The ubiquity of English is starting to demand the attention of European local governments to formalize its status

European cities are starting to recognize English as an official language

European cities are starting to recognize English as an official language

In increasingly multi-cultural environments, the 21st-century lingua franca is hard to ignore

It is often the case that public administrations tend to lag behind the dynamic developments happening in the outside world. Globalization, for example, has been an ever-increasing phenomenon expressed daily in a myriad of activities and symbolics. One of its side effects is that it has made English the most commonly used language for people from all corners of the world and in virtually all walks of life.

And it’s not just used when travelling. Many European cities have welcomed throngs of newcomers due to the freedom of movement in the European Union, which has brought in skilled workforce. Migrants, however, have also trickled in from far more distant corners and conflicts have made refugee waves an increasingly common occurrence in recent years.

As a result, local authorities ever more often have to deal with people who do not speak the national language of the country they’ve recently arrived in. Learning a new language and integration are processes that can take time, yet administrative procedures need to be expedient.

Urban partnership network Eurocities, however, has found out that some European cities had decided to recognize the reality on the ground and have turned to formalising the status of the English language in public communication.

The EU capital is taking steps in that direction

Despite Brexit, the use of English has not ebbed from the territory of the European Union. In fact, Brussels, which is considered the capital city of the bloc, seems to be becoming more and more Anglophone.

That is hardly surprising given that the main EU institutions and an ecosystem of companies, embassies and associations around them are located there. Estimates show that one-third of the labour force in the city is non-Belgian. Many of the foreign residents are more likely to have better fluency in English rather than in the official French or Flemish languages.

The Brussels capital region even has a minister for the promotion of multilingualism. His name is Sven Gatz and he explained that the use of English in municipal services in the Belgian metropolis had already been formalised by some of the municipalities “via a decree,” making the use of English officially permitted. Amsterdam is a city where certain services and information are provided in English, so Brussels, as the acting European capital, could not fall behind.

Gatz, as quoted by Eurocities, believes that “this will happen more and more in the big cities characterised by internationalization. Brussels can be a pioneer in the field of multilingualism, and it is important that (multilingual) cities and regions continue to exchange ideas.”

Does English pose a threat to native languages?

The Brussels region has attracted very highly-educated workers from all parts of Europe, and it is no surprise that many of them consider speaking English to be a necessary skill in order to navigate modern life smoothly. Still, not everyone is welcoming this shift with open arms and it is only natural that some local residents might feel uneasy about it.

It is understandable that this phenomenon could be considered threatening to other languages, in Belgium’s case to French and Dutch. But it need not be so. English is now, once and for all, a world language which can be used to communicate with the rest of the world,” explains Gatz.

Likewise, there is another view that posits that since English is already the most widely used language internationally, it cannot be seen as discriminatory since it doesn’t necessarily favour a particular language community. In the municipality of Schaarbeek (also in the Brussels region), the most represented non-native communities are Bulgarians and Romanians, yet English has been formalized as a way to provide services to the maximum number of newcomers.

The mayor of Helsinki, Juhana Vartiainen, is also toying with the idea of making English official in his city since the fairly difficult challenge of learning Finnish is pushing away many tech-skilled workers from settling there. The mayor pointed out several times in an interview with a local newspaper that it’s a decision between having someone doing a job speaking only English or no one performing the job at all.

In other words, closing the door to English might simply mean closing the door to prosperity and economic development in an age where cities are legitimate rivals in the labour market.



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