Berlin - Earlier this month, France’s EU affairs minister Clément Beaune said that, now that the Brexit negotiations were over, Europeans should stop using “broken English” when communicating with one another. Speaking to journalists in French, he said: “Let’s get used to speaking our languages again!” But English has long been the main working language of the EU – and that isn’t going to change any time soon. The linguist and Professor of English Marko Modiano believes English – specifically, a new type of European English – will only grow stronger in the post-Brexit era, as he outlined in his 2017 paper English in a post‐Brexit European Union. Modiano talked to us from his home in Stockholm.
You believe Brexit will actually strengthen the role of English within the EU. That sounds paradoxical.
The EU produces a tremendous amount of written material. People in agencies all over Europe are writing back and forth to each other in English. Studies have made clear that most of the people in the EU who don't have English as their native tongue want to use English when they're working within the EU. The French tried to push French after Brexit was announced. That was met with a crushing defeat.
So Europeans are expressing they want to use English, even though the only native speakers of English are now in Ireland and Malta. And it’s not “British English?”
Right. A little more than one per cent of the population. There's no one left to look down their nose at someone if they use English in a way that they feel is incorrect. The idea that an Irishman or Irishwoman working in the EU would feel compelled to defend British English is absurd because they themselves have lived under the tyranny of this linguistic chauvinism. If Scotland joined the EU, the Scots won't jump up in the air and say, okay, now we want everyone to speak British English. Ireland wants Irish as an official language in the EU. Malta has chosen Maltese.
In your paper, you say there has been a decline in the focus on the structure of the language and an increase in the attention given to communicative competence. You say that English teachers are more relaxed about the kind of English that's being learnt.
Not very long ago, people felt they had to teach consistent, proper British English. That purist native speaker-ism was the order of the day well into the 1980s. A lot of people teaching English feel that they have some kind of commitment to excellence in language, teaching people an English so that they seem sophisticated, educated, from the upper middle class and so on. That whole ideology is very poor when it comes to training children to meet the challenges of adulthood. There was a shift away from excellence in grammar towards training people to communicate in cross-cultural contexts and the idea of communicative competence. And we saw linguistic Americanisation taking place. We had this massive change in our lives with American music and American films and the internet and computer gaming. There are so many avenues for American English to get into the hearts and minds of people in Europe. The end result was that young people in Europe are now using more American English than British English.
But in a way, it's actually their own English because it's not really American English either.
I agree. But someone who is entrenched in British English would consider anything that's not British English to be the result of some terrible influence from somewhere else.
That’s a leftover from the imperial era, isn't it?
Right. If you don't behave the way I behave, you're behaving wrongly. I know the proper way to speak, and if you speak like me, people will respect you, you'll get better jobs, you'll have a better life. If you don't act like me, well, you won't be as good as me. You're always going to be a non-native speaker. So, it's kind of a colonial way of thinking. The idea of liberation linguistics, of liberating the non-native speaker, is what [Indian linguist] Braj Kachru did in his work on Asia and Africa. I take Kachru’s paradigm of world Englishes - the idea that local speech communities have their own variety – and bring it to Europe. I don't think it's a good idea that we sound like we're American because that's out of the frying pan and into the fire. That's just a different form of imperialism.
So what is Euro-English, actually?
If I meet a person who's German and I'm talking to this person and their English is excellent and they have a German accent and if this person said to me, I'm German, English is a second language for me, when I speak it, I have my accent, that's who I am, I would say, well, let's call that Euro-English. But if you have somebody who apologises for their German accent, who wishes they didn't have it, then you could say this is a person in the process of learning standard English. Anybody in Europe who has a European accent and is very comfortable in accepting their usage - that's European English. If they're interacting with other Europeans, they would use terms that they feel are common to communication between Europeans and and they would not feel that they needed to sound like a native speaker. They would want people to perceive them as being an Italian or German who speaks English. In other words, they would be using their English as a lingua franca and not see it as a kind of contest where in order to succeed, you have to assume multiple identities.
When I think of European English I think of “false friends” commonly used by Europeans such as “eventually” – when they mean “maybe”.
