When I was recently in a process of move of numerous boxes and other items from my studio to a storage, I was reminded of an issue, nowadays almost forgotten or nearly so, that of the common language for European Economic Union. Two out of the three helpers moving my items spoke only one of the South European languages that I had no communications skills in conversing. Impact of such linguistic difference became apparent when I tried to give direct instructions to them, for example, on where to find or place objects, and had to wait for return of their manager and then for him to translate the message into their native language. This obviously caused some delays in the time-constrained process whilst I was paying their hourly rate to be used for waiting and translating ad-hoc instruction, adding cost and time to the process and making it less less productive each time an instruction was needed.

Whilst operations of routine work may be more efficient midst language differences when once given instruction may be repeated many times, in mission-critical and time-constrained logistic operations, such differences may be rather inefficient if not detrimental for operations. International or multicultural organisations, or army forces, usually opt for one or a very small number of acceptable languages. NATO for example officially has two: French and English. EU has three, German being the third, but other languages of EU countries are used for most documents to be translated into and communicated to national institutions. This translation process is similarly both costly and time consuming, reducing efficiency of both, political and economic decision making.

When the US acquired its independence and autonomous statehood, English language founds its way into becoming de-facto single official language for both, political and economic communications and discussion. Any appearance of democratic decision on which language will be the chosen one, is just an urban myth. Any attempt to introduce, other languages, such as Spanish in California in 1990s was rejected as potentially detrimental for the future of, mainly Latin-American children not fully educated in English as their main language despite their official policy of supporting and defending multi-lingualism and minority-language education in other, foreign multicultural countries, thus, effectively, advertently or inadvertently, protecting efficiency of their own inner markets whilst undermining that of the other, foreign multi-cultural countries. Thomas Piketty's recent book Can we save Europe [1] poses the same question as its theme for a series of short articles. None of them however raised the question of the above economically detrimental impact of the linguistic pluralism across European Union.

When discussions about common language for EU were revived in rather turbulent 1990s, just ahead of the introduction of Euro, the seminal book by Umberto Eco, Search for the perfect language [2] in European Culture, provided a detailed historical overview of various, usually perceived as unsuccessful attempts to create perfect, universal but artificial languages, and, a sounding board, an inevitable reference point for any future discussion on that subject. Its conclusion was that perfect language for Europe does not exist and can not be found so that translation among the existing languages is the best solution. And such solution remained the EU policy till nowadays.

Perhaps it is best for literature and personal matters but it my not be economically optimal solution: In his more recent book Say almost the same thing [3] – Eco points to difficulties of translation in this study of ideas often lost in translation and aims to replace traditional translation by a more “faith-full” interpretation as a negotiation between two (or more) cultures and worlds. And, however that may be a perfect solution, it will be rather difficult to spend all the time required for such perfection in everyday business environments or mission-critical situations.

Whilst invention of a completely new language is most likely a futile exercise, adoption of one of existing, popular or easy to learn one may be more optional solution, Such selection may not require or impose loss and sentencing to an oblivion the existent ones, it is likely to be just a common, official second language whist still maintaining sufficient support for the local use of the native regional ones, not unlikely the use of English in India beside the many of its regional native ones.

Question is however, which of European languages are the best candidates. Many European and world-wide international/multinational organisation already made their choice to use English as their common, internal official language. Is that optimal choice for the whole Europe too?

Lets for now focus only on the two most spoken official languages, English and French. French is difficult to learn but widely spread in the international community. English, even more spread and, according to many, easier to learn, seems like an obvious candidate. Being recently exposed to numerous parallel French-English publications or public notices , I noticed that the English versions of the French texts are usually about 15-20% shorter, thus 15-20% quicker to both, write and read, thus, more efficient as a mean of communication in a written form.

It may be a gross simplification to say that it also means it may take about 15-20% less computer disk storage or old-style paper space or time to send across electronic communication lines – or, in short, that it is about 20 % cheaper and cost/time-efficient to use English than French. And of course, that making or communicating a mission, life or investment trade critical decision may on average take 20% time longer. On the other hand, the precise truth may not be very far from that and that the same decisions to be reached or communicated in the same time or space, they are likely to be less precise when made in French. Hence, there is likely to be a higher level of so called rational inattention for such decision to take place in the same time /space window. For an example ESMA's [4] document outlining new MiFID 2 financial markets regulations takes 37,539 words and 242,767 characters for its English, and 42,152 (that is, 12% more) words and 281,682 (16% more) characters for its French version. The French copy of the text MS Word documents was nearly 2 times larger in its size (and the relevant disk space) than for the English version.

It is however not all that bad as it may sound. Whilst the parsimony of English add to its well known ambiguity, redundancy of French helps reduce possible ambiguity and misunderstanding. Also, the spoken French makes-up for that difference a bit by concatenating many syllables which my make it even shorter to pronounce than English sentences. On the other hand, that reverses its advantage along the dimension of dis-ambiguity and also adds to difficulty in its learning, adding inefficiency to its learning process too. However, many would argue that it is exactly that apparent redundancy relative to English that gives French its richness of its expression sometimes lacking in English.

Of course, the aim of this text is not to provide ultimate answer but to just initiate a further discussion and, only in long term, a solution if that may be possible. And, of course whatever foreign language may be intended to be enforced as a common though a second language only, many of populist national political parties or pressure groups are likely to reject its imposition in the educational systems of their countries, even if just as a second language. Passing over the Pont des Arts in Paris recently, I encountered a group of the US tourists on their bicycle-augmented tour around the city sites. Their tourist-guide was vividly explaining: “on this side of the bridge is Academie Francaise – its main function is to stop English words getting into French.”

Considering that legendary Tower of Babel became a synonym for confusion (end also dooming inefficiency) caused by multi-lingualism, I would therefore urge EU leaders to revisit this issue and, at least, start a discussion aiming at its further rationalisation. However, it becomes apparent that the issue multi-lingualism in EU is, in good part, just another side of the coin of EUs further political and social integration... or its dis-integration.

[1] Peut-on sauver l'Europe?
[2] La recherche de la langua parfaite, Seuil, Paris 1994, original: La ricerca della lingua perfetta, Laterza, Roma
[3] Dire Presque la meme chose, Grasset, Paris 2006, original: Dire quasi la stessa cosa, Bompiani, Milano, 2003
[4] European Securities Markets Authority