Claude Piron

"What do you think about languages in Europe?"

asks Leonard Orban, European Union Commissioner responsible for multilingualism

Thank you, Commissioner, for inviting members of the European Union to give you their opinion. It is a sign of consideration and respect for ordinary citizens.

The European language problem is marked by a tension between two needs which are, at first glance, contradictory: the need to communicate efficiently and the need to respect equality and everyone's identity. To use English is not democratic. It makes aphasics out of the vast majority of Europeans. Watch how two average, 30-40 year old Europeans from different countries try to get along in English, if their mother tongue is not Germanic, even after having studied that language at school for six or seven years. You will recognize all the symptoms of aphasia: their sentences are disjointed, they are constantly searching their minds for the right word, they need several repetitions to understand, they cannot pronounce this or that sound, and so on. Considering the time they have devoted to language learning, the result is deplorable. The reason is that English is not adapted to the demands of intercultural communication. This is objectively proven by the fact that an investment ten times smaller gives a much better result, if the language of communication is more wisely, more reasonably chosen.

Not only is the use of English undemocratic, but there is also a terrible lack of democracy in the way in which the language problem is presented to citizens. The powers that be, the media, the intellectual élite engage in an enormous deception, probably more from ignorance than intention, but in any case with a damnable denial of the consequences. Deception is easily accepted. It is psychologically more comfortable to be deceived than to face up to reality, and the temptation to see what we wish, and not the facts - wishful thinking - is never far away. But a deception is a deception, whatever the factors which lead to it. And deceiving people is undemocratic.

1. Non-English speakers are made to believe that mastering English is possible. A deception. That possibility is restricted to a fraction of the people speaking a Germanic language, and to those who can afford to study in an English language university for four or five years. Even that much study does not remove their inequality with native speakers of English.

2. People are led to believe that you can attain a mastery of English by school teaching. The great majority of youngsters imagine that, having completed courses in English, they will know it well. A deception. Research done in Hanover with 3,700 students with eight to ten years of English has shown that only one percent can be put in the category of “Very good command” and only four percent in the category of “Good command”. The research also showed that the majority of youngsters had grand illusions about their level. Thirty-four percent rated themselves “Very good”, and thirty-eight percent “Good”. A self-deception. Objectivity, particularly about oneself, is always difficult. Unfortunately, those self-deceptions act against democracy, for they strengthen the other deceptions.

3. People are told that after learning English, they will be able to communicate with the whole world. A deception. In Europe more than ninety percent of the continental population cannot understand a simple sample of everyday English. Try to talk to someone in the street in Poland or France. You will realise that you have been deceived about the universality of English.

4. They would have you believe that the dominance of English as the one and only world language is definite and ordained by fate, and that it is absurd to propose a change in the system, even if only after a relatively long transitory period. History teaches us that such judgements have more chance of being wrong than right. Nobody knows what is around the corner. Presenting a supposition as fact is an act of deception.

5. They deceive people by concealing how the pronunciation of English makes it a completely different language, more difficult to speak than the majority of languages, for the majority of people. They avoid saying that the large number - 24 - of vowel-sounds and the presence of the th sound, which does not exist in the languages of eighty-two percent of Europeans, are constant sources of misunderstandings and increase risks of appearing ridiculous. Perceiving and reproducing the differences between fourteen, forty, thirteen and thirty, or between soaks, socks, sucks, sacks, sex, six, seeks and so forth are impossible for the majority of our fellow inhabitants of this planet.

6. English demands twice as much effort than the average language to memorise its vocabulary, but this is never emphasized. A deception. In almost all languages there is a form connection between words expressing related concepts: lunaire is derived from lune; dentiste from dent, désarmement from arme. In English you have in each case to learn two different words: moon / lunar, tooth / dentist, weapon / disarmament. In addition, you do not really master English if you do not know the thousands of synonyms such as buy / purchase, read / peruse, freedom / liberty, threat / menace, and so on. The great majority of languages work very well without such an over-stocked vocabulary.

7. The underlying assumption is that English is a normal language, just as precise as any other. A deception. It is clearly more imprecise, because it lacks grammatical markers and its semantic fields are often too wide. Here are some examples:

a. Develop an industry can mean “set up an industry”, “create an industry where no industry yet exists” as well as “expand, grow an already existing industry.”
b. Bush warned against attacking Iran can mean both “Bush warned against the idea of attacking Iran” and “Bush (has been) warned (by some others) against the idea of attacking Iran.”
c. A woman interpreter I know started translating Iraqis today have no power as “Iraqis today have no political power, no power of decision”, and only after several minutes, because of what followed, did she understand that she should have said “Today is a day without electric power in Iraq”.
d. English teacher can refer both to an English person teaching mathematics and a Hungarian teacher of English.

I could give innumerable examples, but those will probably suffice. I work in many languages, but none of those I know is as ambiguous as English. That is a serious drawback for legal and scientific fields.

8. They say that Esperanto is a hobby, an amateur pursuit, a utopian fantasy which will never work. A deception. When compared in practice to other means of international communication - high-quality English, broken English, simultaneous or consecutive interpretation, gesturing or stammering in a scarcely mastered language, and so on - it reveals itself to be much better, although it does not require a penny of investment in linguistic communication and demands very much less effort : age and number of weekly hours being equal, six months of Esperanto result in a communication level still not reached after six years of another language, including English. Esperanto is much more cost effective than all the other systems. (See “Linguistic Communication: A comparative field study" Language Problems and Language Planning, vol. 26, 1, 23-50)

9. People are led to believe that English is the only possible response to the challenge presented by linguistic diversity, and that the costs engendered by it are negligible and irreducible. A deception. Costs would considerably decrease, both in teaching and in international relations, if Esperanto were to replace English. Economist Francois Grin has calculated that if Europe were to adopt Esperanto, it would mean a saving of 25 billion euros every year (i. e. an annual saving of US$35,000,000,000 ).

10. The public is also led to believe that the virtual monopoly of English in language teaching has no disadvantages. A deception. Its replacement by Esperanto, a language much more quickly assimilated, would free hundreds of hours that could be devoted to other languages. This would bring about a true diversification of language teaching. Schools would thus reflect cultural diversity, whereas now they have to expose young minds to only one culture, in fact presented - never explicitly, but simply by the lack of competition - as superior to the others.

In short, the linguistic organisation of Europe, and, indeed, of the whole world, is based upon an impressive number of deceptions, which are repeated from speech to speech, from article to article, whether the spreading of untruths is done intentionally or whether - which is certainly the most frequent case - people simply repeat what others superficially say, without caring to check the facts or thinking of the consequences of their behaviour.

What do you intend to do, Commissioner? What does the Commission intend to do to re-establish the truth? The choice of English as a dominating means of communication was never the result of a democratic decision : the public has never been honestly informed, nor were the citizens ever presented with a free choice. A true democratic spirit demands that those responsible should be objectively informed of the advantages and drawbacks of the various options, objectively and honestly tell the public about them, draw attention to the deceptions to which people are exposed, and leave them free to decide. Do you oppose that point of view? If so, on what do you base your position?

If the Commission continues to follow the path of inertia, we shall know that democracy can have no hope in the European institutions. All deceptions, even if spread with good intentions, can only lead to undemocratic development.

Claude Piron