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Is European English at the heart of unification?

Professor Marko Modiano, of the University of Gävle, Sweden, argues that it’s time Europe’s own version of English becomes an acceptable alternative to British English

The European Union is now at a crossroads when it comes to the language regime promoted in Brussels. The plurilingual initiative has not resulted in greater numbers of EU citizens becoming functionally trilingual, nor has Erasmus produced significant numbers of college students becoming fluent in any of the lesser-used European languages.

Instead, what we are seeing across Europe is an intensification of resources being allocated to English and a reduction in the learning of traditional third languages (such as, for example, the decline of Swedish in Finland and an increase in bilingualism, with Finns speaking only Finnish and English).

Not only are greater numbers of EU citizens acquiring proficiency in English, they are also turning away from the traditional norm – standardised British English – and instead utilising more features, pronunciation, lexical items and grammar which are characteristic of American English. At the same time, aspects of language usage which are culture specific for European English, for example, in lexical use the term member state or the phrase the four freedoms in pronunciation the unique manner in which mainland Europeans pronounce words such as cooperation and, in grammar, the use of the present continuous where non-native- speaking English users use the simple present (saying “I am coming from Spain”, instead

“With the British out of Europe, there are no longer hordes of language 
watchdogs in the EU”

of “I come from Spain”), are becoming part and parcel of the unique way in which English is now used as a lingua franca in the European Union.

These processes of nativisation, which always take place when you have widespread use of a lingua franca in a multilingual speech community, are intensifying. Brexit – the withdrawal of the British from European unification – has actually acted to accelerate these processes, because with the British out of Europe there are no longer hordes of language watchdogs in the EU getting upset every time the EU does something which is not acceptable in the British rendition of the tongue. The Irish, the only remaining native-speaker nation state with any considerable numbers (some five million souls, which amounts to a bit more than 1% of the EU population) will not make any great effort to influence how mainland Europeans use their English for the simple reason that they have other fish to fry.

A way forward

Why is recognising European English as a legitimate variety alongside other English- language norms the way forward for the EU? To better understand the answer to this question, we need to look at the manner in which English has been taught and learned in schools across the EU.

English was seen as a foreign language, learned so that one could communicate with native speakers, and the goal of the instruction was the attainment of native or near-native proficiency in British English. This educational philosophy, which was more or less unchallenged until the 1990s, is based on a structural rather than communicative vision of language learning. Such traditional language learning programmes were steeped in what we call native speakerism. The understanding, naturally, was that the most refined brand of English found in the UK, the notorious RP (Received Pronunciation) accent, was superior to all other varieties and was also that rendition of the tongue which promised the greatest success when it came to mutual intelligibility.

For some 20 years or so, we have witnessed this unique version of English not only come under considerable attack, but also undergo some fundamental changes. For one, language education shifted from the mastery of a prescriptive form through grammar and translation exercises to the attainment of the ability to communicate across cultures. Other changes took place as well, such as the fact that Europeans began to readily mix features of American and British English and, further, there was a decisive upswing in the use and popularity of American English. One could also observe more and more people using features of European English.

The notion that English was acquired for communication with native speakers fell to the side and now, as English has emerged as the global and European lingua franca, people in greater and greater numbers have begun to reject the notion that non-native speakers need to strive to obtain native or near-native proficiency. Instead, people are learning English because it gives them opportunities to communicate with others across Europe. Thus, English is seen as a European lingua franca, a language which Europeans use when communicating with each other.

Out of the driver’s seat

The British, what they are about and how they use the English language, have been forced to take a back seat.

English is now a mainland European language where the majority of the population is able to use the tongue in interaction with others and where we find more than 95% of young people obtaining proficiency in the language in a host of member states. The fate of the language rests in their hands.

It is already the case that English is the prominent lingua franca of Europe. The competition, French and German, which are important as first languages, have far fewer using these as second languages and there

“There is no viable alternative on offer to fill the gap caused by the 
decline in British English”

are no indications that this will change in the near future.

Far more people use English as a second language in the EU than those who have acquired proficiency in other large EU languages, such as French, German, Italian, Polish and Spanish.

In schools, where mainland Europeans receive their formal language training, a great deal of confusion is currently the order of the day, seeing as there is no viable alternative on offer to fill the gap caused by the decline in British English. This could very well mean that American English will prevail, something that is not, in my opinion, in the best interests of Europe.

If the EU were to sanction the idea of European English, one which could be utilised along with other versions of the language, such as American and British English, this would liberate those mainland Europeans who speak Euro-English.

That is, having a European accent, using what to many people outside of Europe are esoteric lexical items and other embellishments of mainland European identity, would not be stigmatised and seen as examples of interlanguage, but would instead be perceived as expressions of a sanctioned second-language variety, one which allows mainland Europeans to have their own marker of identity when speaking the mainland European lingua franca.

This could, in turn, be seen as a way for mainland Europeans to ‘own’ their lingua franca and as such be freed from the tyranny of native speakerism.

What we would then expect to happen, once this official sanctioning of European English is carried out, is the production of dictionaries, grammars, text books and other educational materials which would then be used alongside materials showcasing other varieties. The distinct features of European English would be accepted in such educational environments and the instruction, as well as the pedagogies deployed when teaching and learning the language, would be designed to promote the attainment of skill in cross-cultural communication.

Perhaps this sense of ownership could open the door for greater interest in promoting the learning of a third language. Nevertheless, with the acceptance of European English, mainland Europeans would, in my mind, be in a better position to celebrate the unity through diversity which is at the heart of the European imagination.

Marko Modiano is Professor of English at Gävle University, Sweden, where he conducts research on English as an international language as well as on the evolution of the English language across mainland Europe. He has published widely on these and related issues in journals such as English Today and World Englishes. His latest book, Teaching English in a European and Global Perspective, was published in 2020. He lives in Stockholm, which he claims is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Professor Modiano is an outspoken supporter of the European English initiative.

Images courtesy of PHOTO BY SHUTTERSTOCK and Library
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