The Jean Monnet Working Papers > 2009 Jean Monnet Papers


Author: Stephan Sberro

Title: Could - and should - English win the "language war" in regional integration? NAFTA and EU experience


Whereas the linguistic governance of the European Union and its institutions is the object of a heated political debate, there is no such problem yet in North America. This disregard for a “linguistic balance of power” is likely to be temporary. In the case of a deepening in North American Integration such a political debate is bound to emerge. In such case the experience of the ongoing debate in Europe could be invaluable.

It is a highly political as well as a highly technical debate which has not much to do with purely linguistic considerations and more with political ones. Although it is often considered as inevitable, choosing English as the only regional communication language in Europe or North America is neither neutral nor costless.

To frame these discussions, the notion of “soft power” was developed both in the United States and in Europe, although with different approaches. As theorized by Joseph Nye, “soft power” describes the ability of a State to influence directly or indirectly the behaviour or the interests of other actors through cultural or ideological means.

These ideas are an adaptation in International Relations of A. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony where dominant ideas are particularly powerful because they are assumed as implicit aspects of a more explicit ideology. It is also related to P. Bourdieu’s ideas about the symbolic value and thus domination of one particular language over others, based on misrecognition (méconnaissance).

To us, language is the most concrete, measurable and should we say scientific way to observe the diffusion of soft power. In this regard, the main focus will be made in three languages that can still be an instrument of power in international relations: English, Spanish and French.

Is a regional linguistic regime desirable and possible in North America? Is the European linguistic policy successful and is it a useful reference? These are the questions we shall consider in this article.

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Last updated on December 13th, 2005