I am an American living in Belgium since 1974. Ever since arriving here, I have been hearing the mantra "To be a good European, you should learn several languages". Almost from the very beginning, I suggested going the other way: "To be a good European, everyone should learn a single common language".
This idea was not well received. Some people fiercely argued: "No one is going to give up their native language; our language is too much a part of our culture." And almost everyone said: "Well, of course you mean English."
They were wrong on both counts.
First, no one would be required to give up their native language, but in addition they would be required to learn the common language. Second, I did not necessarily mean English. There is no denying that English would have a strong claim on being Europe's common language. However, any language would do, provided that everyone agrees on it.
When I started this discussion some 30 years ago, there were only nine members of the European Union, so there might have been some justification for rejecting the idea of a common language. Now that there are 27 members (and more waiting in the wings), the voices decrying the need for a common language have largely fallen silent.
By any measure, the current situation is untenable.
Consider for a moment. Someone born in Madrid will obviously speak Spanish, and probably learn Portuguese, French and maybe Italian. Someone born in Copenhagen will obviously speak Danish, and probably learn Swedish, German, and maybe English. So here we have two highly educated people, both citizens of the European Union and both speaking four languages - but still not able to talk to each other. As new countries join the EU, this already appalling situation can only get worse.
The question is no longer do we need a common language, but how should we go about getting it and putting it into practice?
The process certainly will not be easy and will certainly take a long time - decades rather than years. However, just like replacing Europe's multitude of national currencies with today's euro, the time and effort will be eminently worthwhile.
Selecting and implementing a common language will be a major development not only for the nearly 500 million people of the EU, but also for the more than 6 billion people who populate the rest of the world. If Europe's disparate nations (so proud of their differences) can agree on a common language, then the dream of a single language uniting the whole planet will cease to be theoretical. It will already be well on the way to realization.
I have no panacea for choosing and implementing a European common language. But I would like to propose a basic plan of attack. Obviously, there are many details that would still have to be worked out, but in outline here it is. It consists of three steps.
1. Political Commitment
For the first time in centuries, through the EU a structure is now in place to designate a common language by political will, rather than military force. So the first step would be for the European Parliament to formally declare the need for a European common language and to establish a Selection Commission to choose it.
There is an important proviso to this first step: The Parliament must agree in advance to accept whatever language the Selection Commission might propose. Why? Because unless they agree in advance to whatever the commission chooses, the disparate member states will almost certainly open a new, acrimonious discussion of the no matter and the whole plan will collapse.
Getting the member states to agree in advance will be a Herculean task. It is therefore crucial for the Parliament to draw up clear, unambiguous criteria for the common language. And establish a Selection Commission with the time, expertise, and resources necessary to find a language that would fulfill the criteria.
2. Language Selection
The second step would be for the Selection Commission to examine and evaluate all possible candidates. Major languages such English, French and Spanish would have obvious claim. However, they might be rejected because choosing one of these would give the home country a distinct economic advantage. German would probably be rejected for historical reasons, while smaller languages such as Danish, Dutch, Basque and the like would pose the problem of who would teach them.
The commission therefore must be free to select any language it deems appropriate.
This would not necessarily have to be a European language; their investigations could extend worldwide. For my part I would strongly recommend Swahili, the common language of East Africa.
The commission should also be able to consider an artificial language, of which Esperanto would be only one possibility. They could even opt to create an entirely new language.
The third step would be to devise a plan and set a timetable for implementation.
For the organs of the EU, such as the Parliament itself and the European Commission (the EU's executive branch), establishing a timetable should not be too difficult. For example, within ten years of the language being announced, all business within the EU's official structure would have to be conducted in the language. This would give everyone with ambitions to work in the EU's a decade to prepare themselves.
Making the language official throughout the member states would obviously take longer and would depend on the language and the resources available to implement it.
Amongst other things, implementation would mean introducing the language as compulsory in all schools. It if turned out to be a major language such as English, French or Spanish, finding and training teachers and preparing text materials could go fairly rapidly. However, if it turned out to be a minor language, a non-European language, or an artificial language, implementation could take much longer.
There would no doubt be other practical obstacles to implementation that the commission itself would have to identify and overcome. In any event, by following this plan it would be possible to imagine the EU with an official common language within the next 25 - 30 years, and the rest of the world within the next half-century.
This may seem a long time; however, it is a very complex problem which can be solved only over time. But clearly, a world united by a single common language is a dream well worth pursuing.
I am 65 years old. I don't expect to be around long enough to see the dream fulfilled, in Europe let alone worldwide. However, I do expect to be around long enough to see the process well underway. I can hardly wait to get started.
Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium. His recently published book In the "I" of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like a Professional is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com).
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Source: Ubiquity Volume 9, Issue 9 (March 4, 2008 - March 10, 2008)