Claude Piron

After the Language Revolution:
A glimpse from the future

(Playing with his computer, my friend J.K. (he insists on being kept anonymous) found by chance a program which gave him access to future files, especially a series of documents typed in the 2050's. Unfortunately, he did not keep track of what he was doing and has not found the way back to his trove. Still, we are very lucky since, stumbling upon a text dealing with the language problem, he had the presence of mind to print it out for me. Here it is.)

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury,

You have heard the witnesses. I will not take up your time by summing up the evidence. It speaks for itself. But I want to call your attention to an interesting point: how often the witnesses used the expressions "as though" or "as if": "They acted as though there was no alternative", "as if there were no facts to be checked", "as if our suggestion was ridiculous", "as if that language didn’t exist", and so on and so forth. The recurrence of these two expressions emphasizes how constantly the defendants disregarded reality. They were supposed to belong to the political, economic, cultural, academic or social elite of the world, they held positions of immense prestige and responsibility, their decisions affected the lives of all the inhabitants of our planet, yet they proved as irresponsible as little children. And now – you heard them – their defense is: "We didn’t know", "We didn’t realize".

Why didn't they know? Didn’t they witness cases when travelers found themselves in embarrassing situations because they had no means of communicating with the local people? Didn’t they see that the investment of our global society in language teaching was astronomical and the results miserable? When they attended international meetings, were they not aware that there were interpreters in the booths, that the voice they heard in their earphones was not the speaker’s, that the simultaneous use of so many languages had to cost a lot of money? Didn’t they know that all over the world millions and millions of young people were straining their brains endeavoring to master English, a language that proved so elusive that on average, after seven years with four hours a week, only one percent of the students had a working knowledge of it? Didn’t they read in the papers about the aircraft that crashed because of the language problems between pilot and control tower? Some of them are native speakers of English. Did they never feel superior to the foreigners they were talking with and did they never ask themselves if this was normal, or fair? Some of them are not native English speakers. Did they never feel inferior to their colleagues from English speaking countries? Did they never feel annoyed, during discussion, because the words they needed eluded them while their partners could call up all the resources of their mother tongue? How can one live in our society and not realize that there is a language problem in the world?

A scandalous indifference

Let’s assume the impossible and imagine that they managed to live an international life without coming upon the negative aspects of linguistic realities. At their level in society, could they really exert their global responsibilities competently without knowing how communication functioned? It was their duty to know, all the more so since they had the money and the staff required to gather information, and to organize research if necessary. The reason they didn’t know is that they weren't interested, and they weren't interested because they had no compassion. With an appalling indifference they ignored the plight of the enormous numbers of refugees and immigrant workers for whom the impossibility of expressing themselves adequately, for lack of a common language, was a source of injustice, psychological misery, and even death. You’ve heard the witnesses. It won’t be easy to forget the case of the German hospital where 50% of organ transplantation patients died because, lacking a common language with the medical staff, they simply failed to understand the instructions given to them regarding their care. They ignored such realities. If a foreigner was treated unfairly by the police because he could not make himself understood, it did not bother them at all. If an Executive lost an important contract simply because his English was not up to the level that the negotiation demanded, why should that trouble them? If money badly needed for all sorts of social purposes was lavishly spent on an incredibly complicated and expensive system of linguistic communication, they couldn’t care less. And yet! Wasn’t choosing in a humane way what to do with taxpayers’ money one of their responsibilities?

