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1 There are many examples of the damage done by the imposition of a de facto hegemony of the English language within the European Union (EU). (Hagège 2012; Oustinoff 2008). To a large extent, this imposition comes from the absence of a linguistic policy at this level of government, as has been discussed elsewhere (Kraus 2008; Barbier 2008, 2013, 2015a). In this article, we will confine ourselves to two examples, deliberately selected from two very different linguistic experiences. The first concerns ordinary citizens of the EU who, because they mostly lack competence in English, are essentially excluded from the workings of European politics and policy, where matters are conducted in English. The resulting phenomena of exclusion highlight the contrast between “elites” [1] who speak and understand English and ordinary citizens (Barbier 2015b). These “elites” are not aware that by choosing to forget the question of language equality in the functioning of European politics, they are contributing to the growth of what they describe as populism. This is an indisputable fact that can be identified by looking at certain aspects of political sociology relating to the EU nations. The second example, conversely, involves people who are in principle, dare I say, “members of the elite”: researchers working in the social sciences. It might be assumed that English language skills are widespread in this field, since they are included in evaluation criteria. However, this is not the case at all: functionality in the English language remains very rudimentary and limited (in very broad terms, at present nearly one in five knowledge-based professionals in the EU has no understanding of English at all, and more than eight out of ten do not speak it well or fluently; see table 1 below). While in sociology, for example, the dominant use of English creates a hegemony of academic journals in American and British English, it comes at the price of lower quality research. This will be illustrated by observations drawn from the sociologist’s experience at an international level.

2 Consequently, contrary to the optimistic view of those such as Philippe Van Parijs (2011, 2012) who favor the expansion of English as the universal language of humankind, not only does the prevailing use of English cause direct damage in its capacity as a single language of politics within the transnational mechanisms of the EU, but it is also harmful for research in the social sciences, since it inhibits the potential for researchers to reach their defining goal, famously described in the teaching of Max Weber as knowing how to objectify truth.

European citizens affected by language inequality: A major problem ignored by decision makers

3 In the EU, it has been shown that there is a disconnect between citizens and legislation, despite the assertion of theoretically equal linguistic rights (Barbier 2016). But it goes further than that: with English now the de facto language of European politics, there is a major and growing divide, within each nation and at the heart of the EU itself, between those who speak English and everyone else (for a detailed study, see Barbier 2015a). Because statistics for the linguistic competence of European citizens are rare and of dubious quality (Jostes 2007), an “optimistic” doxa has taken root in the EU, according to which English is spoken by most citizens and will gradually become the EU’s “lingua franca” (Van Parijs 2011, 2012). But this assumption is incorrect. In particular, Kjær and Adamo (2011) have shown that the present situation excludes access for individuals to European law written in English, just as it also excludes them from the possibility of participating fully, using English, in political activity. It has been estimated, in general terms, that only 6 percent of the European population is capable of speaking English competently and fluently (Piron 1994). [2] This is far removed from the figures based on the cursory criteria contained in the measures governing Eurobarometer surveys. Despite yielding comparable figures on a European level, these surveys suffer from a limiting factor, because they are based on (a) self-declaration of linguistic competence and (b) self-made assumptions about the capacity to “have a conversation.” [3] The surveys published in 2006 and 2012 [4] indicate that the two contexts in which respondents profess an understanding of a “second” language (in the vast majority of cases English) are “during holidays abroad” and “watching films on television or listening to the radio.” Understanding material “on the internet” is the third most frequent context, along with conversations “with friends” or “at work, face to face or on the telephone.” None of these situations is specified in advance: the findings emerge from the aggregated responses. In any event, none of these contexts permits a rigorous evaluation of actual competence. Moreover, the people surveyed are not asked about the quality of their competence. Even with this patent lack of precision, in 2012 only 38 percent of European citizens were able to hold a conversation—allowing for Eurobarometer’s failure to define the term—in English (and 54 percent similarly to hold a conversation in any second language, the main one being English). The situation in the EU today is therefore as follows: on the basis of information that has not been properly evaluated, it seems that 38 percent of European citizens manage to get through basic tasks in their day-to-day lives by speaking a little English or something that might pass for English. This means that even on Eurobarometer’s “optimistic” basis of evaluation (which clearly reflects the Commission’s own impulse toward self-justification), six out of ten Europeans are excluded from access to English.

