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Habla usted or parlez-vous ... by '92?

Economist Michael Emerson of the European Community (EC) recently asked an audience of 350 British businessmen if they were bilingual. The vast majority were, he says, and even when polled about a third or fourth language, an impressive number of hands were raised. ``And these were Brits!'' he notes with amusement - a nation not known for its facility with languages other than English.

No official language surveys have been carried out by the 12-nation European Community. In general, throughout Europe the Germans are considered the most multilingual, followed by the Dutch. The British rank fairly low. The French are almost always in last place.

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``We know all our European competitors are madly learning English,'' says Amanda Feeney, head of the European commercial department in the Confederation of British Industry. ``We can't emphasize languages enough.''

John Mayes of the British Department of Trade and Industry says the government is encouraging businessmen to learn a second language. But language training is an individual thing, he adds. ``I know we use the term quite a lot, but `market forces' may eventually dictate it as a necessity.''

So might technology. Janine Monniot at the multinational Airbus consortium in Toulouse, France, sees technology as the route to a common European language. A French engineer and a British engineer might disagree on design points, but the technological reasons that an airplane can fly are inarguably the same, she says.

It's difficult, however, to translate that into everyday life. Modern hieroglyphics can help.

``Instead of writing everything in English,'' says George Hall, manager of external relations for British computermaker STC, ``you use icons'' - little symbols representing computer program functions. The European market also caused STC to change the color of its start button from red (Britain) to green (European). And in recruiting new talent for STC, Mr. Hall says, emphasis is now being placed less on technological capabilities and more on marketing and language skills, the better to penetrate the European market.

In Paris, Philippe Combin of the French Employers' Association (the Patronat) points out that monoglots and chauvinists about the French language are rare in internationally oriented French companies. Like Great Britain, however, language training in preparation for 1992 is promoted but not force-fed in France.

In Brussels, translation is a huge part of the European Community's work. There are nine official EC languages. Ella Krucoff of the EC office in Washington, D.C., notes that these cannot be reduced, because the EC's business is drafting and executing laws. These must be in native European languages if they are to be understood and obeyed, she notes.

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Over the long run, most observers agree, English is becoming the language of European commerce. This has to do with globalization. North America and East Asia are the European Community's business partners and competitors. English reigns in North America. And when Europeans and Asians do business they most often find English the common tongue.

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