Claude Piron

Language constraints and human rights

Anniversary Symposium on Language and Human Rights (Geneva, UN, Palais des Nations, Room VIII, April 28, 1998)
Linguists don't bother with artificial languages.

Mr. Chairman,

The feeling that pervades the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an aspiration towards fairness. But there is little awareness of the importance of fairness in the field of language and of the importance of language in the field of fairness. Society's attitude towards languages favors inequality everywhere. In the United Nations, while some may use their mother tongue, many are deprived of that possibility, and there is no consideration for their handicap. Yet, it would be easy to reestablish fairness. It would suffice to decide that nobody in the UN family has the right to use his or her mother tongue. If the French, the Americans and the other privileged nations were obliged to use the language of another culture in all their oral or written communications, they would realize the plight of their linguistically handicapped colleagues and the concept of fairness in language use would perhaps find a point of entry into international relationships. This simple suggestion is unrealistic in today's context. It induces a feeling of strangeness, of eccentricity. Why? What does this reveal, if not that, whatever the eloquent speeches in favor of fairness among nations, there is no real will to relate with all on an equal footing?

There is a kind of blindness, of insensitivity, among those who can use their mother tongue towards those who are not so fortunate. When you are forced to use a language which is not yours, you appear less intelligent than you are, very often you sound ridiculous. When I was a précis-writer at the UN in New York forty years ago, the representative of a Member State on the verge of economic collapse began an intervention, speaking slowly, obviously scanning his mind for words, by saying: "My Government sinks..." He meant thinks, of course. Everybody laughed. What struck me was that there was no compassion for this man, who, like 80% of the people living on this planet did not have the th-sound in his language and had thus either to torture his mouth to enunciate the simplest sentence in English or to sound ridiculous. Or let's consider the case of Ms Helle Degn, a Danish minister who, opening an international meeting and wanting to apologize for her lack of familiarity with the subject for she had just assumed her functions, said: "I'm at the beginning of my period" (1). Why was she the laughing stock of the assembly? Why was she exposed to a risk of ridicule from which representatives of a number of countries are always free? Through her fault? No. As most foreigners who use English at a rather high level, she had had more than 10,000 hours of study and practice of the language. But you never reach a level of equality with the native speakers. The risk of ridicule is not distributed evenly.

When I worked for WHO, there was a Japanese doctor who represented his country at a regional body. At any meeting, he never said more than two or three sentences prepared on a pad. We all thought: "Well, he's not very talkative". But then the Japanese Government organized a meeting in Tokyo and provided simultaneous interpretation from Japanese. This delegate's attitude completely changed. He had a lot to say, many very useful contributions to make to all items of the agenda. He was freed from the handicap of having to formulate his thoughts in a strange language. We discovered a totally different personality.

How come the use of language has such an influence not only on how you are perceived, how you perform in negotiations, but also on the simple fact of daring to ask to be heard? How come this inequality is so seldom realized by those who can always use their mother tongue?

Learning a language: a formidable task

When we acquire our mother tongue we are much too young to understand what is going on. Learning it means introducing in our brain and drilling into reflexes hundreds of thousands of data, programs and subprograms that are connected in extremely intricate patterns. That's the reason why after 20,000 hours of complete immersion in their language children, at age six or seven, are still unable to express their thoughts correctly. They will say foots instead of feet or comed instead of came, because the general programs have not yet been linked to the specific subprograms that words like foot or come should summon up. When you learn a foreign language, you have to decondition yourself from many of these reflexes and recondition yourself with reflexes of the new tongue. This is a formidable task, which explains for instance that in Hong Kong, after six years of study with several hours per day, half the students fail at their English exam at the age of sixteen (2).

It is sad that there is so little compassion for all the people who are not part of the so-called élite and who suffer from language handicap. Just as there is very little compassion for the millions of children all over the world who are forced to devote an enormous amount of time and nervous energy to the completely useless study of languages they will never master.