4 The European Commission published further figures in 2007 and 2011, generated by the Adult Education Survey (AES) produced by the statistical office, Eurostat. Despite being similarly based on self-evaluation, these figures are more robust, as the survey participants were asked to rate themselves in one of three categories: “proficient,” “good,” or “fair/basic.” [5] The 2007 results show that only 13.3 percent of Europeans regard themselves as “proficient”; if they are grouped together with those who rate themselves as “good” the figure goes up to 30 percent. These statistics apply to the working age population (ages 25-64) and inflate the overall figure because older people are less competent in foreign languages. In all, on the basis of self-evaluation without any real control factors, less than one European in three is able to process simple situations in English. We are therefore very far from being able to consider English as a “lingua franca”: it certainly holds such status within the tiny world of the professional and university elites, but that is all—and barely so. From the point of view of linguistic rights, however, since in practice English prevails and this situation is not being remedied, equal linguistic rights for European citizens look like a promise that hasn’t been kept and remain entirely theoretical. As has been demonstrated (Gazzola 2014; Barbier 2015a), this situation means that European citizens cannot be thought to experience equality in the exercise of their political rights. A few further details are available concerning the difference between countries and social strata. In terms of jobs, even if foreign language skills generally coincide with levels of education, it should not be assumed that all those who are highly qualified are uniformly competent in English. This is shown in the table below, using data from studies by Michele Gazzola (2014), who has calculated the rate of exclusion from English using the AES statistics mentioned above. Gazzola applies “rate of absolute exclusion” to the section of the population that neither understands nor speaks English at all. If we take into account only those who speak and understand English very well and those who have it as their first language, the remainder are described as “relatively” excluded. This is obviously a much higher proportion.

Table 1 – Rates of exclusion from English language skills in the European Union based on levels of qualification, age and income, in a “monolingual” regime (if English were the EU’s official language)

%, AES, 2011,
source: Gazzola, 2014
Rate of absolute exclusionRate of relative exclusion
Whole European Union 4981
Ages 55-64 6382
Ages 25-343779
(income) top quintile 29N/A
(income) bottom quintile 60N/A
Highest level of education 19N/A
Lowest level of education 89N/A
Knowledge-based professions 1660
Managers 3566
Employees/manual workers with few qualifications 6986
Financial sector 1259

Table 1 – Rates of exclusion from English language skills in the European Union based on levels of qualification, age and income, in a “monolingual” regime (if English were the EU’s official language)

5 On the European transnational level, it remains true that one European in two is absolutely excluded from English, and in “knowledge-based professions” just under one in five. The most discriminatory factor is the level of education, as shown in table 1: amongst the least educated, such as agricultural workers, nearly nine in ten are excluded. Given that it is essential to speak a language very well in order to contribute to political life, column 2 of the table shows that this is only the case for a minute proportion of the European population (one European out of five). Table 2 shows the immense range of variations between EU member states.

Table 2 –  Rate of exclusion within the population (monolingual regime = English as the official language)

%, AES, 2011
source: Gazzola, 2014
Rate of absolute exclusionRate of relative exclusion
United Kingdom13

Table 2 –  Rate of exclusion within the population (monolingual regime = English as the official language)

6 In the EU, only the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries have high scores for competence in English. Anyone who has worked in one of these countries knows very well that the level considered as “excellent” there cannot be equated with a level of very good English that consists of both an orthodox accent (standard English) and significant competence in syntax and grammar. They are nevertheless the only Europeans who could be considered capable of understanding the language of politics at a European transnational level. There is an in-depth sociological study to be done, moreover, on the link between exclusion from English and political choices, but it has been shown (Barbier 2015a) that at the very least there is a close relationship between supporting a party considered to be of the extreme right and having characteristics typical of those who are excluded from English. For example, the voters and supporters of France’s National Front and the Danish People’s Party belong to the groups that are least at ease in English in their respective countries.

7 All in all, not only has the EU failed to implement the principle of language equality, but only a minority of European citizens is capable of speaking English well enough to participate in political life. One could be forgiven for thinking that this situation is only a matter of concern for the least qualified citizens and that those with higher qualifications get along perfectly well in English. The next example, which concerns researchers, demonstrates that this hypothesis is false.