Let me take just one example among the many that could be quoted. While they wielded power, many African children died of dehydration, dehydration so bad that a child would stop producing tears when crying. Although the treatment to save one child cost only twelve cents, they could not find the funds necessary to protect the children exposed to this nightmare. However, at the same time, every day, the European Union spent more than one million dollars in translating its daily batch of 3,150,000 words! When they were told of dramatic global problems such as starvation, they shook their heads at the scarcity of funds in apparent commiseration, but they did so, without feeling any discrepancy, in the very organizations which translated millions of words at a cost of two US dollars a word. What kind of elite is that? Isn’t it obvious to the simplest mind that what is spent for a given purpose is not available for another? And that, as a result, defining proper priorities is a very serious moral obligation? Nevertheless, in all international organizations, and God knows there are a good many of them, they never hesitated to earmark huge amounts for language services. Indeed, they never had the idea of undertaking an objective study of the cost to society of its manifold language problems and the available solutions. Couldn’t society be organized in a better way, as far as linguistic communication is concerned? They never asked themselves that question. "We did what could be done, there was no other way", they claim.

A solution has been available for a long time

No other way? Esperanto existed! It had been in use for a century. To those who had been wise enough to adopt it, it already afforded a splendid level of communication without the need to invest a single cent in language services, without discrimination among peoples, after a reasonably small investment in time and effort (it had already been established that six months of Esperanto study gave a communication level equal to six years of English). But for the eminent members of our "elite" this alternative, this cost effective solution to the language problem, simply did not exist. When their attention was called to it – and it was, you’ve seen the evidence – they systematically raised a number of objections, always the same, without checking their validity.

       "Esperanto does not function", they said, while it was so easy to attend international meetings and conventions using it and to discover that it worked much better than any rival system such as English or simultaneous interpretation. "It is artificial", they said, refusing, when invited, to watch children laughing and playing in Esperanto with a spontaneity of expression that could only disprove their prejudice, and having no qualms about speaking in a microphone and listening to a voice other than the speaker's, which, you will agree, is not an impressive example of natural communication. "It has no culture", they asserted, having never read a word of Esperanto poetry, knowing nothing of the development of Esperanto theater or literature, having never attended a scientific lecture in that language. "It is rigid and inexpressive", they repeated, without ever submitting it to a comparative linguistic analysis, which would have forced them to conclude that it was more flexible and more expressive, due to its agglutinative structure, than many prestigious languages. "It is not a living language", they objected, without knowing anything of the environment in which it was in everyday use and without asking themselves what the criteria for life in a language were and how Esperanto met them. "It would be a shame if people gave up their own language in favor of this one", they said, lightly dismissing the fact that Esperanto never purported to replace other languages, but was simply a practical way of overcoming the language barrier, just as Latin was in Europe in the Middle Ages, and ignoring the reports of the death of languages – one language a week in the 2000’s – caused by the crushing effect of various major languages, especially English, named "a killer language" by many sociolinguists.

A language revolution

There is no point in dwelling further on those prejudices. You know them for what they are. Twenty-five years after the citizens rebelled and the linguistic revolution took place, you see everywhere how much the world has changed for the better. You can travel all over the world without communication problems. International organizations are spared the incredible costs of their language services, so that huge amounts of money have been made available for substantial projects. Young people all over the world, after a basic Esperanto course, study all kinds of other languages according to their interests, which enhances the intellectual diversity of our global society – an important factor in the cross-fertilization of ideas – while promoting genuine mutual understanding. The many negative effects of the monopoly of English on the cultural life of many peoples – there was practically no alternative to it in schools at the time – are gradually disappearing. Refugees and foreign workers are now understood wherever they go. Experts taking part in international discussions are recruited on the basis of their expertise and no longer on their competence in English, which excluded many, since, as you know, many people gifted in mathematics and technical subjects have trouble with languages. In the United States, the United Kingdom and other English speaking countries, students are discovering other cultures from a new perspective, and the requirement to learn another, rigorous but easy and psychologically very satisfactory language, has beneficial effects on their openness towards the world and on intellectual and cultural development. In India, the conflict between rival supporters of English, Hindi and other languages has subsided, just as have linguistic tensions in Belgium, Cameroon, Nigeria and many other countries.

Indeed, humankind owes a lot to those who have pressured governments into organizing the coordinated teaching of Esperanto all over the world. But it has a particular debt of gratitude to those government officials whose persistent efforts ensured the adoption of the initial Declaration which officially re-established the truth about the language. For the first time it was seen in proper perspective. When the public realized that it had been deceived for decades, the now famous "Esperanto gold rush" was triggered, so that the language swiftly spread even before its generalized teaching was organized.

