Claude Piron

The language of power

When you travel all over the world, you soon realize that English is the language of power. Outside of English speaking countries, the victims of the system do not speak English, or at least they do not master it at a level which would put them on an equal footing with native speakers. Those who have a real mastery of English belong to the ruling classes, to business, to academe, to the comprador class and, in a number of countries, to the media. A typical example is India, where English is officially the inter-ethnic language, but where it is spoken only by 3% of the population (some sources say 1%).

As in many other fields, the powerful have succeeded in conditioning people into believing that this is normal, that it is fair and that there is no alternative. English as a global language is taken for granted by practically everybody, including the victims. A very strange blindness occults its disadvantages, as compared with other solutions. Its main drawback is that it is so difficult for most inhabitants of our planet - but with various degrees of difficulty - that it creates a hierarchy. Among the peoples: English speaking nations, then people with a Germanic language, then people with a Romance language, followed successively by people with a Slavic language, and people with non-Indo-European languages. Within a given people: practically only persons wealthy enough to be able to afford several years of study in an English speaking country can be articulate in it. It may be that even in an English speaking country like the US, African-Americans and Spanish speaking people (as well as people of Korean, Ethiopian and other non European heritages) are also victims of this discriminatory hierarchy. In no sport would it be accepted that the competing teams might be submitted to unequal conditions, but nobody seems to realize that a negotiation in which one of the partners is obliged to use a foreign language is like a ping-pong match in which one of the players, although right handed, is forced to use his left hand.

All through the world, 95% of young people lucky enough to frequent a secondary school learn English. Apart from countries with a Germanic language, the result of this teaching, which represents a tremendous investment by governments and by a large number of private institutions, just as it requires a considerable investment in time and effort from the relevant individuals, is practically nil: in non-Germanic Europe, only 1% of the young are able to communicate more or less correctly in English at the end of their secondary studies; in Asia the percentage is 0,1%. When this poor result is called to the attention of government representatives, they incriminate the teachers or the pedagogy, or the students, never the language itself. Nobody in the whole world is willing to acknowledge as a fact that English is much too difficult to be acquired with only four or five hours a week for only six or seven years. According to my research (see my book Le défi des langues, Paris: L'Harmattan, 2nd ed. 1998, pp. 73-78), a minimum of 10'000 hours of study and practice are required to be able to master the language. The man in the street does not have 10'000 hours to devote to the study of the language. He is thus cut off from international life. Although his welfare depends on it.

Another perverse effect of English as a global language is that practically all through the world the information is biased according to the viewpoints of English speaking societies, since most of it comes through United Press International, Associated Press and Reuters, not to mention the impact in the world of magazines like Newsweek and Time (which did not devote a single line, at least in its European edition, to the Porto Alegre Forum or to the troubles in Quebec triggered off by the meeting of government representatives from the Americas on the large free market zone in that part of the world). The fact that in most countries 80% of movies shown on television are Hollywood productions is seldom related to language, although since English is the only foreign language understood in many countries, translations can be arranged for such films whereas they are not if the movie comes from another culture.

The subtle message that English is all right and that, anyway, there is no alternative to it is so prevalent that I would not have been aware of its significance if it were not for three circumstances:

(1) I have had the opportunity of travelling all over the world (especially for the World Health Organization),
(2) I have lived at the same time in various international milieus, which use different systems of linguistic communication,
(3) I happen to speak Esperanto since childhood.

The fact that Esperanto is so little known (especially in the US) and that, where the name is known, the real nature of the language is not, is part of the prevalent message. Ignoring a reality which is potentially disruptive for an established order is quite an effective way of preventing the replacement of this order by something more democratic and fair. In the case of Esperanto, it is taken for granted by most people who know about it that it is dead-born or that it is a failure, some kind of utopia which was doomed from the first because it is contrary to human nature. It is also wrongly imagined that its purpose is to solve the language problem by replacing all other languages, which is a sure means of eliciting a strong negative reaction against it, since language is part of our identity and nobody (apart form immigrants who want to assimilate completely) likes to give up such an important factor in his or her sense of being. As somebody who has spoken Esperanto with ordinary people in countries as different as Uzbekistan and New Zealand, Brazil and Hungary, Japan and the Congo, and many, many others, and who is exchanging e-mail messages in Esperanto with people in many countries I have not visited, like Togo, Ukraine and Mongolia, I can testify that Esperanto is extremely alive, practical, culturally inoffensive (as contrasted with English) and has never be meant to replace the other languages. Just consult

As can be seen in my paper “Linguistic Communication: A Comparative Field Study” (, Esperanto can be acquired in between 180 and 220 hours, according to the native language, or in 0,02% of the time required to acquire English. Other studies conclude that at a same level of intensity (same number of hours per week), after six months of Esperanto the student has a communication capability which requires six years in the case of English.

This is the reason why Esperanto has been selected by the project Indigenaj Dialogoj, which helps people from discriminated ethnies to communicate and coordinate their actions by teaching them both the use of computers and of an international language much more cost effective than English and free from any power or economic connotation.

Language has in society the same function as nervous influx in an organism. The kind of monopoly on international communication that English has acquired creates a gap between those who master it and the bulk of the population in non-English-speaking countries. It is a very good application of the divide ut imperes principle. Unity of action and accurate mutual information are necessities if we want to orientate the world towards a fairer society, both within and among countries. Without an easy and rich language, accessible to all, as Esperanto happens to be, this goal cannot be attained.