European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker walks past the Union Jack as he arrives at an EU summit in Brussels. Photo: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker walks past the Union Jack as he arrives at an EU summit in Brussels. Photo: Reuters/Christian Hartmann

Just how valid was European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s statement that “slowly but surely, English is losing its importance in Europe”? There are 24 official languages in the European Union because each member state’s language has to be accorded parity. Making every allowance for the multilingual skills of many Europeans – a talent markedly absent among the British – does this mean that they all require instantaneous translators so that they can communicate with one another?

Or, according to their individual skills, do they tend to converse in the lingua franca, English?

Much though the French would love to arrange it, there is no prospect of French becoming the primary medium of communication, any more than German. According such unacceptable preference to either or even both of these languages would only consolidate their pre-eminence among their fellow members.

In all probability, Spanish is the next most commonly spoken language in the world simply because of all those South American countries – excluding Brazil and a couple of smaller states – but there is no way that the industrious Northern Europeans would play second fiddle to a member of the mañana countries of the Mediterranean.

That being the case, the Luxembourger Monsieur Juncker, who doubtless speaks French, German and English, is likely to discover that his prognosis is defective.

Given Mistress Mediocrity May’s iron resolution, the United Kingdom will most probably abandon membership of the EU but the EU cannot abandon the use of English. Quite apart from its own members, in what language pray does Herr Juncker propose to communicate with the rest of the world?

True it is that there is little if any point in talking to Donald Trump in English or any known adult language for that matter, since as Professor Higgins put it so succinctly, “In America they haven’t spoken it for years.”

Yet setting aside the idiosyncrasies of what laughingly passes for English in the United States, they do speak a dialect of our common tongue, which constitutes a more workable medium of communication than say, Finno-Ugric or Turkic.

Indubitably, President Xi Jinping will have an interpreter for any foreign language but the choice of any of the EU’s 24 languages in preference to the others will not sit well with the losing 23. So, even if Juncker embarks on a crash course in Putonghua, the exchange still has to be translated.

Aside from a handful of France’s ex-colonies in Africa, the lingua franca of that vast continent is unquestionably English. However, if the EU wants to abandon Africa to China, perhaps this is of no import.

Then we have to ponder how the Junckerlings will cope with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where English is a unifying medium among myriad languages and regional dialects.

India’s practical solution to its diverse ethnic and linguistic population is to communicate in English. A brief visit to any of the major Law Courts throughout India will swiftly disabuse the likes of Juncker of his tiny-minded aversion to the utility of the English language.

He would undergo a similarly deflating experience were he to visit Singapore or Malaysia.

Relations between the EU and the Philippines, pace its Spanish colonial heritage, would be singularly impaired if conducted in Walloon.

Despite the best efforts of Sir Les Patterson and Dame Edna Everidge, Australians and New Zealanders have pushed the vocal/aural sounds of the English language to its comprehendible limits, but any attempt to converse in Czech, Estonian or any of the remaining 22 languages will doubtless prompt a sheep shearer’s farewell, Mate!

All of which brings me to the lamentable status of the English language in Hong Kong, a place that describes itself as “Asia’s World City”. Article 9 of the Basic Law stipulates that English may also be used as the official language. But if you want a job in government you will have to speak Cantonese, and read and write Chinese.

A thoroughly depressing experience would be listening to most of the members of the Legislative Council reading their speeches in Cantonese. As what these mediocrities have to say is not worth listening to in any event, this is no great loss. But government spokespeople are often barely comprehensible in English; even Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying recently said that all visitors to Hong Kong have to have a work visa. Whether or not he meant to say that we cannot tell because none of his flunkies bothered to query it.

It is a crashing embarrassment to have people make unfavorable comparisons with Singapore’s English-language skills.

The use of English in the Hong Kong law courts is declining despite the fact that this is a common-law jurisdiction and the judicial decisions of the common-law countries, all of which are recorded in English, comprise the fount of legal wisdom into which judges and lawyers dip in the course of legal argument.

This deliberate subordination of the English language diminishes Hong Kong’s international standing not least because it runs against the financial world’s adoption of English for most public- and private-sector contracts and financial instruments.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU was uninformed, mindlessly parochial,  blindly nationalistic and a grave self-inflicted wound. But the subordination of English in almost every international context would deserve Othello’s indictment of himself as being like “the base Indian, threw a pearl away. Richer than all his tribe.”

Returning to Juncker’s statement, given in the course of his speech in French, to a Florentine Italian audience, it was – surprise, surprise – in English.

Neville Sarony

Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.

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