Claude Piron

The Trilingual European: a realistic expectation?

The idea of a generalized trilingualism has been finding support all over Europe. Language teaching, we are told, must turn every young European into a trilingual citizen. But what does trilingual mean? Proficient, and fully so, in two languages other than one's mother tongue? The linguist Claude Hagège defines that level of command in the following terms: “For me, to know a language perfectly is to be able to follow word play performed at normal speed with native interlocutors in mind, and to speak the language without being identifiable as a foreigner” (1) and he concludes that “the number of true bilinguals (...) is quite low.” Indeed, that level of bilingualism reflects exceptional circumstances, such as parents speaking different languages or schooling in a non-family language. Straightforward language tourism is not enough. Personally, I have spent five years in the U.S., I work in English quite often, I have even taught at San Francisco State University, but I would never pass off as an Anglophone, and when I watch an American musical, I never get all the details.

A complex network of programmes

A language is a complex network of programmes, in the cybernetic sense, whose functioning is constantly inhibited by hundreds of thousands of secondary or tertiary programmes interfering with the primary ones. This goes unnoticed because we acquired our mother tongue unconsciously, when we were too young to guess just how hard our neurons had to work. To speak correctly, one must keep blocking natural neuropsychological channels. For instance, if we want an adjective that conveys the notion “which one cannothear”, the spontaneous play of one's brain comes up with unhearable. But we have to learn to block that path and to put in place a detour leading to inaudible. Another example: this morning you have heard Mrs Cristina del Moral repeatedly mention the number of speakers of such and such language, using the word parleurs. Her French was very good, but at this particular point natural tendencies triumphed over her knowledge of our language: parleur is the natural outcome of brain mechanisms instructed to convey the idea that the normative language encodes as locuteur. And when the foreigners learning French learnt how to say en hiver, j'y pense and biologiste, they have to learn how not to say en printemps, je lui pense and psychologiste the correct forms are au printemps, je pense à lui and psychologue). The neural flow is not allowed to follow its natural path, which makes it want to express parallel concepts in parallel forms.

Our natural tendency is to generalize every linguistic feature. If all children say `more good' before they start saying `better', this is because they generalize the structure of `more beautiful', `more difficult', `more crooked'. Learning a second language involves deconditioning oneself from the reflexes of one's mother tongue, reintroducing in one's brain a series of new reflexes, and then inhibiting quite a few of these very reflexes to produce a normatively correct form that flies in the face of the spontaneous tendency to generalize. An Englishman who is doing French has to learn that it won't do to say je chante / vous chante the way English makes you say I sing / you sing. He must pick up the reflex that makes you say vous chantez. Once this reflex is in place, though, he must then introduce another reflex that stops it for a couple of verbs. He has to install a "No Entry" sign stopping vous faisez, vous disez, and a detour that takes him to vous faites, vous dites. Once that detour is set up, he has to start all over again for prédire. He is set on a path that takes him to vous prédites. Wrong, you've got to say vous prédisez. You see, learning a European language involves placing several layers of reflexes on top of each other. I speak of reflexes because it is never enough to have understood and memorized the words. If you have to think, to run through all the folders and files in your memory to find the right form, you do not speak fluently. This is my dilemma when I have to speak Russian. Even though I have practised for thousands of hours, I have the choice of either speaking correctly, but slowly, at a halting, hesitant, painful pace, taxing my nervous system, or speaking fluently but knowing that everybody will burst out laughing, for my mistakes at that speed are phenomenal.

A minimum of 10,000 hours

One needs at least 10,000 hours of study and practice to put in place the hundreds of thousands of reflexes one needs, whose number cannot be brought down. Now, the teaching of the first foreign language takes up a total of 800 to 1200 hours of class time, the exact figure varies from country to country. It is unsurprising, then, that at the school leaving certificate level, only one student out of a hundred can speak correctly in the first foreign language they have been taught. 800 to 1200 hours is only a tenth of what they would have needed. If we want children to learn two foreign languages, we need to increase teaching time by a factor of twenty.

