Nick Burchell of Clear Voice says that Brexit presents big challenges but the Brits do carry a linguistic trump card

The historic vote to leave the EU on 23 June has presented Britain’s civil servants and business community with the unprecedented task of ‘resetting’ the UK’s trading relationships with the rest of the world.

David Davis is busy recruiting people with the appropriate skills and experience to staff his ‘Brexit unit,’ now rejoicing under the rather less racy title of the Department for Exiting the European Union. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for International Trade and President of the Board of Trade, Liam Fox, is scouring Brussels, Westminster and the UK’s universities for suitable trade policy experts to do our bidding on the world stage.

Forging good relations and trade links with markets across the globe has never been so important and overcoming all the language and cultural obstacles that this includes will present an important challenge to the interpreters and translators at the sharp end of negotiations.

Fortunately, the UK possesses one trump card that historically has not been available to other trading nations seeking to open up new markets.

In the past, when trade, exploration or science brought people from different countries together, they needed a lingua franca. That’s a generic term for a bridge language used to make communication possible between people who do not share a native language or dialect. Literally ‘language of the Franks’ in Late Latin, the original Lingua Franca was used by Genoese and Venetian trading colonies in the eastern Mediterranean from about the year 1,000AD.

Two widely-used bridge languages are classical Latin and Greek. Latin was the official language of the church for centuries and remains at the heart of Catholic ceremony long after anyone speaks it as a native language.

Meanwhile, in the days when ideas and theories were shared through correspondence, scientists embraced Greek and Latin as languages that would allow them to communicate in detail, whatever their backgrounds. Biologists, zoologists and cosmologists also employed Greek and Latin to name and classify their discoveries, a process which continues to this day.

A successful modern attempt to create a universal bridge language is Esperanto. Its name derives from Doktoro Esperanto (Esperanto translates as ‘one who hopes’), the pseudonym under which physician and linguist L.L. Zamenhof published the first book detailing Esperanto, in 1887.

Zamenhof was born in a town in Eastern Europe where four separate communities spoke Russian, Polish, German and Yiddish and seldom mixed. He was inspired by this disharmony and division to create an easy-to-learn, politically neutral language that would transcend nationality and foster peace and understanding. Today, Esperanto is the most widely-spoken constructed language in the world, with about two million speakers.

Of course, our trade negotiators won’t be approaching their international counterparts speaking Frankish, Greek, Latin or Esperanto. That’s because they are lucky enough to be native speakers of the most popular lingua franca currently in use – English.

When the French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted that “English cannot be the third working language of the European parliament” soon after the Brexit vote, few pragmatists in Europe took him seriously. He was making the point that the only remaining native speakers of English in the bloc would be the five million citizens of the Republic of Ireland, representing just 1 per cent of the EU population.

That sounds fair enough but what he didn’t mention was the large number of MEPs and bureaucrats who have English as a second language.

In a survey of all 27 member states in 2012, the ‘Special Eurobarometer on Europeans and their Languages,’ investigators found that (excluding the UK and Ireland) 38 per cent of people spoke English well enough to have a conversation, compared with 12 per cent for French and 11 per cent for German. The report also found that 67 per cent of Europeans considered English the most useful foreign language, compared with 17 per cent for German and 16 per cent for French. Consequently, 79 per cent said they wanted their children to learn English at school.

The picture is repeated outside Europe. Internationally, people who speak English as a second language outnumber native English speakers by 2:1. The British Council estimates that some English is spoken or understood by one in four people worldwide. That doesn’t necessarily mean a lean time for the UK’s interpreters and translators. Even if use of English opens the door to trade deals, the detailed, specialist vocabulary required to draw up a contract will require more advanced language skills.

Acquiring those skills is big business. Huge sums have been invested in English teaching by both national governments and private enterprise, and use of English is highly-valued by the educated middle classes in fast-growing economies such as Brazil, Turkey and India. China now has more English speakers than the entire population of the USA, and industry experts estimate the global English language learning market could be worth nearly £150 billion by 2017.

However, as native Latin speakers discovered, the world can quickly change given sufficiently large political and cultural developments. Who knows if Mandarin, Spanish or Hindi will supplant English as the lingua franca of the future?

And, even if English continues to dominate, there is one place where there is no chance of running into anyone who speaks our native tongue. As we turn our telescopes towards distant stars, the next challenge is to develop a form of communication that might be understood by alien intelligences, possibly one without words as we know them.

Early attempts at interstellar communication by the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence have included symbols, diagrams, sound files, mathematical languages and pictorial systems. If they succeed, they will have created the most far-flung bridge language of all, a lingua franca for the stars.

Back on earth, the team at Clear Voice Interpreters and Translation is always available to bridge the language gap whenever it gets in the way. So, if you are an alien struggling to cut a deal or it is proving difficult to ‘phone home,’ we can help.


Clear Voice offers high-quality interpreter and translation services and is the only not-for-profit service of its kind operating throughout the UK. The company was established by the charity Migrant Help, which fights human trafficking and supports migrants in need; all of Clear Voice’s profits go directly to the charity.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has demonstrated clear links between English-language disadvantage and social exclusion and deprivation. Ironically, those who most need to draw on the services of education, health, legal and social welfare professionals and officials may be least able to do this because of language difficulties.

Clear Voice believes it is important that everyone can be understood and is able to communicate effectively when they access services that have a major impact on their lives and wellbeing.

By encouraging recruitment from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups and giving profits to charity, Clear Voice is the ethical choice for organisations in need of interpreting and translation services. www.clearvoice.org.uk


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