Bursting the Bubble

A stronger role for German as a working language of the European Commission

31 March 2014 | by

An article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung this week has brought wider attention to an issue that has always been important to me – namely the role of German in the European Institutions. German stands amongst 23 other languages as an official language of the EU. German, owing to being the most spoken native tongue in the Union and a widely spoken second or third language among EU citizens and one of the three Working Languages of the Commission. However, it has continued to lag behind English and French in terms of levels of use. I would like to take this opportunity to speak out in support of German as a working language. Of course, my native language is English, but the multilingual nature of the European institutions has always been a clear and demonstrative symbol of the inclusiveness and linguistic diversity of Europe. Below I will outline the key points which, in my view, make the case that the use of German should be encouraged in a wider institutional setting.

The German language is an official language in Germany, Austria and Luxembourg. There are German speaking communities in Belgium and Italy and other eastern EU Member States, with an estimated total number of speakers numbering 120 million. West Germany and Luxembourg also counted among the  six founding Member States of the European Communities (therefore pre-dating English as an official language). German is a major European language.

The European Commission, the largest EU institution, is a compelling example of a multilingual and multicultural public institution. Working in the common good of a continent composed of a wealth of linguistic backgrounds ranging from  Welsh to Hungarian. Although it is not possible for all linguistic families to be represented as working languages in the Commission in the interests of creating a sustainable working environment, the broad cultural representation of English, French and German forms an representative linguistic portfolio.

Finally, German has an emotional and symbolic role as a “language of Europe”. The horrors of fascism and national socialism, acutely felt in the German speaking world, were the ultimate catalyst of European integration. Unique among all European countries, German (and Germany) existed simultaneously on either side of the iron curtain, making German a language representing the former communist Member States of the EU. Whereas Auschwitz was the spark which united the European project, the fall of the Berlin Wall and unification of Europe in 2004 demonstrate a European future – from horror to joy, German remains a fortuitous language in Europe.

Of course, this is an opinion piece. I understand that lovers of Spanish note Spanish’s position as a leading world language, or that Poles could argue there the lack of a Slavic language in the institutions, etc. Indeed, those views are not wrong. Achieving a workable administrative solution in a Union with 24 official languages will never be easy. But for me, German possesses the numbers, geographical scope and shared destiny, to be worth equality with English and French.

Of course, German is not without fault, I am reminded of that wonderful Mark Twain quote “I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.”. Aber, wir können das doch schaffen…


  1. I understand that the Officially language of England is still French(Norman Conquest) So what happened to French? and why did the bastard language now called English replace it? The majority ruled!!

    German is the sister language of English and English has approximately 4000 French words in its everyday use. This is why the British have many ways, using similar nowns, adverbs and adjectives, to say the same thing.

    If the Germans, French, British and Spanish had worked together years ago then we would have a single European and perhaps global language. Perhaps their is still time!!

    As it is, English is expanding at a rapid rate incorporating words globally and will definitely become the defacto language here in Asia due to the USA. Australian and old colonial connections(India, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia. Hong Kong and more and the need to trade. The Chinese are learning English at an amazing rate!!
    And if would like to hear English spoken well, Don’t go to Birmingham, Just talk to a graduate from a major Chinese University.

    Gavin Dyer (Australia)

    • Being from Liverpool, I would be careful to be too harsh on Birmingham!

      A single European language is an interesting idea. But for all my belief in European integration and the EU, linguistic diversity is one of our greatest assets (although, I receive bills in a mix of German, English, French and Dutch).

      Great to hear a prospective from Australia/Asia!

      Thanks for commenting.

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