EU to English Speakers: Put Your Mouth Where the Money Is | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 19.02.2009
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EU to English Speakers: Put Your Mouth Where the Money Is

The European Union wants native English speakers to put their mouths where the money is: translation work. The bloc, which has 23 official languages, is sending out an urgent YouTube plea for more English translators.

EU and EU member state flags

The EU prides itself on how multi-lingual it is

So many people in Europe now speak English as a second language that native English speakers have all but given up on learning other tongues.

The result is that the European Union is finding it harder and harder to find staff to interpret at meetings and translate official documents into English, just at the moment when it needs them most.

"On the one hand, English is the language which is most in demand for translation and interpretation, but on the other, fewer and fewer English speakers are learning other languages," European Commission languages spokesman Pietro Petrucci told DPA news agency.

On Thursday, Feb. 19, the commission -- the EU's executive -- sent out a call via YouTube for native English speakers to learn more foreign languages so that they can then find a job translating or interpreting in Brussels.

23 official languages

An artists rendering of the Tower of Babel

One explanation for our diverse languages is explained by the tale of the Tower of Babel

The EU prides itself on its use of languages. At the last count, the bloc had 23 official tongues, with more in the pipeline as countries such as Croatia and possibly Iceland queue up to join.

But in most of its new member states -- the majority of which are in central and eastern Europe, with strong ties to the United States -- English is by the far the most widely spoken foreign language.

That has made English the EU's most-used language both in meetings and for writing official texts, Petrucci said.

According to commission figures, 45 percent of EU documents were drafted in English in 1997 -- but by 2006, two years after the EU's biggest enlargement, the proportion had climbed to 72 percent.

In the same year, commission experts translated over 175,000 pages of official texts into English -- the highest number of translations into any EU language, three times as many pages as were translated into major languages such as Spanish or Italian.

Filling the vacancies

Irish lanugage dictionarys

Irish is just one of many official EU languages

But now the commission fears that it is about to run out of English linguists. According to Petrucci, one third of the organization's 70 full-time English interpreters, and one in five of its 111 translators, are set to retire in the next decade -- leaving it facing a major recruitment challenge.

The challenge is all the greater because Britain and Ireland are notoriously the least enthusiastic linguists in the EU -- leaving the commission an ever-decreasing pool of talent in which to trawl.

According to the EU's statistics service, 60 percent of Irish school graduates and 35 percent of British ones studied French in their final years at school, while just 18 percent in Ireland and 13 percent in Britain studied German in 2006. By comparison, 94 percent of German students, and 99 percent of French ones, studied English.

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Screenshot from a YouTube video

The EU hopes its YouTube video will bring in English speakers

The commission's answer on Thursday is to launch a video, "Interpreting for Europe -- into English," on YouTube and official Web sites in Britain and Ireland.

Its stated aim is to convince European children that "language study can be important for a future career and that the (EU) institutions offer a variety of jobs for excellent linguists."

But the key challenge will be to convince British and Irish school children that it is worth learning another language at a time when English is already the world's dominant tongue.

And given that, according to EU figures, some 85 percent of all school children elsewhere in Europe are now learning English, the commission will have its work cut out if it wants to get young native English speakers to put their mouths where the money is.

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