In European Parliament, debate – in 21 languages – can be pricey

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Tis true, what the English bard wrote: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

But it might also be more expensive – at least, if the European Parliament has anything to say about it.

With 21 official languages, the right of Europe's representatives to debate the finer points of horticultural gems – or anything else – in their mother tongue can cost EU taxpayers as much as 118,000 euros per day.

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That seemed a bit excessive, and Finnish go-getter Alexander Stubb was intent on doing something about it. So a year ago the 30-something parliamentarian – whose website (offered in five languages) features him doing push-ups in a T-shirt and jeans – set out to investigate how the Strasbourg, France-based lawmaking body could cut down on costs.

Little did he expect to hit such philosophical resistance.

"I've always been aware that language is a sensitive issue," says Mr. Stubb, whose first report on the issue met severe criticism. "But it smacked me really hard how fundamental the question really is."

His final, toned-down report – passed unanimously last week by Parliament – took pains to emphasize the importance of multilingualism as a form of cultural diversity, a value Stubb readily supports.

But it also noted that interpretation costs for parliament could be reduced to 8,900 euros per day if only three languages were used.

That tantalizing savings may never happen, however, says Stubb, because refraining from speaking one's native language is seen by many as devaluing it.

He knows a Spanish member of Parliament, for example, who speaks English and French fluently but uses only Spanish in parliamentary sessions. There would be "public slaughter in the Spanish media, and second, a letter and a warning from his party headquarters" if he were to use any other language, Stubb explains.

Perhaps none are more keen to preserve their language's status than the French, whose austere Académie Française has stood sentry at the gate of linguistic purity for centuries.

But language is not merely a matter of nationalistic tendencies, says Gérard Salem, a professor at the University of Paris X in Nanterre.

"The question of language is political, ideological, and economic," says Professor Salem, just returning from a scientific conference in Geneva where he felt at a disadvantage having to present in English. But not only does the language of his British and American colleagues dominate his field; their modes of thinking and reasoning do, too. That can negatively impact the career tracks of researchers such as himself, who work from a different frame of reference. "It's a question of power being at stake."

Stubb has also found that the language he is speaking affects how he is received. "[W]hen I'm speaking English, people actually listen. I don't see many eyes glossing over," says the Finn.

But if all parliamentarians were to communicate in English, it could deprive the EU body of some rare humorous moments.

"There's one legendary story," says Stubb, "that a minister was speaking his mother tongue (Finnish) and telling a joke. The interpreter in the booth said, "The minister is telling a joke right now and I don't understand it, but I'd really appreciate it if you could laugh ... now."

Those cues can backfire sometimes though, he says, given the slight delay in the (nearly) simultaneous interpretation.

The worst, says Stubb, "is when you tell a joke and then you say, 'and now more seriously ...' and everyone starts to laugh."

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