A serious responsibility

If I took some time to remind you of the immense benefits we all derive today from the change of attitude toward Esperanto, it is to emphasize the defendants’ responsibility in the fact that it occurred so late. As early as 1920, the League of Nations had carried out an objective study of the matter and had recommended that governments organize the teaching of Esperanto everywhere so that it could become everybody’s second language. This was perceived as the best means to ensure enjoyable international communication on an equal footing while guaranteeing the survival and prosperity of all languages and cultures. But they managed to ignore the League's report. Esperanto’s actual qualities were always visible to any person of good faith. As early as the 1930s Esperanto literature and the use of the language in international meetings were so well developed that negating its human and cultural value was possible only through abandoning one’s honesty, one’s obligation to objectivity. Well, for many decades the "elite" did abandon them. The response of these people to suggestions aimed at encouraging the use of Esperanto was full of scorn and completely devoid of objective basis. At no point did they attempt to prove their case. That Esperanto was worth nothing was taken for granted. This is why they should be condemned. This trial should serve as an example, showing to the peoples of the world that the lack of democratic principle, the abandonment of objectivity, the refusal to check the facts, the decision to dismiss an idea before considering it, the indifference to suffering and the refusal to establish priorities based on ethical considerations will not go unpunished.

Society has rights. The right to communicate is a right that has to be taken seriously, just as the right to equal treatment. When the defendants controlled society, they manipulated opinion in a very subtle way, introducing into people's minds a number of distortions that are to a large extent responsible for the fact that a neutral international language was adopted at such a late date. It is obvious to all of you today that people put into an inferior position because they could not express themselves in a foreign language were victims of the world communication system. But the so-called elite managed to make these victims feel guilty. Guilty of laziness, of an inability to use their brains properly. "If they cannot communicate, it is their fault, they should have learned languages", they said, without asking themselves if mastering another national language was possible to all and if there was not a fairer alternative to their world linguistic order, or rather, disorder.

They are guilty

Ladies and Gentlemen, the defendants have no excuse.

They live in a century when, in law as in science, no conclusion is reached before the facts have been ascertained. But they repeatedly concluded that there was no point in looking for a better system of international communication without ever taking into consideration the facts about Esperanto.

They live in a century when, if various options are available, comparisons are made, so that the decision makers may choose the option with the most advantages and the fewest drawbacks. You’ve heard them. Asked when they compared, in the field, according to a set of predefined criteria, the various systems of international communication, including Esperanto, they sheepishly looked at their feet. "We just didn’t think of it", one of them mumbled. But they admitted that, when they had to use taxpayers’ or shareholders’ money in other fields, they would invite proposals or otherwise examine various possibilities in order to choose the best one.

They live in a century when discrimination is supposed to be banished. But their attitude towards people who tried to make them aware of the potential of Esperanto, and of its reality, has constantly been discriminatory: those people were dismissed without being heard out, without their documents being read and properly considered. This was particularly the case, as you discovered listening to the testimonies, in the European Union, but many other examples could have been produced. No, they have no excuse. Even now it is doubtful they realize the extent of the frustrations, the useless expenditure of energy, the losses, the suffering, the humanly unacceptable wastefulness that their deliberate ignorance of linguistic realities brought about. All those negative aspects, so easy to avoid, as evidenced by our present way of life, were considered inevitable, just as slavery was taken for granted for centuries so that even slaves took it for an inescapable fact of life. For decades, the innumerable victims of the international language lack of order were manipulated into believing that no alternative existed. This is unforgivable, considering the intellectual level of the persons responsible, as well as their legal, scientific or political training, which could not but impress on them the need for objectivity and verification.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, you owe it to justice, and to the future generations, to declare them guilty unambiguously. The Court...

(Here the text is abruptly interrupted).