The meaning of some of those false friends is changing. You have words that Europeans are using in English but that have the German or French meaning. We see vast evidence that that's becoming accepted and that people understand each other. An example in grammar is people using “ing”. A lot of people in Europe say “I'm coming from France.” I argue that that is a feature of European English.
It sneaks into my English without me noticing. I used to be very uptight about this stuff.
There is this idea of purism but if you look at what language is really about, this idea that there are forms which are correct and not correct is really just social groups, class groups that have power insisting that their behaviour is better than the behaviour of others: we have more influence, we have more resources and so on. Others that don't have these resources either assimilate into that and speak standard language, or else they have their accents and dialects stigmatised.
Will Euro-English have regional dialects?
The idea is that the EU would have a second language variety of English, which would have regional variation, and that regional variation would be things like the German accent and the French accent and so on.
Do you see Euro-English becoming formalised? Is there going to be a dictionary?
If you think of a taxonomy, at the very top you have English and then we would have native speaker varieties and second speaker varieties. In second speaker varieties, you would have Indian English and Nigerian English and so on - and now European English and then within European English you would have regional variation. The question arises: can it be standardised? I argue in my work that now that the British are gone we're going to go through a period of adjustment in the next five, six, seven years where people are going to be scratching their heads and wondering, okay, what standard are we going to have? Especially for punctuation. How are we going to do this? Should we ask some people from Oxford to come over and write a stylesheet? I don't think so. I think the Europeans are going to say: “We have a whole army of language experts in Europe. We have linguists, we have professors. We have lots of people that can put together a structure for how we use English for Europe.” That awareness that we can decide ourselves will be slow. Somewhere along the line, the EU is going to have to implement a stylesheet for spelling conventions and punctuation. It's going to be done in small steps. Someone will say: "We don't feel committed to teaching children British English any longer and teaching them American English…". Well, the Americans are powerful enough, so American English isn't really in our best interest either.
PewDiePie, the biggest YouTuber in the world, is Swedish. He speaks very fluent English, but still sounds Swedish. How is English taught in the Nordic countries?
English is taught for cross-cultural competence. Teachers are expected to teach both British and American English and to include other varieties like Australian, Indian and African English and so on. There's this gigantic diversity and a lot of the teachers speak a mixture of British and American English. So kids today are learning English with a Swedish, Norwegian or Danish accent and only a few are achieving near-native proficiency. It's very good English but it doesn't sound like the person is distinctly British or American, which was the case 40 years ago.
Do you ever feel there's something generic about this sort of europeanised English where idiomatic sophistication gets lost when everyone is speaking a lowest common denominator version of the language?
That would be a purist complaining: look what those people are doing to my language. The way I see it is that any time a person is using the English language to communicate, that's a beautiful thing and that person should be complimented and supported. There is no such thing as bad English. I claim that there is an international citizen and there's a person who's aware of the world who's using English in that context. These people understand each other. They share common interests, and the non-native and native cultural literacy both have an identity and a place in the world. I can meet a person from anywhere and I can sit down with them and we have so much in common. We like the same movies, we have the same interests. Our life philosophy is the same. I can have more in common with that person than I do with my neighbour. That kind of awareness where people share common ground within globalisation through the English language is an identity and has nuances and intricate ways of expression. And it's equally as rich and creative and wonderful as native-speaker English.
It's still in its early days, isn’t it?
There are a lot of people who are highly proficient in English as an L2 [second language], hundreds of millions of people all over the world. I feel that is a community unto itself and a lot of those people have a wider vocabulary than many native speakers. I don’t buy the position that native speakers have always had an advantage. My Swedish wife is not a native speaker of English, and her English is much better than that of a lot of people who lack education and come from rural areas in both Britain and the US. I would say some non-natives have advantages, such as more experience with cross-cultural communication. They understand what it means to talk to people who didn't have English in early childhood. They have all kinds of tactics for negotiation that many native speakers haven't developed.
It seems to me that Europeans under 25 or 30 have much more fluent English than previous generations.
Every child in Europe today is studying English. That tells you where we're going to be in 10 or 15 years. Right now about half of the adult population speaks good English and it's increasing all the time. So we're going to get up to 70, 80 per cent in a relatively short period of time.