction between der and die already: in Low German, for example, both men and women are simply referred to as de.


The most powerful languages if you want to spread your ideas

How does the language of your message influence how many people will actually read it? Chances are, if you post something in Tamil versus English, your readership will be significantly smaller. Thanks to a new mapping system scientists can now trace how information spreads via the internet around the globe, and the findings are very intriguing. Which language will reach most people worldwide? Which language is therefore most beneficial to learn? A tip: If you think the language with the highest number of speakers will win, you are mistaken.

Microsoft programmer Shahar Ronen tried to find out which languages are used and into which languages they are translated. With the help of his advisor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) he began creating maps which showed how multilingual people transmit information and ideas. Ronen and his colleagues analysed three global language networks based on bilingual tweeters, book translations and Wikipedia edits. For example, a book that was translated from Hebrew into English and German, would be assigned with lines pointing from one node (Hebrew) to nodes of English and German. Overall, Ronen has based his language map on 2.2 million translations of printed books published in more than 1000 languages. The thickness of the lines in the network depend on the number of connections between nodes. 

At first glance, the findings seemed fairly obvious: In all three language networks, English stood out as the language with the highest number of transmissions to and from other languages. However, upon a second look, the results become more interesting. Although some languages such as Arabic, Hindi and Mandarin Chinese have large populations of speakers, they remain relatively isolated in these networks. This means that fewer speakers of these languages reach speakers of other languages. On the other hand, comparatively small languages like Dutch (only 27 million speakers compared to 530 million speakers of Arabic) can have a disproportionately high transmission rate. The reason is that the Dutch are very multilingual and very active online. 

The level of influence or power a language has depends on the number of its speakers who are literate and online, which unfortunately, is still a minority of the world's population and is described by the researchers as 'the elite'. It becomes clear that this 'elite' has the power to shape news pieces as well as the overall perception of events, simply by being dominant online, in a dominant language. 

The researchers conclude their analysis with advice for governments and international organisations: If they want to strengthen their international role, they should invest in translating more documents into their national language and encourage more people to tweet in their mother tongue. Finally, if they want to publicise their views with the highest possible impact, they should choose a second language that is very well connected.

In terms of learning a new language, for non-English speakers the answer is clear, they should pick English. But for native English speakers the study suggests that it would be far more advantageous to learn Spanish over Chinese - at least if they intend to spread their ideas in writing. 

Source:, Michael Erard, 17th July 2017,