With English being the language that dominates the institutions of the European Union, what will the consequences be for the language following Brexit?

he Taylor Institution is the Oxford University library dedicated to the study of the European Languages.Brexit - what are the consequences for the English language? 

By Olivia Godron   

When the British referendum result became clear, the left-wing MEP and French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted: ‘L'anglais ne peut plus être la troisième langue de travail du parlement européen’ [‘English cannot be the third working language of the European Parliament’].

So what effect will Brexit have on the place of the English language in the EU? Might British people now become adept in other languages – or are we increasingly at risk of becoming linguistically isolated?

We asked six Oxford Modern Languages experts for their opinions. 

“English is certain to remain an official EU language”
Catriona Kelly is Professor of Russian at New CollegeCatriona Kelly is Professor of Russian at New College

‘I am deeply annoyed and frustrated by this [referendum] result, which was based on a great deal of ignorance about the EU and on a misplaced inflation of the UK's role in the world. It has also given encouragement to the worst forces in local politics, as witnessed by the spate of xenophobic attacks. Many of my European friends are extremely distressed and wondering whether to stay (the same applies to the partners of European friends).  

‘As for languages, English is certain to remain an official EU language, because Ireland is not about to pull out. So that anxiety is misplaced. In addition, English must be the most widely spoken second language in Europe. But if the UK's global role in business and finance becomes less important, then it seems inevitable there will be less interest in English. All of that is some way off, however. In the meantime, given the extremely high 'remain' vote among young people, the hope is we might actually see a rise in European solidarity. 

‘The interest in non-EU languages, if Russian is anything to go by, has different inspirations - it's often to do with a general enthusiasm for the culture, particularly the literature, and is associated with the desire to do 'something different'. So I can't really see that's going to change. The whole Brexit affair has been widely reported in Russia and people are fascinated by it without understanding a whole lot. Some see it as like the breakup of the Soviet Union, but there is really no resemblance, as that was an only notional federal sovereign state, not a loose confederation of sovereign states.’

“The ‘Euro-English’ language will evolve”
Iweta Kalinowska (Balliol 2013) is an undergraduate reading English and French

With English being the language that dominates the institutions of the European Union, what will the consequences be for the language following Brexit?‘Brexit does not mean that English will be sidelined in European institutions, but it could have unparalleled consequences on the type of English which is spoken there. In choosing not be a part of the European project, native speakers of English have, to a certain degree, given up their prime role in the way this language is shaped and used in the European Union. As a lingua franca, the particular type of Euro-English used is already rife with many quirks and inaccuracies, and being used predominantly by second-language speakers has the potential to further alter standard English and simplify complex linguistic features.

‘Unfortunately, I believe that the adverse effects on English are much more likely than any sort of revival of modern foreign languages in Britain, as the already diminishing interest in language teaching in British schools cannot be helped by this display of Euroscepticism and nationalism. The English language is an incredibly important communication tool not only in the European Union, but also worldwide, and will remain so regardless of the referendum results - therefore I do not think that Brexit will force those previously uninterested in foreign and European languages to take them more seriously.’ 

“We mustn’t become isolated”
Simon Kemp is Associate Professor of French at Somerville College

Simon Kemp is Associate Professor of French at Somerville‘If people are starting to think more about learning Mandarin and Japanese that has to be a good thing – language learning in this country is very low compared to other countries. 9% of British teenagers can talk another language compared to 42% of average European teenagers; we’re a long way behind. 

‘But of course we’re still going to be engaged with Europe - it’s still going to be a major trading partner and our nearest neighbor so I don’t think cultural exchange with Europe should get any smaller. Even beyond Europe, European languages are all global languages and I don’t think there’ll be any loss of focus on them because we’re not part of the EU.

‘English is so much the global language now that it can’t really be shifted from this position. It really is more important now than ever that people should learn other languages in order that we don’t turn into this isolated little England, but I don’t think that Brexit, of itself, will encourage that. It’s up to people like me to make sure Britain does stay an open country, interested in other parts of the world, and doesn’t turn in on itself.’ 