This is the choice made by Luxemburg, where primary schools teach 27 classes a week and reserve 12 of these for two foreign languages, German and French, which comes to about 3000 hours over the six primary years. Language study continues into secondary education, which means that Luxemburg does have a trilingual population, but Luxemburgers perform less well than their age-mates in mathematics, science and other important subjects. Besides, the fact that young people leaving school do not instantly lose these languages in their working life is due to the unusual geographical location of the Grand Duchy, making it a matter of daily routine that one has to keep talking to users of French and German. In countries like Spain, Finland or France, one would forget the languages learnt at school in no time, for conditioned reflexes do not stay intact unless they are regularly reinforced. You notice this whenever one of your languages has gone unused for several years: the words you have trouble remembering, the slips you make target those points where the connection between related concepts has snapped, where an inhibitory reflex coupled with a detour has faded.

Trilingualism or disguised promotion of English?

If you want a trilingual population, what level should you aim for? Real mastery of all three languages is unattainable through straightforward schooling, and there is no way to fund the scale of language tourism needed for the entire population. Even teaching a few school subjects in the foreign language does not bring that level of proficiency within reach. Switzerland has some grammar schools that teach four subjects in a foreign language for three years. The students certainly do better in that language than their counterparts who have had conventional training, but they are still nowhere near full mastery. If we confine ourselves to European languages, the only realistic outcome would have to be a trilingualism involving a good command of one's mother tongue, an imperfect but reasonable knowledge of a second language and an acquaintance with a third language enabling, not proper use, but some preliminary access, an outcome that makes sense, culturally, for the more you learn different ways of expressing the same thoughts, the more you expand your mind.

Unfortunately, there are serious problems with such a system. It would tilt the balance in favour of Anglophone countries. For one cannot communicate across countries unless one of the languages learnt is the same for all. How is a trilingual who speaks Portuguese, Greek and Danish to have a serious conversation with one whose languages are Finnish, German and French?

This means that parents will demand that English should be the language most thoroughly learnt. As for students who are native speakers of English, the majority will not be motivated to learn two other languages, for they know that, wherever they go, they can manage with their mother tongue. Now, the main factor that drives language learning success is motivation. A paradox: you encourage trilingualism to safeguard diversity, to guarantee increased mutual understanding among all Europeans, but in fact you push them all into the arms of the English-only formula, which means adopting a mode of thinking that has nothing to do with the mental and cultural traditions of continental Europe.

We are then not moving into a generalized trilingualism where everybody would be more or less on the same footing; we are moving into a bilingualism that works better for some than for others and that maximizes inequality among communities. For the communities are not equally placed vis-à-vis English: Germanic speech communities have an advantage relative to Romance speech communities, and the latter are better placed than Slavic and Baltic communities. English is basically a Germanic language and thus close to German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages. It has a lot in common with these languages, not just at the level of basic vocabulary and grammar, but at much more subtle levels. There is a shared spirit to the languages of this family that is foreign to Romance and Slaviclanguages. Even if Romance language speakers are at a disadvantage in relation to their Germanic neighbours, they are much better off than Eastern Europeans. One of the difficulties of English has to do with its enormous vocabulary, roughly twice the size of any other European language, since a massive layer of French and Latin loans have been added to a Germanic base but has not replaced the original words. You do not know English if you have not learnt both fraternal and brotherly, both liberty and freedom, both vision and sight. A Westerner knows one of these terms beforehand, but not a Hungarian or an Estonian. The adoption of English as the means of international communication creates a hierarchy among the speech communities; it is not democratic.

A really realistic solution

The only way to avoid reinforcing the hegemonic position of English is to move the authorities and the media out of a state of slumber and denial. Unfortunately, coming to one's senses involves overcoming enormous resistance. The area I am about to venture into is one in which various bits of received wisdom are widely accepted, one in which very few people have made a serious effort to make sense of the facts. I trust you to listen with an open mind; all I ask is that you hear me out without letting preconceived notions get in the way. The various things I am about to say come from my own experience, especially my childhood, and from the facts I have studied, facts of culture, of pedagogy, of linguistics, of phonetics, of neuropsychology. I will stick to facts, which means that all the points I make are verifiable, even the ones some of you will find outrageous (2).

There is a realistic trilingualism available, one not vitiated by the difficulties of the model I have spoken about so far: the trilingualism of “mother tongue - Esperanto - another language”.