Working only in English prevents researchers in the social sciences from understanding the reality of the political environment they are studying

8 In this next example, we are no longer concerned with the ability of citizens to participate in European politics. We are concerned instead with the dominance of English within an elite category: social scientists. I have described, in several publications, the situation in those circles where international research is carried out in the EU, based on my intimate knowledge of such environments, which must be frequented for occupational reasons: having a presence in these “international research settings” (Barbier 2005) generally gives access to dialogue with the most well-known laboratories, to competition for international collective contracts and to the most respected publications. Of course, the general complexion of these professional settings is not comparable with the experience of most citizens in the associated countries. Nevertheless, huge inequalities can be observed between them: people from Latin Europe, for example—Spain, Italy, France, Portugal— and colleagues in Central Europe, regularly experience difficulties with the use of English for arranging and managing contracts, but also with its standard use in conferences and scientific exchanges. All these difficulties are understated because teams that are not naturally Anglophone (non-native speakers) ensure that they are represented by colleagues who have the best English, thus ceding leadership to native speakers. Just as there is a statutory obligation for senior officials in the European Commission to be competent in languages, and high-level multilingual competence can certainly be noted amongst them, a similar situation applies, de facto, to those leading research in the social sciences. Yet attendance at the usual conferences and seminars provides evidence that the quality of exchanges in international English is seriously blighted by the limited English skills of most non-native speakers. They all know, especially the young, that they must communicate in English, and they have to get along as best they can. Very few of them are able to write their papers directly in English and many must turn to translators, who have varying degrees of competence. They are therefore very often unable to read the final versions of their own papers before publication. [6] However, the general situation is not likely, as some have suggested, to lead the international milieu of social scientists to use the communication method known as “Globish”: a commercially branded jargon composed of 1,500 words defined as essential and sufficient to enable a business person or tourist to “speak English.” Although it is apparently perfectly possible to conduct business with this tool, it is useless for scholars involved in international research. They need to use a real language, because even when the quality threshold is lowered, it remains the case that seminars and other colloquia can only operate with a coherent language. In effect, we are left with a degraded English that tolerates huge errors of usage, but which is “held together” within the structure imposed by the true native speakers, who are able—because they are always present—to control the whole communication process. It is therefore not Globish that is spoken in international research settings, but rather a kind of international English, similar to and different from Chinese English for example, or South African English, or one of the varieties of Indian English.

9 The biggest problem with this kind of cooperation, which aims to further research but which usually only results in formulae typical of knowledge management and consulting, is that conceptual rigor cannot be maintained without precision in terms of both the discipline and the language. Translation has a very poor image (Sapiro 2014). The practice offers innumerable examples of concepts that are not translatable, carrying the potential for damaging ambiguities (Hagège 2012): the concept of rapport salarial has no real equivalent in English—although “wage-earner nexus” can perhaps be considered the nearest—, not least because in modern English the notion of a salarié (literally, wage earner) is no longer relevant and has been replaced by the term “employee,” which creates confusion with the notion of “worker.” The notion expressed by the French word domination is thrown into an impossible equivalence with the German Herrschaft (Barbier 2015c), setting important sociological traditions against each other. Still more frequently, words relating to policy, in their accepted sense in current English, are surreptitiously thrust upon sociologists. Instead of concentrating on their job—first and foremost developing concepts—sociologists have become ventriloquists, copying the apparently English words spoken by their political masters and trying to make something of them in order to satisfy those masters. Here I will focus on just one example: the term “workfare,” invented by Richard Nixon (actually by his speechwriter, the journalist William Safire). In 1969, the Republican president announced on television “what America needs now is not more welfare but more ‘workfare’.” From then on, the word “workfare” became an ideological totem in the United States. Next it was introduced into the specialist social science lexicon throughout most of Europe, even though sociologists on the ground had shown that policy in the United States, during Clinton’s presidency, had very little to do with policy in France, Germany or Scandinavia in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, in an Anglophone environment—the United Kingdom— the word “workfare” failed to gain traction in the language of politics: the Conservatives were hostile to it because they feared the state becoming an employer of last resort. [7] The last Conservative government of the 1990s, under John Major, experimented with the idea but it was New Labour, inspired in particular by the Wisconsin initiatives, that in 1997 launched “welfare-to-work” rather than “workfare” programs (known as New Deal, these were at first aimed at young people under twenty-five and then gradually extended). [8] Such nuances are clearly incomprehensible to non-native speakers restricted to communicating only in English.

