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English-Speaking Population Grows, but Not Enough for Brussels

More and more people learn English every year, but fewer and fewer of them are good enough at it to act as interpreters, the European Union's languages tsar lamented Thursday.

A translated document

Some EU states are concerned that English has a negative effect on their own languages

The situation is paradoxical, EU Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban told journalists in Brussels.

"There are more and more people speaking English nowadays, and at the same time it's harder and harder to find people worldwide -- not just in the EU -- who can provide interpretation into or from English," he said.

"The increasing lack of English interpreters ... is an issue the commission is trying to solve, especially by promoting learning foreign languages through lifelong learning."

The question of the predominance of English as a global language is an especially sensitive issue in the EU.

The negative impact of English

The bloc has 23 official languages and 27 members, ranging from English-language states such as Britain and Ireland to countries which are fighting to limit the impact of English on their languages, such as France and Italy.

Flags of the EU nations

EU member states ensure that all documents are translated into their native languages

That situation has led to a surge in translation and interpretation jobs within the EU's institutions, as all press conferences with EU commissioners are meant to be simultaneously interpreted in all 23 languages, and all official documents have to be translated into them.

However, there is a widespread perception across Europe that native English speakers do not bother to learn other languages -- putting the pressure on everyone else to learn English.

Orban was careful to avoid criticizing the education systems in Britain and Ireland, instead highlighting joint projects with the British authorities "to raise the awareness of British citizens on how important it is to study foreign languages."

The EU's official goal is to have every EU citizen capable of holding a conversation in two foreign languages, in order to boost the bloc's economic competitiveness.

According to the EU's statistical office, Eurostat, the average secondary-school pupil in the EU studied 1.4 foreign languages in 2006. Luxembourgers were the most assiduous pupils, learning 2.5 languages each.

The countries where pupils studied the fewest foreign languages (1.0 per pupil) were Ireland and Britain, together with Hungary.

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