“Polarised reactions might cancel each other out”
Annelie Fitzgerald (LMH, 1990) read French and German at Oxford and is now a lecturer in English Literature and Language at the University of ToulouseAnnelie Fitzgerald (LMH, 1990) read French and German at Oxford and is now a lecturer in English Literature and Language at the University of Toulouse

‘[Brexit] could swing the pendulum in both directions and might have a net effect of not very much change at all. If the status of English is downgraded within the new-look EU, that could indeed encourage more young people in the UK to learn European languages as there would possibly be a greater need for translators of key Eurozone recommendations and other texts and for our future interactions - of every type - with the EU from without. On the other hand as the general trend seems to be for the UK to turn away from Europe and look towards the US instead, European languages may be - wrongly in my view - perceived as increasingly irrelevant in a UK outside the EU.

‘Overall, then, probably the status quo. Of course, I'd very muchlike Brexit to result in an increase in young people in the UK studying European languages but I'm really not convinced that that will be the case given the current dire state of foreign language uptake in the UK's education system. I really don't think Brexit is going to help remedy that!

‘On the other side of the Channel, I can't imagine that the UK leaving the EU will have a negative impact on the number of students choosing English as a foreign language option at the university where I work in France.’

“We need better language teaching in our schools”
Professor Ian Watson is tutorial fellow in French and Linguistics at Christ Church College, and, from October, Chair of the Modern Languages Faculty Board

“Foreign language learning could become a form of protest post-Brexit” Emily Cunningham (Brasenose, 2013) is an undergraduate reading French and German  ‘At the moment [in schools] we are seeing an increasing turn away from learning languages altogether. ‘We must ensure that the future of Modern Languages in Britain is better than its present and immediate past. The decision not to require 16-year olds to do a language at GCSE has diminished the numbers taking languages markedly, with a serious knock-on effect at A-level and at universities. The frankly uninspiring nature of current A-level courses, along with the acknowledged unreliability of their marking, has done further damage. Here at Oxford we continue to get excellent candidates, but other Language departments around the country are downsizing or closing. This trend must be reversed. The requirement to do a language in the English Baccalaureate may help, as may the forthcoming changes to A-level syllabuses, but more needs to be done. 

‘Quite apart from the intellectual and cultural benefits conferred by learning foreign languages, language teaching is viewed as strategically important both by the government and by industrial leaders, so it is something of a mystery that it should have been allowed to slip so much at school level. It is difficult to assess at the moment whether Brexit will make the need for language proficiency even greater. I doubt that English will be replaced as a major EU language any time soon; too many people know it and they won't stop knowing it (or learning it) even after we have left (whatever form the leaving takes). On the other hand, if we move from straightforward membership of the single market to one or more specifically negotiated trading agreements, it seems very likely that the country will need a greater percentage of its workforce to be linguistically sophisticated.

‘Given that the UK will have to continue to have strong links of various sorts with Europe, I think it likely that the need for the teaching of European languages will increase rather than decrease. Bear in mind that these languages also give access to considerable parts of other continents, notably the whole of Latin America. This does not preclude, however, a growth in the need for knowledge of non-European languages. People often cite Mandarin and Arabic as examples but they are only two of the important ones. Of course, these are already available in some universities. Oxford currently teaches a range of Oriental languages, including the two I've mentioned, at the Oriental Institute, and it's been possible for some time to combine a European Language with a Middle Eastern one to degree level.  

‘So, we have gone through a period of retrenchment for Modern Languages in the UK, but I hope we are coming to the end of it. Exactly how the next few years will go is difficult to predict, both because of political uncertainties and because we don't know what will happen in schools. However these things turn out, we will all be doing what we can to roll back the (largely unplanned and unintended) decline of recent years.’

TaylorianThe Taylor Institution, the Oxford University library dedicated to the study of the European Languages.

“Foreign language learning could become a form of protest post-Brexit”
Emily Cunningham (Brasenose, 2013) is an undergraduate reading French and German

‘At the moment [in schools] we are seeing an increasing turn away from learning languages altogether. German and Russian have already been sidelined in the curriculum as they tend to be considered difficult and schools are focusing on promoting science and mathematics instead. A significant problem in Britain is the mentality towards language learning. We are in the simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate position of being brought up speaking the language of global communication, and I think that this makes us complacent. We have a very Anglo-centric approach when it comes to language and culture, which is a shame as there is so much wonderful cultural content being produced across the channel that we often do not have the chance to enjoy. On the subject of whether the EU could sideline the English language, I think that this is unlikely, given that English is a major part of the curriculum in most EU countries, whereas French, for example, might not be.  

