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Ursula von der Leyen’s speech shows English still dominates

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Tim King writes POLITICO‘s Brussels Sketch.   

The British have departed, but their language grows ever more dominant in European Union circles. Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech was an unabashed declaration that English now reigns supreme among the 24 languages of the European Union.

Von der Leyen used three languages in her speech: in order of appearance, French, English and German. So far, so normal: Those three are the traditional internal working languages of the European Commission. Her presidential predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker also used those three languages in his annual State of the European Union speeches. What was striking about the 2020 version was that any pretense of balance between the languages was abandoned.

Measuring von der Leyen’s speech by its wordcount, 81 percent was in English, 12 percent in German and just 7 percent in French.

Put another way: She spoke in French for 80 seconds at the beginning of her speech and for two and a half minutes at the end; she spoke in German for nine and a half minutes in the middle; and she spoke in English for 63 minutes — two chunks of half an hour on either side of the German section. By this measure, taking into account the time lost to applause, English actually took up even more of her speech — approaching 85 percent — because she reads German (her mother tongue) more fluently than English.

The plurality of languages is one of the things that makes the European Parliament distinctively different from the Commission and the Council of the EU.

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