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Europe's top song contest gets a little more European-sounding

After years of domination by English-language entries, this year’s Eurovision competition will feature a marked increase in the number of songs with non-English lyrics. And it sets a stage for a larger debate in the European Union about English as the bloc’s lingua franca.

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The artist Melovin, from Ukraine, performs the song 'Under The Ladder' in Lisbon, Portugal, May 10 during the second semifinal of the Eurovision Song Contest. The grand final takes place May 12.

Armando Franca/AP

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Long before the French duo Madame Monsieur utter the first verse of their piece “Mercy” at Saturday’s Eurovision contest, their entry will have already won France itself a victory of sorts.

Perhaps not for best song – the top prize in the world’s longest-running, and most flamboyant, annual TV music competition. But definitely on the linguistic front: one of the many social, cultural, and political battles that simultaneously course through the 63-year-old event.

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In a contest dominated by the English language, despite the participation of dozens of nations outside the Anglosphere, only 30 of 43 competing nations (or 70 percent) will offer English lyrics this year. If that sounds like a lot, look at the numbers last year: 36 of 42, or 86 percent, of performances were in English, according to Eurovision statistics. For countries as proud of their language as France is, that drop is a sign of progress.

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The 2018 edition marks one of the highest employments of local parlance to echo in the arena in years. It owes in part to the surprise victory of Salvador Sobral, who won the contest for Portugal last year with his song “Amar Pelos Dois” (“Love for Two”), inspiring a new crop of stars to sing in their mother tongue.

Madame Monsieur from France performs the song 'Mercy' in Lisbon, Portugal, Wednesday, May 9, 2018 during a dress rehearsal for the Eurovision Song Contest. The Eurovision Song Contest semifinals take place in Lisbon on Tuesday, May 8 and Thursday, May 10, the grand final on Saturday May 12, 2018.
Armando Franca/AP

As Eurovision kicks off in Lisbon’s Altice Arena, this pop-culture show will also work as a stage for a larger debate in the European Union about English as the bloc’s lingua franca. When Britain leaves, it will take a majority of the EU’s native English speakers with it.

No one expects the chambers of Brussels to suddenly switch their working languages overnight. But for those vying for more linguistic representation in Brussels and the world – and no one vies for it more than France – the time has never felt more propitious. The TV pop extravaganza is no exception.

'English is losing importance in Europe'

Eurovision has always been so much more than a sing-off in sequined costume.

When a bearded drag queen named Conchita Wurst won the contest for Austria in 2014, she opened a culture war between the progressive, liberal Europe and its more traditional bases. Last year, Russia did not compete in host country Ukraine, fallout from the conflict in Crimea. Madame Monsieur's song is a catchy ballad about Europe’s migrant crisis, from the perspective of a baby named Mercy, born on a rescue ship in the Mediterranean.

English has long been another theater of Eurovision. When the show began in 1956, there were no set rules on lyrics. But after Sweden entered in 1965 with the song “Absent Friend,” sung in English, new requirements regarding countries’ official languages were put into place, despite Nordic protest. The rule was relaxed in 1973, setting the stage for ABBA, arguably Eurovision’s most successful product, to win with “Waterloo” the next year. In 1977 the language rules were re-imposed and lasted until 1999.

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Since then, Eurovision might be a showcase of European unity and friendship – and some of the most popular television nights of the calendar year – but on linguistic heritage, there has been almost no diversity. English songs almost always win. Before Mr. Sobral’s victory, another primarily non-English song hadn’t won in over a decade.

Dean Vuletic, author of “Postwar Europe and the Eurovision Song Contest,” argues that the contest should reflect the participants’ heritage. “This was an early aim of the contest … that diversity should be promoted,” he says. “So I think it’s a shame that Eurovision is less diverse from this linguistic perspective, even though Portugal last year is a good sign that things may be changing.”

France is one of the few countries to almost always present an entry entirely in its native tongue – even though a French-language song has not won since the language rules were relaxed. It would be even less likely to drop that tradition now. French President Emmanuel Macron, despite his nearly flawless English and uninhibited used of it on the world stage, has made a pitch to revitalize the use of French, the language of global diplomacy and art before English took over.

Mr. Macron's drive is something the French support. A recent survey by French pollster BVA showed that many respondents worry about their language’s degradation, blaming various causes from the creep of English in advertising to bad teaching, and 70 percent say they’d be willing to do something to defend it.

They aren’t alone. In a speech last May, Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, had a message for post-Brexit Europe, whose only member states that use English as an official language will be Ireland and tiny Malta. “Slowly but surely, English is losing importance in Europe,” he said, and then continued in French, an official language of his native Luxembourg.

'English might be the best compromise'

Anna Mauranen, a professor in the languages department at the University of Helsinki, says that even if English is less represented in the EU without Britain, English will continue to dominate. “They use English, in their free time and their official capacity, because that is the language they all know,” she says.

And that doesn’t look likely to change. In a 2012 poll, English came up top as the most commonly studied foreign language in the EU at the lower secondary level, with 96.7 percent of students learning it, far ahead of French (34 percent), German (22 percent), and Spanish (12 percent).

The use of English could even increase post-Brexit, as ridding the bloc of its major English player neutralizes the language politically. That’s been seen in Eurovision: English has helped multilingual countries get around their potentially conflictive language debates, says Dr. Vuletic. The Swiss don’t have to battle over submitting an entry in German, French, Italian, or Romansh – when they can write a song in English.

Some say the same could be true of English in diplomacy between EU member states post-Brexit. "Why should French now be privileged over Spanish, when Spanish is now a more global language than French?” says Vuletic. “Maybe English might be the best compromise in the end for the European Union.”

At Saturday’s final, the festive soirée that is Eurovision might simply underline that, despite an emergence of linguistic pride, English won’t get bumped out any time soon. The favorite to win? Israel’s Netta Barzilai. Her song is named “Toy.”