I'm thinking of a group of refugees from Yugoslavia and ex-Yugoslavia I've had to deal with. All the adults had had six years of Russian, German or English at a rate of four hours a week. Well, I can more or less get along in those languages. But communication with these people was incredibly frustrating. They needed a few minutes to express an idea that would have required two seconds in their mother tongue, and very often they simply failed. Once, for a mother from Osijek to understand the message "The coat for your kid will be available next week" we needed five minutes, because she didn't remember the right words and we had to find all sorts of devices to reach the necessary concepts with the little vocabulary that was left her in spite of the considerable investment in language learning, in terms of time and effort, she had made in school.

At least, eventually, we managed to understand each other. But what if you are faced with an old woman who speaks only Albanian, and she goes through hysterics, and you realize that what she expresses is a saturation of pain, distress, confusion, despair, and you know that you could help her, that you're trained in the techniques available to calm her down, but you can do nothing, because you don't understand one single detail in the story she needs to tell, of the feelings she has to communicate to regain her balance? When you go through such an experience, you know what it is to be linguistically handicapped. You feel as if you had had a stroke and your brain had been damaged, and although your heart is full of a desire to help, you are utterly powerless. You are not a human being any more. Because what makes us human is relationship.

I wonder what the price will be, for the next generations, of all the traumas that will rebound because they have not been dealt with at the right time, not for lack of therapists, but for lack of the language making the therapy possible, a therapy which, in many cases, would be a short one. People in distress need to be listened to and to hear from the listener that they are understood. But this requires a linguistic means of communication. At a time when millions of persons have to adjust to another culture, because political or economic constraints forced them to leave their home, the plight of the linguistically handicapped is an everyday occurrence, but society as a whole has no compassion for it, although, as I'll show you in a minute, it could be easily avoided, if there were a will.

Discrimination and injustice

Why is there no will? For one part, because there is no awareness. The very concept of language handicap is alien to most people. That sad reality is never named, and when something is not formulated, it does not find its place in the conscious mind. The result is that most victims of language handicap do not feel it as such. What they actually feel is much closer to guilt. If I cannot make myself understood, it's my fault, I've been too lazy or not resourceful enough to acquire a proper means of communication. People who, because of language, are ridiculous or unfairly treated by the police, the judicial system or their bosses, do not realize that society has a larger responsibility in their handicap than they have themselves. So the discrimination that occurs is seldom realized. Not often do you read a sentence like the following, which I take from The Wall Street Journal (3) and which refers to the people, known as gatekeepers, who sort out job applicants on the basis of interviews in English: "The English of 'gatekeepers' is one of the least visible, least measurable and least understood aspects of discrimination".

Another aspect is that those who exploit foreigners find it useful never to be forced to take responsibility, thanks to language problems.

A Swiss traveler in Manila, Philippines, persuaded young E.B. to come to Switzerland with him; he promised to finance his studies, to provide him with accommodation and even to adopt him legally. The fourteen year old accepted. When he arrived, he was forced into a network of prostitution and was also used as a slave by his master. An opportunity to be saved arose when two policemen came to the house where he was imprisoned, because there was some suspicion as to what was going on. The policemen actually saw the young man, but he spoke only a kind of pidgin English and the policemen had no English at all. His master discussed with them in the local Swiss German dialect. The youngster failed to make himself understood, and the man could explain away his utterances in a language that was incomprehensible to the young slave, so that he could not contest the man's assertions, as he could have done had he not been locked up in his language handicap.

Here in Geneva, a man from Burkina Faso was condemned without comprehending what was happening to him, since he spoke only Bissa, an African dialect, and the procedure was in French. Impressed by the police and, probably, harboring the guilt feelings usually attached to language handicap, he signed the police report typed about him although he did not understand its contents. We know of the fact only because a lawyer happened on the right spot at the right minute and succeeded in having the first judgment reversed. This man was almost sent back to Africa before political asylum was considered by the authorities, under the pretext of unlawful facts of which he was innocent and which he had not been able to contest (4).

One of the aspects of the language handicap problem is the dearth of interpreters. So the administrations call on anybody from the relevant language area. But interpreting while remaining objective, without introducing the distortions due to one's political views or emotional state, is not easy at all. Many a refugee has suffered from this consequence of his language handicap.

