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The sociolinguistic impact of Brexit - Is there light at the end of the Channel Tunnel?

Yes, we know. Not another mention of the B-word. But this is a different (hopefully more uplifting) take, we promise. We’ve been watching events unfold, pondering what exactly Brexit means for the language industry and the English language in Europe in particular.

As a language service provider, we are particularly interested in the sociolinguistic implications of Brexit. Naturally, the issue of language extends far beyond the confines of our continent, and Brexit will be but a drop in the ocean, linguistically speaking. And yet, you could argue that the UK needs language skills now more than ever, despite the number of language graduates dwindling.

Let’s be franca

With the UK as the only country in the European Union currently listing English as its primary official language (Ireland lists Gaelic and Malta, Maltese), there is potential for English to eventually lose its so-called lingua franca status in favour of French or German, the second and third official EU languages and the next most common 'second languages'. Just ask Jean-Claude Juncker.

Top 4 second languages spoken in the EU

The 2021-2027 EU Budget did indicate translation and interpretation services in the English language will remain unaffected for now, so any effects would be latent. Our tiny island also can’t accept all the credit for the use of English throughout the EU and the world; that almost certainly belongs to North America. Nonetheless, the change signals potential for the languages industry to gear up and help maintain linguistic links between the UK and its European neighbours.

Esperanto a go-go

Flip this theory on its head and we also need to consider the possibility of English (or Global English) going from strength to strength within the EU Member States, albeit unpoliced by British grammar purists. While the trusty in-house translation cogs continue to whir, producing content in a whole array of European languages, we are still faced with the reality of EU delegates continuing to use English as an effective means of day-to-day communication. Perhaps the Brits will eventually have to relinquish their English language ‘guardianship’ to the dawn of a new Euro-English dialect, where grammatical accuracy and language proficiency are subjective. How many EU citizens learn English as a second language just so they can visit Buckingham Palace, after all?

"Anyway, here's Ode to Joy."

Humble pie in the sky

Perhaps we’re also neglecting the wealth of languages outside the EU? The languages industry seems to manage perfectly well outside of the Brexit bubble. Plus, since actively removing ourselves from a powerful club means we are in need of friends in high places, surely meeting them in the linguistic middle is the least we can do to show willing? Enter Japanese or maybe even Mandarin professionals… We’ve been riding the International English wave in the West for too long.

Finally, on a more tangible level, the UK’s departure from the EU will naturally spark the drafting of new laws that will have to be translated into a whole host of target languages. This presents a sizeable hole in the market for private companies to step in and plug. Just think of the frenzy GDPR whipped up!

Overall, we’re hopeful. Barring a reverse Tower of Babel effect, languages will always have an important role to play in international social, political and economic affairs. We’d also like to think that countries in our globalised society won’t double-bolt their doors in favour of isolationism overnight. Perhaps Brexit is simply a much-needed wakeup call to remind us that we shouldn’t rely on la langue de Shakespeare as the linguistic master key.


By Amy Reid, WIT Account Manager


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