Saturday, 12 September 2015

English as she is used in Europe

I spent the best part of the day editing articles for our (English-language) magazine. Fifteen all told - two written by myself, the rest by various PR and marketing folk working for our member companies. The standard of written English in use in corporate Poland has improved immensely over the 18 years I've been living and working here.

My gripes about common mistakes are getting fewer and fewer - at least in the rarified world of multinational business. Yet one that I find interesting is the lingering use of US English, long after Poland has joined the EU.

Given the default setting in Microsoft Word is US English (you have to manually set it to UK English in the tools/narzędzie menu, and few bother), I find myself annoyed that PR professionals are happy submitting texts to a British business organisation including words like 'center' , 'defense', 'catalog', 'aluminum' and 'labor'. The '-ize' / '-ise' debate rumbles on with Oxford-educated purists siding with Americans in favour of 'standardization across the organization', while Cambridge University goes along with the majority of Britons, Australians, New Zealanders and Irish (and me) in sticking with the '-ise' suffix.

In the tragic event of a Brexit, the EU's default language wouldn't change overnight to German or French (much as both of those nations would like that to happen). It would remain English - though whether it would remain UK English is another matter. Britain's soft power - the power of its version of the English language - would surely wane should it leave the remaining 446 million citizens of the EU.

English is understood by 51% of adults in the EU. (German comes second at 38%.) Across the EU, English is the most widely spoken foreign language in 19 of the 27 member states where it's not an official language. How much of this is the result of BBC and the Beatles, and how much of this Hollywood and Elvis, is a question for future historians. This is where soft power resides - in people's desire to learn a language because they want to embrace the culture - and not because they are forced to do so by an occupier.

In Poland, according to a study conducted by the European Commission's Eurobarometer back in 2012, only 33% of Poles speak English well enough to hold a conversation, yet this is the most-widely spoken foreign language - with German in second place at 19%. But as I wrote last December, the inexorable rise of English as Poland's second language is rocketing ahead. EF Education First, an international education company with Scandinavian roots, conducts a ranking of countries by proficiency in English. Poland came sixth in Europe in last year's ranking. In 2013, Poland was eighth and in 2011, it was 12th. A huge improvement (see Poland's performance in the English Proficiency Index here).

Back in 1990 as Poland was in the throes of political and economic transformation, it was clear that the days of Russian as the principal foreign language were over. There were many Russian teachers and few English teachers. A vacuum for soft power emerged. The French came in, with publishing houses, language schools and literary institutes setting up across newly-free Central Europe with the aid of French taxpayers' money - to no avail. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Lithuanians, Latvians and in particular Estonians wanted English. English, English, English.

It was the enterprising Americans who spotted the opportunity rather than the stuffy, insular, risk-averse Brits. The first wave of English speakers in Poland mostly spoke with an American accent as a result. They learned to say 'sidewalk', 'elevator', 'wrench' rather than 'pavement', 'lift' or 'spanner'. But then in 2004 Poland joined the EU, and since then the influence of US English has been on the wane, as UK English has rapidly stepped in to take its place. Poles wanting to polish their English are far more likely to seek a native speaker of UK English for conversation classes than US English.

The presence of a million Poles in the UK, where Polish is officially the second-most widely used language after English, makes the cultural ties between the two countries far stronger than between the US and Poland. Outside the US Embassy on Warsaw's ul. Piękna, queues of Poles trying to get a visa have shortened dramatically. Why bother going through the humiliation of an interview to enter the US when the UK is only two hours away by plane and totally hassle-free when it comes to finding employment?

I do fear for what would happen should the UK leave the European Union. It would undoubtedly result in the final fragmentation of the United Kingdom as the Scots - and probably later the Welsh too - would up sticks, say farewell to the Monarchy and rejoin the EU. A small, discontented England would wither in global influence, unable to stem the outflow of investment capital to destinations within the world's largest and wealthiest economic bloc.

And on the continent of Europe, English would remain the default second language, but would become tinged with an increasing number of Americanisms.

This time last year:
Where asphalt's needed - Nowy Podolszyn to Zgorzala

This time six years ago:
I cycle to work along the cyclepath along ul. Rosoła

This time seven years ago:
First apple (today, the same tree groans with fruit)

This time eight years ago:
Late summer spiders webs


dr Marcin said...

Poles wanting to polish their English are far more likely to seek a native speaker of UK English for conversation classes than US English.

That's why I greet ya like

Howdy Mike!

and not gonna tell ya any "Hello!" instead of just "howdy!" obviously and purposely addin' "a dude".

Didn't ya forget about the so called "the Brussels English", that's in a common use mostly by the Polish governmental bureaucrats? That's specific sort of English, as ya have to translate it first to yours kind of English (be it the UK, the US, whateva) and then, if you're a Pole, to Polish. There doesn't exist of any straightforward direction from Brussels English to Polish.

Endin' in the US manner,
Best rgds,

:) :) ;0

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Dr Marcin

Indeed - "Brussels English" is a fascinating subject. Numerous false friends from different languages change the meaning of English words. A good example is the verb 'to control'. In UK and US English it means 'to exercise influence over; to suggest or dictate the behavior of'. In Brussels English, it means 'to check', 'to monitor', coming from the French 'controller' - synonymous with the Polish 'kontrolować'.

There's more where that came from! The UK should stand on guard of the English language in Brussels too!

student SGH said...

I only wonder why corporate Poland makes do with its workforce's English - Polish white collars do get and put their messages across, yet their English could be brushed up on. Employers do not offer any incentive to their employees to strive for mastery in English - something I used to do on my own when I had more time. These days an employee with general English on FCE level and good command of terminology essential in their work is actually as valuable as an employee whose fluency in English is comparable to native speakers. As I strive to set the highest standards in terms of use of English, I would love to see this appreciated by someone else than native speakers (few and far between in the New Factory these days).

Bob said...

Michael - I beg to differ with you. It is in fact American English that should be used. It is after all a refinement and improvement over that Olde English. :)

haply we shouldst teacheth corky english

dr Marcin said...

Think, that in the US most of the EU directives might be applicable just because of English language? No kiddin' Truly, unfeasible....