Spoken by approximately 1.35 billion people, and largely considered to be the world’s lingua franca, the English language holds an undeniably important position in the political and business spheres. However, it is one of the 24 official languages in the European Union (EU), and following Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in 2020, it is worth analysing the current role and importance of the English language within Europe.
In recent years, the EU has developed its language policies to place emphasis on the importance of linguistic diversity. In order to promote mobility and intercultural understanding, the EU funds numerous programmes and projects to enable language learning, with the objective of every EU citizen mastering two other languages in addition to their mother tongue. The union also provides translation and interpretation services for all EU official languages, and encourages multilingualism within the organisation. By contrast, foreign language learning in Britain is weakening; According to the British Council’s annual Language Trends report, only one in ten state schools have all students studying a language at GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) level. The report also revealed that time and funding allocated to language learning in English primary schools has decreased recently. Indeed, it is likely that the obstacles to travel and work in Europe reduces the incentive to master European languages for British students. Overall, the EU’s promotion of linguistic diversity within various sectors including economics, culture and education may lead to reduced reliance on English.
EU citizens no longer have the automatic right to live and work in Britain, reducing the incentive to learn English. Moreover, this may result in fewer native English teachers across Europe, potentially decreasing the standard of English language learning. Indeed, some EU agencies that were previously based in the UK, such as the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority moved to other EU member states after Brexit. The dominant working language in these agencies may thus shift to the official language of the host country, leading to a decrease in the use of English. Negotiations for Brexit were also conducted in languages other than English; Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, often delivered speeches and communicated in French, in order to assert the importance of linguistic diversity within the EU. Furthermore, as the use of English destabilises, member states with larger net contributions to the union (such as France and Germany) may push for the promotion of their languages within the union. Indeed, Brussels is a central economy in the union, which could encourage the use of French in matters of EU administration.
On the other hand, English undoubtedly remains useful, particularly for communicating with external, important world powers, such as America and Australia (where English is the native language), in addition to the many other countries where English is automatically learned. Indeed, the use of English as a lingua franca in international business has continued post-Brexit, meaning proficiency remains important in order for Europeans to engage with the global business scene. Even within Europe, English is a common language between international partners, so remains a useful tool. Moreover, English is still one of the official languages of the EU, meaning meetings, documents and communications are still in English alongside other languages. British culture and media is also extremely popular across Europe, and this has continued post-Brexit, which incentivises and enables high levels of language proficiency.
Overall, although Brexit has impacted Europe’s relationship with Britain, the long-standing use of English both globally and across Europe largely overrides the political shift. While in theory English may hold a less significant role in matters relating to the European Union, its use remains widespread across Europe and will therefore likely continue to be a desired asset when dealing with international business.