‘In view of this, I am not sure that the EU referendum result will have a direct impact on language learning in the UK We are already witnessing the demise of language learning, which could even be seen as a contributing factor to the Brexit vote: the feeling that Britain should stick with Anglophone countries rather than making the effort to reach out to its European neighbours. This said, in a post-Brexit Britain there could be a movement towards language learning as a form of protest, especially for disillusioned young voters, the majority of whom were in favour of the EU. Young people might start learning European languages and seeking opportunities abroad; as they begin to realise what they have lost, they might want to engage more openly with Europe. he Taylor Institution is the Oxford University library dedicated to the study of the European Languages.

‘I think that the study of Modern Languages, such as the degree course I am doing at Oxford, will remain strong. People studying literature and language do so for the love of cultural variety, and not purely as a means to an end. I still think that graduates with Modern Languages degrees will have good prospects in the job market, precisely because being able to speak more than one language is a reasonably unusual skill in Britain. 

‘Having spent nine months in Germany for my year abroad, I have come to realise just how different the UK is from other European nations in terms of language learning. In Germany, it is unusual not to have a reasonably good level of spoken English or French. I have also realised just how little access we have to European cultural content in the UK, which is unlikely to change. If you look in our bookshops and cinemas you can see the extent to which our culture is already turned towards, and indeed dominated by, the USA, whereas in Germany there is more of a European focus. 

‘My concern is that Brexit is going to promote an island mentality on a national level, but hopefully on an individual level it will bring into greater relief the need to learn languages in order to foster greater cultural understanding and to help us to see ourselves as part of a vibrant international community. I would love to see the learning of languages, both European and non-European, flourish in the UK. We would benefit greatly from engaging more with a wider variety of languages and cultures.’

Images: University of Toulouse, Balliol College, Oxford, Somerville College, Oxford, Oxford University Images


By Chris Miller

If Swedish, Portuguese and Bulgarian MEPs are enjoying a coffee in Strasbourg, what language are they most likely to employ in their conversation?

By David Molian

It is disappointingly sad that a number of your commentators use this as an opportunity to flaunt their superiority over the majority who voted for Brexit. As the younger generation puts it, get over yourselves. Stop squabbling over the ownership of a better yesterday. The EU is a doomed, protectionist institution on a one-way trip to self-destruction. Leaving it, the UK can become infinitely more internationalist in a globalised 21st century. Ordinary British people had the common sense to realise this and voted with their feet!

By Richard Condon ...

Mr Molian, I believe the expression is actually "Get over IT", not "yourselves". I fundamentally disagree with everything you write. If you really believe that the vote to leave the EU was an expression of internationalism you can't have been listening to the little-Englander xenophobia of the average Leave supporter interviewed by the media. And I don't share your gleeful claim that the EU is doomed. Time will tell.

By Judy Corstjens

I'm old enough to remember a time before we joined the ECC/EU (1973). We had French pen-pals, visited France and Germany without visas, and everyone over there was mad keen to practice their English (even though they didn't yet need it to navigate the internet). The idea that Brexit will 'take us out of Europe' or have any influence on the languages learnt in China, Japan, Russia, Eastern Europe etc. (or spoken in the USA?) is narcissistic hand wringing.

By Diccon Masterman

‘English is so much the global language now that it can’t really be shifted from this position.'

Really? The history of international languages suggests otherwise - there have been many predecessors, all of which have ceased to be international languages and, famously in the case of Latin, some are dead. Languages become international simply because they are the language of a dominant power. Owing to the fact that the British Empire and the American Empire shared the same language (more or less!), the position of English has been reinforced. This could easily change in the next century or thereabouts and the world could be thrown into linguistic turmoil by a future world war or some similarly powerful event.

There is, of course, a much better solution, but then, as the founder in its day of the Oxford University Esperanto Club, I would think so.

By William Rothschild

No mention of Ireland still being in the EU and the nations across the Atlantic seems a bit strange.

By Anthony Grant

I am deeply upset by Catriona Kelly's remarks showing arrogance and contempt for Brexiteers.. I matriculated in 1958 and read PPE, majoring in Economics. I have therefore been following the 'European project' in some detail for 58 years. The list of deceptions and absurdities propagated by the Commission and its supporters is very long. It was always an undemocratic political project presented as an economic one simply to deceive. Day 1 lesson 1 of monetary economics is that a monetary union without a common government is bound to fail. My heart goes out to the citizens of Southern Europe who have suffered so much as a result.

