“Parlez-vous Eurospeak?”

English vs multilingualism in EU influencing

Walking down the streets of Europe’s capital, passing the tunnel-ridden Avenue des Arts, one enters EU territory. And there, the language changes. Forget Belgium’s French or Flemish. In the area stretching west to the Schuman roundabout, one can hear any of the 24 EU official languages1. But the language you’ll hear the most is English, although spoken in a variety of accents and peppered with strange words. This special dialect is known as Eurospeak.

The EU, or the European Economic Community as it was called in 1958, started out with only six countries and was dominated by French and German. After 1976 (when the UK, Ireland and Denmark joined), French, German and English became the official working languages of the European institutions. This meant that documents and meetings held within and between institutions took place primarily in one of the three languages. Not being able to speak in French or German was a great disadvantage then.

Today, things have changed. Despite the push by France and Germany to continue using their national languages, most of the EU business is conducted in English. The number of documents coming out of the EU executive whose first copy is in French or German has decreased significantly, and is now close to zero.

When did the “Anglicisation” of the Brussels bubble started? Some people say 1995, when fluent English speaking countries Sweden, Finland and Austria joined. Others attribute it to the large 2004 enlargement. The EU welcomed ten new countries from Central and Eastern Europe, plus Cyprus and Malta. Newly appointed officials and politicians with English as a second language moved to Brussels. Most were more at ease in English than in French or German.

Now, more and more people want to communicate in English.

There’s a pragmatism to it, the fact that now virtually everyone speaks English.

“There’s a pragmatism to it, the fact that now virtually everyone speaks English. [According to a 2012 Eurobarometer survey,] if you look at the European population as a whole, 52% say that they can hold a conversation in English. In Brussels, that’s probably up to around 95% – maybe higher. Sure, if you want to reach a specific individual or a small group, use their mother tongue. But if you want reach the largest number of people in the shortest period of time, use English. Importantly, the stigma that used to attach itself to English as a lingua franca has largely disappeared, and good English is increasingly a core skill,” says Colin Mackay, Founder of the Brussels Writing Bureau, a company dedicated to writing communications materials in English for trade associations and businesses wishing to address EU policymakers.

Translation service by Matti Mattila_CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Interpretation: something of the past? Photo: Translation service by Matti Mattila (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

For policy professionals, this means that producing communications materials in English is enough. The good news is that this is much cheaper than sticking to three languages.

It does not mean however that national languages have disappeared. Indeed, you can still hear the full variety of EU languages during public debates in the European Parliament, or on Thursday nights on Place du Luxembourg, the square by the Parliament where lobbyists and officials meet to unwind after a long week.

“Brussels-English” or “Eurospeak” is a language in itself, with its own words and sentence structures. Its lexicon is very much inspired by French, with words like “normalities”, “specificities”, “rapporteur”, “actors”, or “comitology”. Its sentences can be long and convoluted, as is more traditional in German.

The abuse of unnecessarily complex words has become a regular joke among Brussels practitioners. To a point where the European Commission regularly publishes guides for its spokespeople and press team listing words to avoid and suggesting alternatives. The media also regularly organize debates with representatives of the EU bodies to discuss how to avoid this trap.

Brussels non-native English speakers are so used to Euro-jargon that newly arrived Brits have a hard time being understood if they don’t pay attention. Americans, who tend to pick shorter words and build simpler sentences, may in fact have an advantage.

When communicating with people for whom English is a second or third language, it is better to keep things as accessible as possible. Only 17% of the European population has English as a mother tongue, so Shakespeare English, however beautiful, won’t cut it.

The aim is to capture an audience that is constantly bombarded with information. “If you are going to use English, remember that the majority of people will read it as a second or even third language. You have to work to the lowest common denominator, or at least to the 80-20 rule if you want to reach those 83% of the population [that don’t speak mother tongue English]. If you can make your text simple, clear and easy to understand from the outset, you’re more likely to grab – and keep – your audience,” recommends Mackay.

24 EU languages and one lingua franca: what to speak in Brussels? Photo: Translator by Jeremy Brooks (CC BY-NC 2.0)

24 EU languages and one lingua franca: what to speak in Brussels? Photo: Translator by Jeremy Brooks (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Here is a list of points to keep in mind while writing for Brussels audiences:

  1. Avoid using idioms. It can lead to misunderstandings.
  2. Avoid cultural references. This includes references to movies or sports. Americans, for instance, use a lot of business expressions inspired by baseball, e.g. “ballpark figure”, or American football, e.g. “playing Monday morning quarterback”. Other expressions are inspired by local events and cultural references unknown to most Europeans, e.g. “drinking the Kool Aid” or “jumping the shark”.
  3. Have a summary at the top of the page to present your key messages in a concise way.
  4. Repeat your messages several times throughout the text and make sure it is present in the first two paragraphs.
  5. Beware of Euro-jargon words (check this list for alternatives).
  6. Use short sentences of 15 to 20 words.
  7. Avoid the passive form and complex tenses.

Mackay also warns against internal content production processes where every person involved tries to get their fingerprints on a text. “Writing as a committee dilutes the message and reduces the impact of the final output.” ”The secret: stick to clear and consistent, and be challenging. It will come across very well and very sharp in an arena that tends towards the bland.”

Native English speakers are clearly at an advantage. They are much more articulate and quick writers. Many European Commission speechwriters are, or were, British, American or even Australian or South African nationals. This can also be a curse. Many fluent English speakers working in Brussels-based teams end up spending hours reviewing their colleagues’ texts. This tedious task inspired a blogpost by Brussels top satirist, Berlaymonster.

Good English texts tailored to EU audiences can be so simple that they may sound banal to native speakers, but an elaborate language is not necessary to be efficient. The purpose of the materials is to educate, not to entertain.

Although most policy discussions still take place over written materials, EU policy-focused video content is taking off. And, there again, English is at an advantage. In a recent video, European Liberals leader Guy Verhofstadt addressed Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during a visit to the European Parliament. The video became an internet sensation with 7 million views in a few days. Verhofstadt addressed Tsipras in English. In contrast, Tsipras’ response, in Greek, only got half a million views.

Most of the materials produced by lobbyists today are largely focused on the Brussels bubble. MEPs and officials also focus on increasing their visibility in Brussels and worldwide, to the international press and newswire services. There, English dominates.

When the debate turns to public opinions, national languages are back. After European political summits in Brussels, heads of state and governments talk to their national media in their native language when addressing their citizens. Similarly, all EU legislation is translated into the 24 official languages and all EU citizens can write to the European executive, and receive a response, in their own language. English may be a lingua franca, but national languages won’t disappear anytime soon.

The European Parliament: where national languages still dominate. Photo: Ambience by Mark Fonseca Rendeiro (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The European Parliament: where national languages still dominate. Photo: Ambience by Mark Fonseca Rendeiro (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

PS – For an example of Euro-jargon gibberish, check out this document. It includes jewels like “Multiple Framework Contracts for the provision of support services facilitating Strategic Decision Processes and Future Vision and Mission Statements” (the title of the document), “strategic thinking, visioning, resilience and change acceptance”, “flexible enough to do swift recalibrations within a realm where competing futures constantly impact the daily life”, “secure success via adapting the management models of management whatever the given conditions are”, “a strategic toolkit” to “comprise a set of theoretic instruments that allow continuous strategic processing of the challenges DG INFSO confronts.” Good night. h/t Berlaymonster

1 Although comprising 28 countries, the EU recognizes 24 official languages. Some languages like French, Dutch, German, Greek and English are spoken in more than one country. The other languages are: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, and Swedish.