10 It seems to me that the word “workfare” typifies the damage attached to the depressing and unavoidable fact, regularly observed, that the quality of scientific dialogue has been radically reduced by the influence of English as a standard communication tool. Some sociologists and historians who are non-native speakers still cling to the hope, in 2016, that the native speakers, forced to listen at length to colleagues lifelessly reading papers covering some semblance of sociology or history in execrable English, will come around to the idea of learning a new international language: European or International English. This is a completely unrealistic hope, because although it is true that there is plenty of good will in the field, what counts is the force majeure of international competition. Here, altruistic intentions cannot stand in the way of the massive advantage enjoyed by those whose native or habitually spoken language is English. This is clearly demonstrated by the recruitment of English teachers in India, where native speakers from the UK are still preferred today over Indians speaking excellent English. On the basis of experience, it is hard not to be very skeptical about the likelihood of a moment arising when native speakers are told they must learn “international English.” Apart from the tiny majority making an effort for ethical reasons, that is not what happens in the scientific forums where the disciplines are showcased. On the contrary, in these settings, the native speakers and those who speak very good English (standard English/English as a foreign language) are those who set the tone and are the most sought after—that is to say a proportion that stands at less than 7 percent of Europeans, as calculated by François Grin (2005) and Michele Gazzola (2006, 2014). This phenomenon also extends to countries such as India and South Africa, where native speakers are in demand even though educated Indians and South Africans are perfectly bilingual (in their regional language and Indian English for example, or Afrikaans and South African English). Theories such as the one developed by Abram de Swaan (Bourdieu et al. 2001), who spearheaded the project to “de-anglicize English” (Barbier 2008) have never come to fruition. On the other hand, it has already been shown (see the studies of Nicholas Ostler, 2010) that the globalized linguistic world is made up of several kinds of English; one international English is not enough. It is possible to identify, alongside Chinese English, Indian English and so on, a European English (Barbier 2015a). It is this European English that is spoken by participants in the forums discussed here. It has its own particular characteristics, which might mildly annoy the native speakers, but this does not get in the way of them enjoying considerable advantages in their language use.

11 In previous work (Barbier 2013), I have proposed that a careful distinction should be made between English formulations (in European English or International English) and translations, appropriations, “nationalizations,” or “domestications,” as they would be described by Umberto Eco (2003) and others. Whoever handles texts in several languages produced by international organizations—whether historical texts (for example the International Labour Organization: see the studies by Sandrine Kott) or contemporary texts produced in the context of the EU—comes up against this phenomenon: there are always differences between a translated text and more specialized texts that are expected to function as equivalents in each of the translated languages but which in the end are sometimes very imperfect equivalents. The present survey shows that this applies to papers in European English that circulate in the various forums and arenas, including legal texts. On this last point, I have shown that in any case one of the basic requirements in EU law is that translation be kept apart from the national languages used in their respective laws (Barbier 2016). In the study of existing forums, a very precise distinction must therefore be made between two types of text: those that contain binding law and the rest. For the former, the difference between EU law and national laws is closely calibrated by the lawyer-linguists, [9] but at the same time the text is regarded as having authentic status in any of the languages covered by the EU treaty. For all other texts, and they are the vast majority of the forums’ output, the documents are not strictly binding, and here there is a flexible relationship between discourse regarded as consensual (for example a frequently loose consensus regarding a political statement, sufficient to produce some minimal action) and the translation, which is in any event really more of an adaptation in the target language, for example French. These observations can be made by any sociologist or political scientist working routinely in an international environment. They are important in order to understand what is going on today in agreements and debates, in the contentious issues and range of solutions that emerge in European English, and in the gaps which may be identified, using suitable methods, between texts recording agreement and the implementation of programs envisaged by such agreements, for example in the field of social welfare.


13 Lessons must be learnt about the shortcomings of English, in the sense that it claims a status as sole international language, in the challenging work of research.

