The spread of the English language in the EU has many advantages as well as disadvantages. Nevertheless, being able to communicate and thereby understand each other also culturally is a great priviledge. This article further explains how language works as a powerful identity maker.
For someone growing up in the European Union, languages play a very important role. Living in Maastricht/Netherlands, I can reach both the French-speaking part of Belgium as well as Germany in around 30 minutes. Someone who does not speak French, Dutch or German, but only English, can get along perfectly in all three countries. The spread of English can be seen as a threat to other languages in the European Union (EU) and thus can be feared as a “language-killer.” Through the intensification of worldwide communication, for instance through Facebook or other social networks, the use of international English as a second language is constantly growing. This is often seen as a danger to the plurality of languages in the EU.
However, and in my opinion even more essential, the spread of the usage of a common language should also be seen as an advantage. Speaking a common language as either a native or second language speaker increases people’s ability to communicate and understand each other. As I experienced it at international conferences, the mutual understanding and the ability to have discussions with students of different backgrounds is a privilege that the generations before me, my parents and grandparents, were never able to enjoy. Bilateral understanding is especially crucial because it can lead to long-term friendships. During my travels, I even experienced that such a friendship is possible between students whose governments are actually in conflict.
Nevertheless, it is important to understand that language regulates access to many resources, meaning that people with insufficient English language skills are often excluded. In particular in the younger generations, English is seen as a prerequisite to manage not only one’s professional life but also everyday social life. This article is an example as it assumes that readers, many of them being originally German, understand its content.
Language further serves as a powerful identity maker. To elaborate on this point, I want to refer to German history, which shaped the history of my family. After the Second World War, Silesia, which was originally part of Germany, became Poland. My grandparents, who were both born in Silesia while it belonged to Germany, became “Polish” from one day to another. “We always felt like Germans, but were pursued for it,” my grandfather said. “Being forced to speak a new language provoked the feeling of losing our German identity.” Since the German was seen as an enemy, the language was forbidden and one was only allowed to speak Polish on the streets. My grandfather was jailed for speaking German on the train.
Further, students were forced to learn Russian. “I was mad at the Russians,” my grandmother said, “because I really wanted to learn French, but they forced me to learn the language.” Even my mother was born on Polish territory, but she never learned to speak Polish. As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, however, they never taught me the language, even though they still speak it fluently. While I would have loved being able to speak Polish, it was not seen as a privilege for my grandparents, as they were forced to learn it. Today, my grandmother reveals, she enjoys speaking Polish to her siblings. She is free to choose which language to speak, which allows her to enjoy the ability of being bilingual. I believe that even though she might still associate the language with the aftermath of the war, the freedom she enjoys today outweighs it at least a little bit. Even though my grandmother only learned French for one year around 70 years ago, she still has the biggest smile showing me her skills, which contain about ten words.
To conclude: Learning multiple languages, including English, is a privilege and it is knowledge that is needed and helpful in everyday life. Learning a language works best when it is voluntary, when the student is motivated by a sincere desire to learn and understand. Speaking a language means not only learning words and grammar, but also understanding a new culture and people, and it can lead to long-lasting friendships.14