By David Greenslade

What are the language requirements for entrance to Oxford nowadays? I had to have Latin and preferably other languages. I had done French for 8 years and German for two which latter was a bonus as the Chemistry degree for which I read, required a pass in a German paper of two questions taken from German journals. Of course the EU has problems, but Mr Molian must realise so does our British government: how many Ms P. are scientifically literate. Further, unlike American Congressmen, they do not have scientific advisers. For all her faults, and I believe they were many, Baroness Thatcher realised, according to Matthew Parris writing in the Times, the danger of global warning and helped initiate the Kyoto talks. She was an Oxford educated chemist !

By Brian Holland

As Catriona Kelly points out, Ireland is not about to leave the EU, therefore the demand for interpretation and translation into English will remain unchanged when the UK leaves. However, Iweta Kalinowska makes an important point when she refers to the 'Euro-English' often used in EU meetings such as those in which I have worked as an interpreter for the last 37 years. Non-native speakers often feel that they communicate more directly with their colleagues from other Member States by speaking an impoverished version of English that sometimes bears little resemblance to the real thing. The disappearance of many of the native speaker delegates will only serve to aggravate this tendency.However, the eventual disappearance of UK representatives from the Brussels scene is not just a linguistic tragedy. The UK's common-sense approach to many European issues often commanded a great deal of respect in the meetings that I have worked in at every political level over the years. It is very sad that this long-standing constructive contribution to international understanding should be cast aside in favour of isolationism by a campaign of lies and political expediency that set out to exploit the small-mindedness of its victims and, to the surprise of its leaders, succeeded!

By David Bevir

The teaching of foreign languages in British schools was alive and well long before the UK entered the EC in 1973, so I doubt whether its exit some 45 years later will make a significant difference in itself. The Remainers seem unable to grasp the essence of the Brexiters' argument, that the problem is not Europe but the EU as a sterile, corrupt organization dominated by the Germanic way of doing things, from which the UK will now be liberated to forge its own relationships with the rest of the world.

By Anthony Rich

According to my information, Member States of the EU can only register one official language even if they in fact have two or more at home. Eire has registered Gaelic, and Malta has registered Maltese. As things stand, therefore, once the United Kingdom leaves, there will be no country with English registered as its official language, so that English will disappear from official use in the EU. This means, for example, that all Irish MEPs will have to make their speeches in Gaelic. The consequence I anticipate is a financial sweetener to persuade either Eire or Malta to change its registered language to English, though the sweetener would of course be disguised as support for some project of vital concern to the country concerned and the timing of the change of language would be pure coincidence.

By Timothy Ziman

I am sure that the Irish would be strongly supported by the French if they moved to have English replaced by Gaelic as a regular working language of Europe.

By Peter Hulse

it will probably result in "EU English" becoming more American, and less British. Incidentally, both Ireland and Malta are English-speaking.

By Jaroslav Dedek

As an Oxford educated Frenchman, but born Czechoslovakian, I have been a pan-European citizen ever since and am sorry that the UK decided that Europe was not for them. But I realize that European countries have waged wars against each other for a thousand years and so find it difficult to imagine working together to build a federal Europe that could hold its place both economically and politically against the USA, Russia, China and one day Brazil and India. Yet I think we must aim towards that goal or one day cease to exist like the Romans and other once-important nations.

By Keith Stewart

I am still chuckling at the thought of Prof. Kelly stamping her foot and snorting with irritation that the electorate didn't do what she wanted. Thanks, OT, for making my Friday even better than usual.

By russell richardson

I cannot for the life of me understand why anybody is debating which language 'we' should speak. 'We' speak English. Recent immigrants speak their native tongue. Europeans spending a reasonable time in another EU country speak 2 languages more or less fluently. If they then settle in Britain, that would be 3.
the logical question (and its answer) is How many languages should an individual speak? A: At least three.
And if - in Britain - we do not teach three (ah, but which three?) then 'we' are just asking for trouble down the line.
Very sorry, though, not Esperanto. That's like learning Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings instead of actual histories. It has no literature, no spoken culture, and very little spontaneous creative writings. The rest of the world uses a stripped down version (the demo version, if you like) of English as its Esperanto.

By Dorcas Fowler

I have taught English as a Foreign Language for many years. It is and will remain a global language - just think how many Japanese came to the UK on courses in the past , and now it is the Chinese.
I suspect that one of the reasons some people voted for Brexit (I did not) is that more recent migrants settling together in large numbers have not integrated i.e. learned English, as previous migrants did.
I took a group of students to Stratford on Avon and the bus driver (Polish) spoke somewhat broken English (pre-intermediate/intermediate). Two years later I met the same bus driver and his English was no better. My sister has a Polish cleaner who has only rudimentary English, having lived in this country for several years and, as a result, cannot get a better job. She can manage this because she lives with other Poles, has Polish television, and can shop in Polish food shops (Tescos also has a section of products labelled in Polish). I gave her free one to one English lessons, but she soon gave up saying she did not have enough time (one hour every fortnight).