The current lack of consciousness of the importance of language as a factor of full human dignity leads to hidden kinds of discrimination. A person I know in Berlin was forced to speak German to his son in kindergarten, because the attendant there demands to understand what children and parents say to each other. Of course, this is not terrible in itself, since such communications are restricted to a few minutes every day. But the attendant's attitude reveals the widespread idea that language is not important, as if its function was only to communicate ideas. This is a negation of all the emotional aspect of language, as well as of its role in identity feelings, which are one of the basis of the feeling of dignity so often mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The attendant in the kindergarten does not realize that her demand is disparaging, that it results in reinforcing a feeling of rejection and of inferior status. A similar, but much more serious, interference in the relationship between parent and child is prevalent in Turkish jails, where a father visiting his son is forced to speak Turkish, whereas the family language, the language of feelings and emotions, so important in such a context from a humane point of view, is actually Kurdish.

What can be done?

Perhaps you're thinking: "OK, so, that's the situation, what can be done about it?" First we have to acknowledge that language handicap is pervasive in today's world and that it causes much suffering, frustration and injustice.

Then we should analyze the causes of the problem. The main one may be that there is no will to solve it, because the present world language order (or rather disorder) gives advantages to certain groups or social layers that are reluctant to forgo their superiority. Another cause may be that there is no real awareness of the extent of the problem, its impact on millions of lives. Part of this lack of awareness may be due, in turn, to a tendency to ignore the neuropsychological aspect of language, i.e. the amplitude of the input necessary to acquire a language, in other words the fact that fluency in most languages demands that hundreds of thousands of reflexes be inserted and maintained in the brain.

The next step would be an approach along the lines of operations research: a comparative analysis of all the means available to reach the goal. The objective is clear: to free as much as possible as many sufferers from language handicap as possible at a minimum cost. A comparative analysis should be undertaken of all the systems used by humankind to overcome the language barrier so as to determine which is the most cost effective, the most psychologically satisfying, the most respectful of all cultures and the optimum one from the point of view of fairness.

At this stage, I wish to emphasize an important point never mentioned in discussions on language use, namely that a huge percentage of the effort imposed on the brain for the acquisition of a foreign language has nothing to do with the effectiveness of communication and thus with the removal of the obstacles that bring about language handicap. So if there is a language which follows the natural flow of nervous energy without having to deviate it by conditioned reflexes, it may offer a solution of the problem.

I mentioned earlier my experience with refugees who had been taught English, German or Russian for an average of twelve hundred hours and whose language competence was so poor that we needed five minutes to communicate an idea that would have required two seconds in our mother tongues. But I refrained from confessing the whole truth, which is that after a few weeks a young worker from Kosovo arrived. An ethnic Albanian, he had learned Esperanto for six months. With him I had no communication problem. With me, he had no language handicap. He was not more intelligent or educated than the others. But wanting to get in touch with people all over the world, and realizing that reaching this goal was too slow a process with the languages studied in school, he tried Esperanto. Indeed, this is a language based on a full use of creativity, on the possibility of generalizing all linguistic structures without exception, on freedom in syntax and word order, and thus a language following without obstacles and detours the spontaneous movement of a human brain wishing to express an idea or a feeling. It is a fact that, on an average, one month of Esperanto affords a communication capability corresponding to one year in another language. So, after six months of Esperanto you master the language at a level which requires six years in the case of English. Moreover, if you cease using it for a few years, you forget it much less than other languages, because natural reflexes are stable whereas conditioned reflexes are not. If you have doubts about this, just pay attention to the kind of mistakes you make in a foreign language when you resume its use after a few years without practice.

It is a fact that all over the world Esperanto is being used by networks of people who form a kind of diaspora, in which there is no language handicap. This milieu's experience is something like a pilot study that has proven the appropriateness of the means with respect to the objective. Pretending that this experience does not exist is insulting to the millions of people who suffer from language handicap.

