Speaking in tongues

Brussels wants to reach out to the citizens of Europe. That's why we're talking a lot about communication these days. There is even a white paper on the subject. It all boils down to language, really.

In Sweden, a provocative professor of Polish origin raised hell when he insisted in a book that we should get rid of Swedish and just speak English. I guess he hasn't been listening to many debates in Brussels lately where the thing to do is to speak mediocre English. Good English is a rare commodity, so why not use the interpreters we're lucky enough to have around?

A couple of examples: at a conference (on communication, mind you) last week, some very interesting ideas were floated, mostly from the audience. The language was English, the violated kind we all speak as a second language. This meeting wasn't an informal affair. It was a big do, with hundreds of keen listeners, a lectern for the speakers and microphones.

Interpretation was only into English and French, which was unfortunate because a few pearls probably got lost as we struggled to understand the true meaning of an Italian question in perverted English. A decisive step towards better communication is to use interpreters. I would have appreciated interpretation at this seminar on communication.

At a press conference a couple of weeks ago, Commission President J.M. Barroso and Commissioner Günther Verheugen presented the Commission's plan to kick Europe's competitive butt into gear. The gentlemen spoke mostly English. It was partly intelligible, partly incomprehensible. Their English may be fluent, but the flow isn't English, if you see what I mean. Barroso also answered questions in other languages, and he is, no doubt, a great linguist – but not as good as interpreters.

Both spoke very quickly and with strong accents. It was, in the end, very tiresome for my little ears. The topic, the Lisbon process, can't be said to shine like a button and usually needs some bright spots to keep listeners concentrated. It doesn't help that it's stuffed with American-sounding management terms – enough to turn you deaf at the best of times.

Why don't you use the professionals, I thought. All the interpreter booths were full, and these language supremos were busy interpreting away into Greek, Lithuanian, Swedish and what have you. But hardly anyone used the headphones because we, sort of, all know our English.

Don't misunderstand me: I understand spoken English. But it's not my first language, and I have great respect for it as a very difficult language to learn, speak and understand properly. To get a message across correctly and not babble away is difficult.

The dullest Brit usually out-performs outstanding speakers from other countries it the conference language is English. We've become used to conversing in mediocre English merely because we all live with the misconception that we know proper English. If there's no interpretation, then you have to make do with what you have, but many stick to English even when there is interpretation because they think it's the internationally minded thing to do so.

I tell you – please avoid English if you have a choice and it's not your mother tongue. If there is interpretation, use the professionals. They're better at it than you and I. You will see faces light up and your audience listen to you in an engaged mode, not the usual heavy-eyelid expression you're used to. The audience will listen to your message more directly in their own languages.

At the Barroso-Verheugen press conference, I did what I've started to do when the interpreters booths are filled: I switched on to the Swedish channel, and this is what I got: A vitaminised, intelligent and dynamic version of the Barroso and Verheugen answers. Suddenly, all the sleep-inducing competitiveness terms were attractively jazzed up in Swedish. Words that really meant something.

Emily von Sydow


Emily von Sydow är EU-skribent, talare på EU-seminarier, författare till två böcker om Sverige och EU (”När Luther kom till Bryssel”, 1999, och ”Från ordförandeskap till utanförskap”, SNS, 2004), samt numera krönikör i Sydsvenska Dagbladet med mera. Artikeln har tidigare publicerats i The Bulletin, Bryssel, den 9/2 2006 och publiceras här med författarens tillåtelse.

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