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Poorly Outsourced

Photograph by Sebastien Le Derout

Before you start reading, I would like to mention that this post was originally made for a course I am following at FASoS: After Babel. The assignment was about the impact of Brexit on language policy within the EU, however, that is not the most salient issue in my opinion. I believe that it is important for this information to reach more people because it is important to understand what the EU is doing in some of its day-to-day dealings.


For the moment, the United Kingdom is still a part of the European Union, however this doesn’t make the topic of language any less interesting in the EU. On the contrary, there is more than enough to discuss even without bringing Brexit into the picture. Consider the ‘working languages’ of the EU: English, French, and German. Then you have the ‘official languages’, which comprise of all the official languages of the EU countries, quite a few to say the least. There should be no surprise that the EU looks at language through an almost perverse lens.

On the most visible level there is obvious competition between the three working languages, as De Swaan (2007) shows. The French wish to reinstate the importance of their language. Their hold on Strasbourg reflects this. Which country would want to give up their political power in face of an EU which seems all-powerful? For the Germans it seems to be about the sheer number of people who speak the language. 90 million people should not have to be forced to adopt a new language. But how does English fit in here? Only a small island nation speaks it natively (on the continent) and its pronunciation and orthography are not the easiest to learn (consider the -ough words). The reason English is so prominent is because of how it spread as a language of commerce and of education. The number of non-native speakers is large than of any language. In 2005 47% of Europeans spoke English as a second language, 15% more than those who also speak German (Van Els, 2005).

However, the problem goes further than the working languages. Even though most people in the EU speak those languages to some extent, often enough their level is inadequate for professional use. The EU is getting lost in translation, dumbing down important subjects, and giving unconvincing arguments because they want to be understood in as few languages as possible. What else are they supposed to do? Hire more translators? Sadly, this is not truly a viable option. De Swaan (2007) shows that the 110 translators needed when the EU had only 15 members was already unmanageable, let alone the amount needed for a Union nearly double that size. There are simply not enough interpreters, especially for ‘smaller’ languages which have less than 20 million speakers. The same goes for language teachers. It is close to impossible to get everyone working in the European Institutions to follow courses besides their everyday work and the moving between Brussels and Strasbourg.

That is not to say that the EU doesn’t try to pursue the idea of having more translators and teachers. Employees are encouraged through bonuses to learn a language at B2 level. However, again this is an insufficient level for professional purposes and, in some case, languages are only learnt for the money. There is another problem connected to language teaching within the EU. Besides security, it is the only service which is outsourced. While this is budget friendly for the EU, it had some dire consequences for the other end.

One of these consequences is that the EU sets a budget for language teachers which is given to the CLL, a language centre the EU uses. While not a big problem in and of itself, this combination with how employment is regulated results in poorly paid teachers. They are required to list themselves as self-employed, meaning that the teachers have no way of negotiating payment or their contracts. Similarly, there is little to no room for complaints as their contracts are fickle. With this you would the money they receive from working full-time (or even longer) would make this job worthwhile. However, it is not enough to completely support themselves, while not leaving enough time in the week to do a second job. For single parents this makes living very difficult. With one or more children to support along sides themselves this job does not support well enough with employees of the European Commission walk away with a large bonus. Sadly, none of this is illegal. Considering both Belgian and EU law, this type of employment remains legal. But only just.

When this is the type of policy employed to hire language teachers, it does not surprise me that an agreeable language policy for the EU cannot be agreed upon. It is as though the EU does not wish to solve their language problems. My suggestion would first be to help the situation of the language teachers, before trying to decide which languages to speak when and how. Having a solid basis of instruction would be more beneficial, especially when working and official languages need to be learned. Simply by lowering the bonuses, more money can already be freed to improve language teaching. The budget is there, all that needs to change is the mentality.

For the original blog post please click here

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