I'm not saying that Esperanto should be adopted. I'm saying that it should be considered. All those who are exposed to the suffering, discrimination and injustice linked to language handicap, to say nothing of economic exploitation, traumas to identity feelings or the lack of appropriate therapy, deserve an objective, fair consideration of the facts to which I have just alluded and of many more. You cannot judge Esperanto objectively without comparing it to the other methods of intercultural communication for such criteria as precision, richness, learnability for people with the most different mother tongues, adequacy in expressing emotion and feelings, and so forth, just as you cannot judge it without studying its literature, its poetry, its songs, its history, its functioning in international meetings, etc.

In my opinion, the approach should be a long term one. After all the relevant data have been duly verified, if Esperanto proves to afford the best way of freeing society from language handicap, its teaching in all elementary schools throughout the world should be organized. It would not change much in the curricula, since ten minutes a day for one year is enough as a first stage, and those ten minutes can be integrated in the teaching of the mother tongue (5). Its teaching in elementary school does not preclude the teaching of other languages in secondary school. So, instead of having millions of children torturing their minds with very poor results in an attempt to master English considered as the means of international communication, students would regard national languages as something worth discovering for their cultural value. They could choose, according to where they live, among languages such as Sanskrit, Italian, Farsi, Ancient Greek, Shakespearian English, Hebrew, Arabic or whatever. Such a plan would solve two problems at the same time for the next generation. It would dispose of language handicap, and it would rid the world of its tendency towards a unidimensional culture based on American productions.

Many Governments invest huge sums in the teaching of English with very poor results: as an average, only one student out of one hundred is capable of properly using the language after six years of study, and the teachers' level is appalling. When you hear the head of the English training program at the University of Malaysia say that "Many English teachers cannot converse in English" (6), what can you expect, especially since the same judgment applies to many countries? And the cause doesn't lie in laziness, poor organization or inadequate pedagogy. It lies in the huge and incompressible amount of reflexes necessary to acquire the language. Wouldn't it be sensible to replace this very ineffective investment by something much less expensive that could really free the world from language handicap? It would not demand more than a genuine will, and a coordination among Governments similar to what was successfully set up in a relatively short time for the eradication of smallpox.

But the will to solve the problem cannot appear without a change in mentality. Today's World Language Order is vertical, with hierarchized languages and English at the top. That's where power is. So there is a kind of gold rush situation with a lot of competition to reach the top and no compassion whatsoever for those who suffer from the system. Esperanto would promote a horizontal situation, with all languages treated as equal and the communication tool relatively easily available to all.

Language handicap is not a malediction that leaves us powerless. The experience of the Esperanto community proves the opposite. Those who advocate ignoring it under the pretext that such a language is irrelevant, dangerous, impossible or whatever assume a very serious responsibility, positioning themselves as they do against objectivity and thus against fairness. If there is a treatment for an endemic disease, what would you think of a public health administrator who suppresses all attempts at promoting it, maintaining millions of people in pain or in a weakened state, because, without a single glance at the relevant scientific literature and at the results of pilot projects applying it in the field, he decided beforehand that that treatment was just rubbish? Is such an attitude in accordance with the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Or, to take another example, is there such difference between a person who declares Esperanto irrelevant or useless before checking the facts and an officer who rejects a refugee requesting asylum before hearing him out? Practically all the rights included in the Universal Declaration imply a linguistic means of communication. Let's take for instance article 19 on freedom of expression which “includes freedom (...) to seek, receive and impart information and ideas (...) regardless of frontiers”. How can you exercise such a right without a language appropriate to easy, fluent, trap free communication with which you can deal with your partners or opponents on equal terms? Such questions deserve at least some consideration.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

1. Jyllands-Posten, January 14, 1994; Sprog og erhverv, 1, 1994.
2. Philip Segal, "Tongue-Tied in Hong Kong", International Herald Tribune, March 18, 1998.
3. Barry Newman, "Global Chatter - World Speaks English, Often None Too Well", The Wall Street Journal, Midwest Edition, March 22, 1995, p. A15.
4. Frédéric Montanya, "Police et justice doivent respecter les droits des accusés", Le Courrier (Geneva) June 10, 1997.
5. Claude Piron, "Le défi des langues" (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1994), p. 317; see also pages 174-193.
6. Jay Branegan, "Finding a Proper Place for English", Time, September 16, 1991, p. 51.