EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The English language may be increasingly heard on the streets of Europe but the European commission's interpretation and translation services are facing a serious shortage of English mother-tongue speakers.
This was the message from two senior commission officials on Thursday (19 February) when they addressed reporters as part of a campaign to increase awareness of the situation.
"I can tell you it is a worldwide problem," said Brian Fox of the commission's interpretation directorate, adding that they were also having difficulties hiring interpreters who can translate from German into other languages.
It appears that the increasing use of English as a global lingua franca is directly related to the shortage of native speaking interpreters.
"Everyone speaks English and the corollary of that is that the English don't feel the need to speak anything else," said Mr Fox, adding that there was also a view among native English speakers that they were not good at learning other languages.
"There is no genetic aberration that means they can not learn languages," said Mr Fox, who was critical of the English education system, which allows pupils to drop foreign languages at an early age.
Added to the difficulty of hiring new staff, many native English speakers are soon to retire.
"We are facing this retirement wave because English mother-tongue translators were recruited very early when the UK and Ireland joined the European Communities in the 1970s, meaning that many of our colleagues are now approaching retirement age," said Mr Klaus Meyer-Koeken of the commission's translation directorate.
Compounding the shortage problem is the huge reliance of native English speakers visiting Brussels on English translation.
"Eighty seven per cent of English delegates who attended meetings in the EU institutions listened to English interpretation and listened to nothing else," said Mr Fox, reporting on a commission survey with over 3,000 respondents.
Despite the shortage of native English-language translators and interpreters, Mr Meyer-Koeken said English was increasingly becoming the "common linguistic denominator" in commission daily life, with 75 percent of internal documents printed only in English.
In related news, UNESCO will celebrate International Mother Language Day on Saturday (21 February). As part of the event, it is bringing out a third edition of its "Atlas of World Languages in Danger," which is already available online.
The atlas lists 2,500 world languages that are in danger of becoming extinct. Of the 572 described as critically endangered, around a dozen fall within the borders of the EU.
One such language is Gottscheerish, originally from the Gottschee region in southern Slovenia. Most speakers were resettled during the Second World War, and now live scattered around the world, according to the new atlas.