Euroscepticism in Britain: lost in translation?


In the European Parliament we operate in 24 official languages on a daily basis. Multilingualism is part and parcel of the way this institution has always worked, and will always continue to be so, adding new languages as the Union welcomes new members, Croatia being the most recent. In a Union that prides itself on being united in diversity, the mutual respect of all languages and the right for all citizens to access information on the work of the institutions in the official language of their choice, are key to bridging the gap between Brussels and the 500 million people we are here to serve.

For a fair number of years now there has been an increased push for multilingualism in Europe, and one which extends far beyond the corridors of Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. The Commission's framework strategy for multilingualism, created back in 2005, aims to build up citizens' linguistic skills until each citizen has acquired practical skills in at least two languages other than his or her mother tongue. In the European Parliament's Committee for Education and Culture, understanding the role language plays in the fabric of our European identity, we have worked hard to extend this focus and to push for a recognition and integration of Europe's many minority languages. According to the European Commission the EU is home to over 60 regional and minority languages which are spoken regularly by up to 40 million people.

In Britain, acquired multilingualism is arguably something we struggle with. While we pride ourselves on being for the most part an open, tolerant and diverse society, we are becoming increasingly unwilling to acquire the one tool that would allow us more than any other to understand the way people in other countries think and act: their languages. This year we saw yet more evidence of Britons' increasing disinterest in foreign languages, with fewer students than ever choosing to study languages at University. At GCSE and A-level the picture looks equally bleak, with more than 10,000 fewer language A-levels being sat last year than at the end of the 90s.

So is our reluctance to learn the languages of our European neighbours symptomatic of our complicated relationship with the continent that sits right on our doorstep, or should we instead be asking ourselves if Britain's apparent animosity towards Europe stems from a linguistic barrier? With a referendum looming, and our place in the EU hanging in the balance, the time seems ripe to investigate whether a lack of linguistic prowess is what is holding the UK back from connecting with its EU counterparts.    

A large number of those championing a need for an increased focus on language learning simply underline the neurological advantages that scientists have linked to multilingualism. For instance, polyglots are shown to be more perceptive of their surroundings and better at extracting important bits of information whilst discarding what is irrelevant. Moreover, code-switching between different languages is shown to delay the onset of afflictions such as dementia and Alzheimer's. What we should also be talking about in the European context, however, goes far beyond these benefits. In reality, the incentive for us all to try our hand at a second or even third language is linked to something far more profound: a means by which to broaden our horizons, adjust our perceptions of our place in the world, and create a more extensive notion of citizenship in which a sense of belonging and understanding can exist far beyond the place we were born. In part this can come from recognising common roots for some languages, especially the Latin roots of Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Romanian. It is also pleasing to discover the ubiquitous adoption of certain words or phrases in common parlance across the globe, for example 'weekend' and 'football'.

Personal and societal enrichment are at the core of education, and acquiring the ability to understand our European neighbours, not only linguistically but also culturally, is undoubtedly one of the largest steps the United Kingdom could take towards lessening the distance it has created between itself and the EU. 

But could our lack of proficiency in foreign languages be really tainting our relationship with our EU neighbours? The answer, to put it quite simply, is yes. Language is in all senses a means of enabling understanding, not only linguistically, but also culturally. In essence then, when one cannot access cultural resources owing to linguistic barriers, all that comprises a nation's literature, art, popular culture, history and politics, becomes devoid of meaning. Without speaking the language of another country, therefore, one can forget truly understanding its people. The inability to understand the languages of our neighbours stands in the way of knowing what makes them human, from understanding what makes the Swedes laugh, the Greeks sentimental or the Portuguese proud.

In global terms our EU neighbours are practically sitting on our doorstep. We all share an interlinked and inseparable history. For all the small yet fascinating cultural differences between people from one country to another, there are countless more ways in which we are all extremely similar. Of course, it would take a rather extraordinary mind to master all 24 official EU languages, let alone the 60-odd minority languages, but even knowing one foreign language is enough to make one realise that we as Europeans all share similar values, and that the UK is by no means alone in Europe. It is this reluctance to take this first step that is holding many British people back from forging an emotional link or feeling of solidarity with other European citizens.

Nowhere is the danger of the sense of estrangement that can be produced through linguistic barriers evidenced more clearly than in the example of UKIP's Nigel Farage who once revealed that he feels "awkward" on trains in London because he only ever hears foreign languages. When a party like UKIP has been able to build up such a furore around the subject of internal EU migration, based largely on this "awkwardness" that people feel when surrounded by people they do not understand, and whom they thus consider to be essentially different from themselves, then there is certainly room to ask if our linguistic barriers are separating us from continental Europe far more than 20 miles of water ever could.

In terms of Britain's relationship with Europe then, both leading up to and after the referendum on EU membership, we should increasingly take heed of the connections with other European countries that are being diminished due to the increasing monolingualism we are seeing in our nation. While we continue to rely on our European neighbours' competences in English to ensure that we can communicate with one another, as a nation we will be forever destined to view them as "strangers" or "foreigners" if we do not move away from our current stubborn approach to language learning. To learn a language is to understand far more than the surface perception of people conversing in a foreign tongue. It allows us to break down barriers between ourselves and other nations; even by understanding only one foreign language, we begin to realise just how European we in the UK really are. So let us broaden our horizons, change our perceptions of Britain's place in the world, and become citizens who can feel comfortable when surrounded by those who speak differently from us, safe in the knowledge that we are, all of us, just ordinary people striving for similar goals.

Haydn Hammersley has been working alongside Julie Ward MEP for the past six months, having previously worked as a trainee at the European Commission's DG for Interpretation. After completing an MA in French with Linguistics at the University of St Andrews in 2010, he went on to study for a Master's in Politics and European Studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.