The European Union has 24 official languages. However, running an office in 24 different languages would be mad. For ease of business, the EU has 3 so-called ‘working languages’: these are English, French and German.
Employees of the EU Institutions are expected to know at least one, and preferably two, of these. Anybody applying to work at the Commission, for example, has to fulfil the following language criteria:
- (1) You must be fluent in one of the 24 official EU languages.
- (2) You must also be more-or-less fluent in one of the 3 working languages (EN, FR, DE)
(In my own case, my language (1) is English, and my language (2) is German.)
Does this mean that meetings will be held in a mix of all 3 working languages? Can you ask questions to strangers in German? No. You cannot.
Wo ist die Toilette?
It’s no great secret that the main working language of the Commission is English. From my experience here, the 3 languages are used as follows:
- English is used 90% of the time.
- French is used 10% of the time.
- German is used 0% of the time.
German is used by Germans talking to other Germans.*
Last Man Standing
So far, in my 12 months at the Commission, I’ve cruised along without ever really having to speak any French at all. It’s true that French is the social language in some departments. For meetings and official business, however, everything has always been in English.
Or so it was…until now!
Recently, due to staff turnover, the linguistic makeup of my team has become increasingly French-heavy. It was with a creeping sense of horror that I looked around the table at a recent team meeting and realised that I was the only colleague left in the department who was not fluent in French. And so the nightmare began.
Over the past weeks there have been more meetings in French, emails in French, ‘brainstorming sessions’ in French. All this is very frustrating when you are meant to be taking the minutes.
I don’t know what this means for my career prospects. Maybe I’ll just send round the minutes in German next time and see what happens. What could go wrong?
Or, I guess, I could learn French.