What does it mean when your interlocutor refuses to use the only language you both have in common? Is it a (repeated) oversight? Forgetfulness? Something else?
Why on earth would anyone do this on purpose? They wouldn’t, right?
Regardless of the motivation, it’s awkward, isn’t it, being spoken at in a language you don’t understand, especially when you know you have a language in common and you’ve asked several times to use it.
Such behaviour shuts down interaction, limits the chances of achieving any positive outcome and wastes time and energy, why do it?
Now imagine that same situation with two groups trying to negotiate something … it’s no longer just awkward: the repercussions of not understanding or not being able to participate fully in the debate are enormous for those affected by the outcome!
And now on to the real-life case study
During the recent Interpreters’ Delegation (ID) general assembly (GA) (online) of DG Interpretation (SCIC), it quickly emerged that the ID and the Brussels Local Staff Committee (LSC/CLP) were in conflict about election rules. SCIC staff unanimously supported the ID and the LSC ultimately backed down … but had already blundered in insisting on using French (FR) throughout the meeting and in later communication targeted at interpreters, in spite of repeated requests to use English (EN), a language all staff understand.
You might think, ‘why the heck not, French is an official Commission working language and interpreters, more than anyone, should know it, especially staff members living in Brussels!’ You might think that and be forgiven – but not if you are the LSC chair, who should know better and who was specifically asked to use English as a lingua franca since, of the GA target population of 469  interpreters, 44 (9%) of colleagues do not have FR.
Not many? It depends. The problem is not nationality neutral. Specifically, while only 2% (6 out of 329) of staff from 14 of the original EU-15 Member States (‘EU14’) have no FR, a huge 27% (38 out of 140) of staff from the 13 Member States that joined post 2004 (‘EU13’) don’t have FR. So certain staff representatives insisting on using FR results in them excluding a large part of SCIC EU13 interpreters from the conversation, making EU13 interpreters much less able to make their voice heard, to ensure that their “representatives” actually represent them and to hold those representatives to account.
While FR has traditionally been the language of choice for many LSC members, there is a reason why the ID has mostly used English, at least since the Big Bang enlargement of 2004. It may not be obvious, but not all SCIC interpreters speak FR – for perfectly justifiable, work-related reasons.
With 23 official languages (plus occasionally Irish, Basque, Catalan and non-EU languages at high-level meetings), it is impossible to always provide direct translation for every combination, such as from Estonian (ET) into Maltese (MT) and vice versa. Therefore, SCIC uses a system of so-called relay languages:
- English (EN)-French (FR)-German (DE)
- Spanish (ES)-Italian (IT)-Netherlands (NL)-Portuguese (PT).
These languages are like airport hubs: for example, an ET interpreter works into EN (providing the relay) and the MT colleague then translates from EN into MT.
Uniquely within the Commission, interpreters are divided into units according to their mother tongue. And for the system to work, colleagues within a unit must not all have the same language combinations, otherwise they would be unable to help one another. DG SCIC maintains official statistics of interpreter language combinations. A lingua franca is useful, of course, and that place is already occupied by EN. Hence, many colleagues are asked to learn languages other than FR.
“The art of communication is the language of leadership” (James Humes).
As usual, we are always glad to hear from you or to see your comments below!
 Those who are not managers.