Communities and Culture

Brexit and Language: What future for English and for the Minority Languages of the UK?

The future of English and of minority languages in both the EU and the UK post Brexit needs to be more at the forefront of public debate assert Professor Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost and Dr Matteo Bonotti. Arguing that Brexit is likely to have profound implications for languages in the EU and the UK, they claim that urgent and careful attention by both academics and policy-makers is needed to ensure that the legal framework and public policy norms that have guided the EU and the UK’s approach to linguistic diversity doesn’t get derailed.

In October 2016 Michael Barnier, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator, suggested that the forthcoming Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU should be conducted in French, his native language.

Barnier’s proposal was met with mixed reactions, with some embracing the line of argument  that English should no longer be one of the EU’s official languages in a post-Brexit EU and others, including the British Prime Minister Theresa May, challenging this proposal.

More recently, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated that ‘English is losing importance’.

However, despite these occasional statements, which reflect the growing diplomatic row between the EU and the UK,  language has so far not been at the forefront of the public and academic debate on Brexit.

This is problematic since Brexit is likely to have profound implications for languages in the EU and the UK.  More specifically, Brexit is likely to re-shape the legal framework and public policy norms that have guided the EU and the UK’s approach to linguistic diversity since the Treaty on European Union came into force in 1993.

With regard to the EU dimension, it should be noted that since 1993 English has become the most commonly used language in the EU institutions. However, rather than challenging this situation, as Barnier’s proposal suggests, Brexit in fact strengthens the moral philosophical case for promoting English as the lingua franca of the EU.

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU means that there will only be a small minority of native English speakers in a post-Brexit EU (around 1 per cent of the overall EU population), mainly to be found among Irish and Maltese citizens. This will reduce the Anglocentric features normally associated with the English language, and will de facto render English a more neutral language of communication than other European languages such as French or German.

English, in other words, could become a ‘new Esperanto’ for EU citizens and policy-makers.

When it comes to the UK dimension, the constitutional transformations subsequent to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, along with the current government’s commitment to also withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, enhances the case for the de jure recognition of English as the official language of the UK.

To understand why this is the case, it should be remembered that one of the effects of the evolution of the UK’s constitution post-devolution has been to declare as official in statute law both the Welsh language in Wales (Welsh Language [Wales] Measure 2011; National Assembly for Wales [Official Languages] Act 2012) and Scottish Gaelic in Scotland (Gaelic Language [Scotland] Act 2005).

English does not enjoy such status; this is seen as a feature that is ‘missing’ from the UK’s constitution. Brexit therefore opens up new scenarios in this area and reinforces the arguments in favour of the de jure recognition of English as the official language of the UK.

What’s more, Brexit is likely to have serious implications for autochthonous, or in other words indigenous minority languages in the UK.

The effect of the UK’s membership of the EU and, in particular, the agenda of deepening institutional integration initiated by the Maastricht Treaty (the Treaty on European Union 1992), was to cause the sub-state nationalisms of the UK to find ideological fellow-travellers in the context of the so-called ‘Europe of the regions’.

Their activism thus retained the vocabulary of rights while also addressing itself to the European linguistic patrimony more broadly, whether in terms of the idea of official and working language or of the notion of EU linguistic citizenship.

Brexit de-anchors the linguistic actors engaged with sub-state nationalisms in the UK (in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland) from this imaginary and opens up a radical space for re-orientation.

In addition, the UK’s withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and potentially, of the European Court of Human Rights, means that there is likely to be greater pressure on recognising autochthonous minority language rights and freedoms in a transformed UK constitution, since the speakers of these de jure official languages, for example, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, would no longer have access to international court remedy.

The loss of a European legal context also has potential consequences for the Irish language in Northern Ireland, whose status is provided for under treaty, laws and statutory agreements made between the UK, the Republic of Ireland and other political actors in Northern Ireland  itself. Part of the political tension regarding Irish in Northern Ireland is that it is both autochthonous and allochthonous. We argue that in the context of Brexit an Irish Language Act for NI becomes imperative.

Finally, Brexit is likely to have important implications for speakers of allochthonous minority languages, the languages of immigrants, especially with regard to English language requirements for citizenship and asylum applications, the provision of translation and interpreting services for immigrants in public services and official settings, and language learning provision in primary and secondary education.

All these issues require urgent and careful attention by both academics and policy-makers.

This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Welsh Brexit blog, nor Cardiff University.

Professor Diarmait Mac Giolla Chríost is based in the School of Welsh and is a member of the School’s Research Unit on Language, Policy and Planning.

Dr Matteo Bonotti is Lecturer in Political Theory in the School of Law and Politics.

A version of this Blog was originally published on The Conversation.


  • Gareth Roberts

    A minor point, perhaps, but the status of Welsh and Scottish Gaelic is not quite as similar as is implied. Welsh is now de jure official in Wales, but the Gaelic language act only gave Gaelic “equal respect” (whatever that might mean).

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