The talk in Europe: English is la mode

When newly elected German Chancellor Gerhard Schrder met French President Jacques Chirac last month for a hasty summit, how did they communicate? In English.

When the Swiss engineering giant Brown Boveri merged with its Swedish rival ASEA, which language did they choose as their new international company's official tongue? English.

And when a Spanish soccer player takes a free kick, how is this described by the local TV commentator? "Un fri-qui."

The language of Shakespeare - though not always in a form the Bard would recognize - has swept through Europe's streets, around its ministries, and into boardrooms with such force that it has become the region's strongest bonding element. And this on a continent where nobody actually speaks English as a mother tongue.

So many business transactions, so many pop songs, so many technical innovations start their lives in English-speaking countries - notably the United States - that English has become the global European language par excellence.

Different countries have reacted in different ways to this invasion of a foreign tongue. But for teenage "clubbeuses" at Paris rave parties and directors of the European Central Bank alike, "English is the lingua franca, and everybody has to learn to speak it," says Sigrid Schpper-Grabe, a German researcher into language use.

And learning it they are: In Germany, English classes are compulsory from age 11. In France, where they are not compulsory, 90 percent of schoolchildren take them anyway. In Sweden, 96 percent of young people say they can speak enough English to hold a conversation, according to a study carried out for the 15-member European Union last year.

Adults are learning too: Overall, another EU study found, 49 percent of Europeans speak conversational English, though that figure drops to just 15 percent for those over 55. And young people do not always speak the sort of English of which their teachers would approve (see box below).

English words are common in young Germans' conversation, for example, but "the English they use is not what English people speak. It is stupid English," scoffs Florian Hauswiessner, a law student in Frankfurt. "They don't think about the meaning." He wonders, for example, how many native English speakers could figure out that a "handy" is a mobile phone in German parlance.

Mr. Hauswiessner's elders, too, scatter their speech with Anglicisms; in a brief speech recently, for example, Klaus Kinkel, then foreign minister, preferred the English word "newcomers" to any German word for Germany's new trade competitors in the third world, and talked of "airstrikes" against the Serbs, not luftangriffe.

"Sometimes you feel forced to talk in English because so much of the new German vocabulary is English," complains Silke Larsen, who runs the language training program for the German pharmaceutical company Hoechst.

The trend has gone too far for some: Larding your speech with too many English words is regarded as pretentious in Germany now, says Ms. Schpper-Grabe, who conducted a study of language use in German business for the German Economy Institute.

But Germans seem generally relaxed about the influx of English on advertising billboards, on television, and in their conversation. In fact, they seem fearful that any aggressive effort to maintain the purity of their language might be seen as showing undue national consciousness.

This is not a concern widely shared among French officials, who have long been waging a vigilant battle against "Anglo-Saxon" encroachment into their language. A law forbids the use of English advertising slogans, for example, unless they are also translated into French.

This means, for example, that the Paris Metro is currently plastered with ads for Sony's new miniaturized camcorder, reading "SONY CAMESCOPE XXSMALL" in giant script. In the bottom left-hand corner, in lettering almost too small to read, is an explanatory footnote: "trs, trs petit."

But the language police cannot control daily conversational French, which has long been peppered with words in Franglais. The French refer to "le fairplay" when they are talking about decent behavior, and consult their "planning" when they check their diary.

As everywhere in Europe, computers and information technology have been among the most powerful vectors of English, which is by far the most commonly used language on the Web (or "oueb" as it is sometimes called in France.)

Inventions in this field have not been been translated easily. "Software" is a universal word, and there is no way to click on a computer mouse except "anklicken" in German, "cliquer" in French, or "cliquear" in Spanish.

In Spain, another country where language-pride runs deep, "there is not a big problem of opposition to English, but people are certainly sensitive to the unnecessary use of English and Anglicisms," says linguist Jose Antonio Millan in Barcelona.

Neologisms are not rejected out of hand: The Academia Real, guardian of the Spanish language, recently approved "escaner" as the Spanish way of saying "scanner," for example, and Dr. Millan believes the use of English words in Spanish conversation is actually dropping off. "The fashion has changed," he says.

BUT not in business. "If you want to do business, you have to speak English," he says, echoing an appreciation shared across the Continent. "You might be dealing with Russians, or with Germans, but you will be speaking in English."

As business goes global, so does the language of business. It is hard to find a European multinational where English is not the official corporate language. At Alcatel, for example, the French telecommunications company, "English is the official language at Paris headquarters and around the world," says spokesman Christophe Lachnitt.

With English reaching so deeply into ordinary Europeans' lives, language purists say they face an uphill struggle. "We are not fighting against English, but for the Latin languages," insists Anabelle Colomb of the Paris-based Latin Union. "But we have been doing it since [our founding in] 1954, and it is a long job."

WHAT'S THAT AGAIN?

* With English words and Anglicisms becoming ever more common in Europe, English speakers may find it easier to get the gist of conversations. Popular terms include:

ein handy - mobile phone (Germany).

teenies - adolescents, teenagers (Germany).

gecancelt - cancelled (Germany).

cool - cool (in use everywhere in Europe). This word is so thoroughly accepted that even Le Monde uses it without inverted commas or italics.

scotch - glued to, (France) as in scotch a la tl, glued to the television. From Scotch tape.

schmoozer - In teenage slang (France), a verb meaning to be extremely sociable out of ulterior motives.

cederron - CD-ROM (Spain). The term is officially approved by the Royal Academy, guardian of the purity of the Spanish language.

footing - jogging (Spain and France).

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