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The practical benefits of using universal languages, the international dominance of English and the complex issues of preserving our rich linguistic heritage were discussed by invited experts at the latest Transylvania Lectures event in Kolozsvár/Cluj-Napoca, organised by Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC).

At the event on 25 March, philosopher, economist and political scientist Dr Philippe Van Parijs presented his extensive research on the opportunities and challenges of having English as an official language.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using an intermediary language? More and more decisions have to be taken at international level and a common channel of communication, a common language, is very much needed in order to be effective. With more than 6,000 languages in less than 200 countries around the world, English is rapidly expanding and has become a virtual lingua franca in many countries and international organisations.

Dr Philippe Van Parijs is one of the world’s most significant and comprehensive thinkers on linguistic justice and an ardent advocate of the struggle for greater linguistic justice in Europe and in the world. He is a guest professor at the Universities of Louvain and Leuven and a Robert Schuman Fellow at the European University Institute. At the Transylvania Lectures event, he discussed the benefits and injustices of the rise of English with fellow panellists Geanina Simion, communications expert, and Dr András Bethlendi, expert in minority language rights and Director of Academic Activities at MCC.

English as lingua franca

Today, English is the most widely spoken international language - it is the official language in 58 countries around the world, it is now taught as a first foreign language in schools in almost every country in Europe, and the number of young people speaking English is growing. While some see the global rise of English as a positive development and an opportunity to build relationships, others worry about the injustices and cultural loss it will cause.

Its rapid spread is also fuelled by its increasing prevalence, for example, people with different mother tongues usually switch to the language they both know best, English, rather than each other, to communicate effectively. It is interesting, for example, that in Brussels may officials thought that after Brexit French would again be the main language of mediation, but since then English has become even more popular in the EU institutions simply because it is not a mother tongue for any member state, so there would be no dominant party in conversations.

Inequalities must also be taken into account

In his book Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World (Oxford, 2011), Dr Philippe Van Parijs also takes injustices into account. He sees language as a public good, because it is a benefit for everyone if people understand each other. However, learning a common language also creates inequalities: for some, learning it as a mother tongue is not a challenge, while for others it is a much greater burden as a foreign language. Speakers of less widely spoken languages can counteract inequalities by having access to large amounts of information, scientific and cultural content in English, and by consuming content in their mother tongue too.

English language skills also affect employment opportunities, but the most sensitive counter-argument is that English threatens the dignity and cultural identity of speakers of other languages. However, the advantage of native English speakers can be reversed over time, as they face highly skilled competitors from all over the world in the English-speaking job market, and are one step behind the speakers of more languages.

Should English be an official language in Romania?

The officialisation of a language entails a number of obligations: the state must make it available in the public services, in law-making, in education, and (at least partially) even in the parliament.

Belgium and Brussels are particular examples of the use of official languages. Dutch is the only official language in the north, French in the south and German in the east, while in Brussels both Dutch and French are official. However, the capital, the seat of the EU, is likely to become trilingual along with English soon, due to the large number of visitors and immigrants. In Brussels, the need for English has emerged as a natural process, but in other areas this need is not so clear.

Geanina Simion said she was proud that in Transylvania, Romania, several cultures come together to enrich everyone living here, although as a communicator it is often a challenge to convey these local, specific feelings and ideas linked to our cultures in a way that others can understand. Dr. András Bethlendi pointed out that in Romania, the constitution states that the only official language of the state is Romanian, and does not currently allow for the introduction of any other, but in the end, changing this is a political decision.

The benefits and risks of linguistic justice

The question of linguistic justice has been raised as to whether switching to a third language in Romania would facilitate communication between the Romanian and Hungarian communities. In Van Parijs' view, the introduction of a third, intermediary language creates symmetry, greatly reduces inequality and helps to improve relations, but it is also a risk, as it can lead to the erosion of the local language and culture in the long term.

The expert believes that English will not suppress smaller language groups as long as the local language can be maintained as an official language in a given area and people consciously work to preserve it. This also applies to minority languages. Although in Transylvania Hungarians can learn and practise the language in an institutional framework, the population is steadily declining. As Hungarian does not have official status in the region, it is suppressed by the dominant language.

But nowadays we have the technologies of the old science fiction movies at our fingertips, and with the ever more sophisticated translation softwares, it is possible that learning a language, Romanian, Hungarian or even English, will become completely unnecessary in the future.