Cox News Service
May 06, 2005
BUDAPEST, Hungary — Zsuzsanna Jakab had all the credentials to be chosen as the founding director of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control: She was one of Hungary's top health officials. She also had a dozen years' experience with the European office of the World Health Organization.
But could she have gotten the job without being fluent in English?
"Probably not," Jakab said.
Even though Hungarian, or Magyar, is one of the 20 official languages of the European Union, it is, outside Hungary, pretty much useless. An agency head who could talk to her staffers only through interpreters would have a hard time making a go of it.
The European Union is sometimes seen as anti-American. But the language that binds the union together, that makes possible its ever-deeper integration, is English.
The French scholar Dominique Moisi, challenged once on why a meeting on Europe's future was being conducted in English, replied serenely that English had become "the Latin of our age" — the language that allowed people from different parts of the world to communicate with each other.
Throughout Europe, it is common to walk into a room and hear, for example, a Spaniard, a Dane and an Italian conversing with each other in English.
The political and business elites in almost every European country — France being a bit of an exception — are fluent in English. And English is the language of political debate.
According to a study posted on the European Union web site, only 16 percent of EU residents learned English as their mother tongue. But 47 percent of EU residents speak it.
German, spoken by 32 percent of EU citizens, and French, known by 28 percent, lag behind
This is not the way it always was.
"I remember as a kid growing up in Brussels, and at that point the main language was French," said Mark Leonard, 30, director of foreign policy at the London-based Center for European Reform.
But that changed — first as a result of the Nordic countries joining the union, followed later by the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.
"Officially, everyone still has the right to get papers in their own language and to speak their own language in meetings," Leonard said. "But in practice, English has emerged as the lingua franca — and it is in English that people have their disagreements about policy."
Don Melvin's e-mail address is dmelvin(at)coxnews.com