How to deal with multilingualism in a cross-border environment

Since 2012, I have been working on the convergence of two big university excellence projects (at the Universities of the Basque Country in Spain and Bordeaux in France) into one euro-regional cross-border campus of excellence.

Universities are very large and complex organizations with very complex governance models and, therefore, very different ways of approaching any topic. In other words, dealing with the convergence, requires many perspectives and certainly a lot of patience.

This enormous project poses some challenges from a communications point of view, and one of those is, obviously, the language(s).

Basque, French and Spanish

There are three official languages here: French in the French region of Aquitaine, and Spanish and Basque in the Spanish Basque Country. English is also recognized as an exchange and scientific language in a university environment, although not everybody is proficient enough to deal with it in a daily work context.

In Aquitaine, Basque is a minor language, as is Occitan. Many Spanish researchers can speak French, while many French researchers can speak Spanish. This ‘many’ makes the difference; many means not all. Thus, all official documents must be produced in the three languages and in English, the unofficial official language. The meetings and workshops are conducted, depending on the knowledge area, in a multilingual setting. However there is a tendency to produce any support material in English and to designate it as a unifying language. But, having this idiomatic richness in the region, one wonders, why English?

Translations are expensive

Though only about 30% of the Basque population uses the Basque language on a daily basis, strict laws concerning the language are enforced to maintain the use of the Basque language for official communications. This means that Basque must be used not only for documents and press releases issued by public institutions, but also for all internet and social media dissemination. Public institutions have translation services but they usually are overwhelmed and frequently outsource translations for urgent papers, resulting in additional costs. In France, conversely, there’s French. Period.

The “logic” of official websites

The official website of the euro-region (Euskadi-Aquitaine) is published in the five euro-regional languages. The home page is in French by default, but you can switch to any of the other four easily. In this case, I usually recommend the use of a Pre-home, which allows visitors to choose their language. This option is available with a website such as that of the University of the Basque Country, which offers you the three options: Basque, Spanish and/or English, yet not all content is translated into the other languages. Again, the website of the University of Bordeaux, despite being bilingual (French-English), only offers French by default. No language concerns on that side of the border.

But, what do these public institutions do when it comes to co-organized events or websites that go beyond official places?

With respect to events or specific sites out of the “official” realm, they are usually in English and avoid any external translation, having a propensity for simplifying all the procedures for all people involved. However, as far as social media is concerned, though there is, in theory, a relaxation of any preset rules, the speed of the medium endows community managers with the freedom to express anything by alternating from one to the other of the four most common languages.

The “logic” of people

In a natural multilingual context, two people will tend to speak in the language both of them feel more comfortable with. Probably this language will be the language in which they were introduced to each other. If a third party enters, they will either stay in the language they were previously speaking or switch to any other common language they know will make the communication easier. And this common language is usually English.

French used to be the preferred second language in Spain in the 60s and 70s until English irrupted into the education system. This system introduced a third language in the late 90s, German, which was chosen by the majority of students. Thus, few people can speak French today, and English has become the lingua franca in many situations.

In short, despite the need of preserving and promoting the use of local languages, it is obvious that languages are alive and people make them theirs in a manner no institution can influence.

Originally published at www.linkedin.com on March 25, 2015.

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