14 It transpires that EU citizens are unhappy with the Union, seeing it as distant and undemocratic. The EU’s policy makers now almost always use European English (Barbier 2016). It is not surprising that this linguistic practice increases disenfranchisement from the EU. While researchers in the social sciences are expected to understand how European societies function, nationally and transnationally, they are prevented from freely using the idiom they learnt as part of their education and they are judged, ignominiously, in terms of the global language, that “world language” extolled by UK prime minister Gordon Brown in 2007, while he congratulated himself on his country’s commercial and financial successes. The EU’s current situation cannot of course be explained by linguistic factors only, but it is nevertheless directly linked to a disdain for language diversity on the part of the ruling elites, who ignore the fact that their citizens do not understand what they are being told in English, and ignore the multilingual professionals in the social sciences who would be able to apprise them of the impasses they are blundering into. In terms of hierarchy, the most important among them are the EU judges, but they have never understood what is at stake when it comes to diversity of language (Mancini 2000).


  • [1]
    In sociology and political science, the term “elite” has no normative connotation. It refers simply to the higher social strata, effectively the decision-makers in politics, culture etc.
  • [2]
    It must be acknowledged that this estimate is a little out of date. It rests on two articles from the end of the 1980s: one by Udo van de Sandt in a Lintas Worldwide survey (1989) and the other by Mark Fettes (1991), who cites van de Sandt. Fettes, discussing the conflict between Esperanto and English, uses the figure of 6% to describe “truly correct comprehension” and adds “other languages are presumably doing less well, and the figures for active competence would be still lower.”
  • [3]
    Eurobarometer question 48a is: “Which languages do you speak well enough in order to be able to have a conversation, excluding your mother tongue?”
  • [4]
    Curiously, the European Commission allocates very few funds to surveys addressing linguistic competence: six years separate the 2006 and 2012 surveys and the first survey was carried out in 2001. The Commission’s most recent survey was “Europeans and their Languages” (June 2012, EB 386), preceded in 2006 by special survey EB243 and in 2001 by EB 54. The 2001, 2006 and 2012 surveys are all available on-line at:
  • [5]
    Although they are specified, these categories are approximate: a) “proficient” means the capacity to understand and produce a large variety of challenging texts and to use the language flexibly; b) “good” signals the capacity to describe events and experiences relatively fluently and to produce simple texts; c) “fair/basic” refers to the capacity to understand and use the most common and everyday expressions in familiar situations.
  • [6]
    In social sciences, we have not yet arrived at the point of standardization customary in medicine, but it is perfectly possible that similar developments may transpire. In medicine, articles go through a process of standardization before being published, including translation into English by specialists.
  • [7]
    The Conservatives were opposed to “the nationalization of jobs” (The Economist, August 3, 1996).
  • [8]
    The Independent, like other newspapers, presented these new reforms as “workfare with dignity” (see, for example, the edition of September 25, 1996).
  • [9]
    This obviously includes the text of treaties, directives and so on.

There are many examples of the damage done by the imposition of a de facto hegemony of the English language within the European Union. To a large extent, this imposition comes from a lack of linguistic policy at this level of government. This article considers two examples involving very distinct linguistic experiences: the first concerns ordinary citizens in the European Union who, because they mostly lack competence in English, are essentially excluded from the workings of European politics and policy, where matters are conducted in English. The resulting phenomena of exclusion point up the contrast between “elites” who speak and understand English and ordinary citizens who do not. These “elites” are not aware that by choosing to forget the question of language equality in the functioning of European politics, they are contributing to the growth of what they describe as populism. The second example, conversely, concerns researchers working in the social sciences. It might be assumed that English language skills are widespread in this field since they are included in evaluation criteria. However, this is not the case at all: functionality in the English language remains very rudimentary and limited (as it stands, nearly one in five knowledge-based professionals in the European Union has no understanding of English at all, and four out of ten do not speak it well or fluently). While in sociology, for example, the dominant use of English creates a hegemony of academic journals in American and British English, it comes at the price of lower quality research.


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Jean-Claude Barbier
Sociologist Jean-Claude Barbier is emeritus Research Director at CNRS [French National Center for Scientific Research], at the Sorbonne Economic Centre (University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne). A specialist in European integration, his research interests include the central role of languages in political communities, and language politics in the European Union. His recent publications include The Road to Social Europe, A Contemporary Approach to Political Cultures and Diversity in Europe (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013).
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