By Tim Burford

David Molian, we'll stop moaning when you stop gloating.

By Anthony Murray ...

When I was at school, the usual foreign languages taught were Latin and French. It would have been better to have learnt German. English is important because the Americans speak it and also dominate our culture. Until Vatican 2 we behaved as if God spoke Latin.

By Jamie Melly

I do agree with some of what the interviewees wrote, but obviously they have their own positions based on the fact that they study and teach European languages.

Anyway, I think something to bear in mind is that when we say X % of EU citizens speak another EU language, I don't think it's arrogant to assume that language is English and therein lies a major issue for foreign language teaching in this country: what basis do you use to justify which language(s) schoolchildren are taught? Everywhere else it's easy: teach the kids English. Not only is English known - even if only a few words - from Manchester to Turkmenistan and everywhere between and beyond (and I'm sorry, but that just cannot be said for French, Italian etc.), but it's omnipresent. Kids born all over the world will have English around them on some form of media from the day they're born. I'm a translator and I'm often told by people "yeah, but people in this country are bad at languages." That might be true, but I argue that it's more an issue of exposure than anything else i,e, we're also surrounded by English both in our media and because it's our native language, we have neither an obvious go-to foreign language as most of our neighbours do, nor do we have the kind of impetus to spur us on to learn those of said neighbours - for my part, I left sixth form in 2006 and I'd never been shown anything but the most paltry samples of French and German popular culture in the form of TV, film or music and I can't imagine it's a whole lot better now 10 years later.

My point is, English is the linguistic glue of Europe. Half the population does not speak it purely (or even mainly, I'd argue) because of us. It's because it's the global language and no matter how much it irks my French grandmother (and others), French has had its day and even the sad, embittered French Eurocrats making out that English should leave along with the English are missing the point that Europeans will continue to use our language anyway, as will the rest of the world for considerable time.

By x

According to a survey, only 9% of world's population speaks English well enough to hold a conversation, while about 70/75% doesn't speak it at an adequate level or at all. According to British linguist David Graddol, by 2050 English will be the native languag of only 5% of people worldwide.
Anyway, this article is about the role of English within the EU, not elsewhere.

By Annue Morris

It's sad to think that the EU may sink into little-language parochialism while the rest of the world forges ahead with English as its lingua franca. I'm sure that the European scientific community, for one, will be delighted to exclude itself from international debates.

By Alain Bruguières

Let's see this from an optimistic point of view. According to certain studies, learning a foreign language puts the onset of dementia back 5 years on average. The fact that the British don't learn foreign languages should therefore considerably boost the yield of the so-called dementia tax.

By Alain Bruguières

Many here seem to forget that these things change in time. English was not always the world language, and will not always be. I think its influence is receding, because more and more people in the world learn English and at least another language. Of course it will remain the language of science. Or, rather, the basis for the language of science which is not the English of native speakers but a kind of English-based lingua franca. But Brexit and the election and Trump and the general loss of influence of the USA will ultimately cause English to lose its pre-eminence.

One aspect the commenters seem to forget is that the automatic translation programs make considerable progress. I'm pretty sure that in 20 year's time if not less, everybody will be able to communicate reasonably with everybody on this planet by means of automatic translaters. Of course, it won't be perfect, by far - but it will be way better than using the kind of broken basic English which is used nowadays by most people for this purpose.

We will still learn foreign languages because it's an exciting intellectual and human adventure, and we will not have to learn English any more than any other specific language.

By Jim Carter

"Let's si this from an optimistic point ov viu. Acoording tu sœrtan stadiiz, lœrning a foren længwij puts thi onset ov demensha bæc 5 yiirz on æverij. The fæct thæt the British doun't lœrn foren længwijez shud theerfoor considerabli buust the yiild ov the sou-coold demensha tæx" (Bruguieres).

Wail the YY continiuz tu meic præctical yus ov Ingglish, thei mait æz wel siiz thi oportiuiti tu cliin ap the dizaaster ov Ingglish speling ("the wœrld'z wœrst mes") ænd restoor it tu a saund Yuropiian-waid beisis (laic thi abav Spelrait).