Claude Piron

English as the first foreign language in Swiss schools:
realism or crawling?

Quebeckers call it crawling, the tendency to always give in to English. Is the decision of several German speaking Swiss canton governments to teach English as the first foreign language a case of that sort of resignation of dignity?

Let us first note that the fascination, which the English language causes, creates tunnel vision. Hypnotised by the distant light, one no longer sees the whole surroundings. So the president of Nissan, following an agreement with Renault, said both companies' staff had to study English so that the workers of both firms would have a common language (1). The French speak English as badly as the Japanese he explained. However, English is just like computer software.

The fascination with English has blinded him. What is computer software worth, if it takes six years to get to know it? Just about everyone regards the fact that English has taken over as a given. It’s as if is a fact means is good. If this idea had controlled history, slavery would still exist, and there would be no women in the Federal Council (i.e. Swiss national government).

It would be more democratic to consider the question: What suits everyone's interests in the field of language communication? Well, comparing the various means available to overcome language barriers, one discovers a more effective software than English: Esperanto, and it can be shown to be so, by any criteria: equality, fluency, precision, phonetic ease, short time to learn, etc. (2) In fact I was more fluent in Esperanto after six months of learning it than in English after six years, during which I had to cram my brain with nonsense, from the four sounds of ough in tough, though, through and cough, to false derivatives such as hard - hardly (I have just corrected the text of a young person, who wanted to say I worked hard but wrote I hardly worked).

My contacts everywhere in the world confirm that Esperanto is better adapted for international communication than English is. Yes, certainly, there are many who mockingly reject it, but they have never observed a meeting in Esperanto, seen children using it in play, skimmed a magazine in thelanguage, nor have they interviewed persons who put into practise both the language of Shakespeare and the language of Zamenhof. I suppose those people disparage restaurants where they have never been, and cars which they have never driven. Esperanto is misunderstood (3) by many people. How many people know that it is, after English, one of the languages most used on the internet? That it is the language of a considerable body of literature? (4) That Radio Beijing and Radio Warsaw broadcast in it several times a week? (5) That it is one of the languages of the International Academy of Sciences? (6) That seven Nobel prize winners have been Esperanto speakers? That every day, somewhere in the world, Esperanto is the language of a meeting, cultural gathering, or congress? (7) That there are Esperanto speakers in many cities in many countries, even in Soweto, even in Lomé, even in Ulan Bator? That it stimulates an interest in other cultures? That many young people use the network of free accommodation organised by Esperanto associations? (8)

Clearly there are vast fields of social life which the media totally ignore. Does it make sense for French and German speaking people to communicate in broken English after studying it for six years, trying to pronounce sounds which exist neither in French nor in German (th, etc), while they could easily converse in Esperanto after a few months? If, everywhere, it were made known that of all the means to rid us of Babel, Esperanto is the one which gives the best results for the smallest investment of time, brainpower and money? (9) Language diversity would become what it really basically is: an asset, not an impediment. Man is masochistic. Maybe, in order to recover our sanity, we need a lawyer to launch a US-style court case, in the name of all those people who have had to struggle with English, against those governments which made them do so, while there was a means available which is more democratic, more cost effective, more psychologically and culturally satisfying, about which they neglected to inform their citizens. In a time when so many jobs are being sacrificed for so called rationalisation, the billions of dollars, francs, marks, yen etc earmarked for the teaching of English, and the thousands of hours which millions of young people all over the world spend on it, with pitiful results, are the exact opposite to rational action. To say nothing of the catastrophic cultural influence, which happens everywhere with the spread of broken English.

This article originally published in French by the Tribune de Geneve, 3 Jan 2003. Translated into Esperanto by the author (Esperanto feb 2003, p 31), and thence into English by Donald Rogers, in consultation with the author.

1.Yomiuri Shimbun, 2002.04.17.
2. Claude Piron, Communication linguistique - Étude comparitive faite sur la terrain", Language Problems and Language Planning, spring 2002, vol 26, n° 1, pp 24-50).
3. General information.
4. Literature (click on Documents).
5. Radio programs in Esperanto.
6. International Academy of Sciences.
7. Esperanto events.
8. Accommodation.
9. Esperanto easier to learn: Claude Piron, "Le défi des langues", Paris: L'Harmattan, 2nd edition, 1998, chapter 11.