Esperanto is completely based on the right to generalize every linguistic pattern. This means, neuropsychologically speaking, that it spares us all those secondary and tertiary reflexes set up in other languages to inhibit the primary reflexes you start out with. Students learning a conventional language walking on a path where some sadist has planted a series of traps with the express purpose of tripping them up. Now, setting up those reflexes that keep you from falling into these traps takes up roughly 90% of the time it takes to learn a conventional language. Since Esperanto simply does not have these traps, the amount of learning time saved is enormous. If you learn Esperanto for a month, you reach a level of communicative proficiency that would take you a year to attain in any conventional language. In other words, after six months of Esperanto, if we hold the number of hours per week constant, the school children have a communicative competence level equivalent to what they would attain, for a conventional language, at the end of secondary school. This means that it is enough to teach Esperanto for one semester, say at the end of primary schooling or the beginning of secondary schooling, to implement the first stage: the bilingualism of “national language - international language”. Over the rest of their schooling, the students will now have, for the third language, all the hours the current system uses up for the second language.

Relational and pedagogic dimensions

The student's chances of attaining serious proficiency in this third language are now even brighter, for Esperanto has proved to be an excellent propaedeutic subject, i.e. a subject whose study heightens language awareness. A Frenchman studying German has to unlearn a complex, rigid and arbitrary system and move into the new habits of another complex, rigid and arbitrary system. To make the transition from je vous remercie to ich danke Ihnen, one needs to modify the pronoun placement reflexes and the ones that handle the directness or indirectness of the object complement. If I describe this as arbitrary, this is to stress that this replacement of reflexes has nothing to do with the needs of communication. If I were to say je remercie à vous in French, or I thank to you in English, literally translating the German formula, I would be understood without any difficulty. As far as as the communicative content is concerned, there would be nothing at all amiss. What makes such speaking fall short of optimal communication is the fact that if I were to say this I would sound odd; my audience and I would not be on the same footing; thus it is at the relational level that there would be a problem.

Now, this relational level may turn out to be important. Even when the content of an utterance is understood because the listeners are tuned in, the fact that unwanted connotations get in the way can become a serious problem. A Danish minister, Mrs Helle Degn, had just taken office when she had to chair an international meeting. Speaking in English, she wanted to say, “Sorry, I haven't got my bearings yet, I took charge only very recently”, but what she said was: “I'm at the beginning of my period(3). Everybody understood her, but what a blow to her prestige!

When speaking a foreign language, one often comes across as less intelligent than one actually is. If I say “I thank to you”, you follow what I mean, but you do not perceive me as the person I really am, there is something out of tune between us. One of the big pluses of Esperanto is that its enormous lexical and syntactic freedom enables it to avoid this type of problem. In Esperanto you can mimic the French pattern of “je vous remercie” and say mi vin dankas, or mimic the English structure of “I thank you” and say mi dankas vin, or mimic the German construction of “ich danke Ihnen” and say mi dankas al vi. Since all three patterns are equally standard, none of them sounds odd. Let us look at another example, this time in the lexical domain. In French, I can say vous chantez merveilleusement, `you sing marvellously', but I am not allowed to use the same pattern for the concepts of `music' and `beautiful': vous musiquez bellement `you music beautifully' would be understood but is wrong. In Esperanto, just as you can say vi kantas mirinde for `you sing marvellously', you can also say vi muzikas bele or vi bele muzikas, literally `you music beautifully'. In other words, children learning Esperanto learn how to express their thoughts along lines that are much more varied than in any conventional language, and learn this without undergoing the negative pedagogic experience of making mistakes. There is an expansion of their language awareness and linguistic creativity without the feeling of failure. This is extremely pleasant and encouraging. I can vouch for this. Esperanto was my first foreign language and gave me the taste for languages. Another psychological advantage of Esperanto is that it does not force you to wear somebody else's identity. Learning how to pronounce English amounts to learning how to ape the Anglo-Saxons. Many young people who are, physically perfectly equipped to pronounce it properly never make it, because of a psychological barrier. In order to imitate English pronunciation, one has to give up one's mother tongue habits in the placement of one's tongue, one's lips, one's velum and so on. This massive transformation is often experienced as a loss of identity. In Esperanto, everybody has a foreign accent, and great variations in pronunciation are regarded as entirely normal. Experience shows that in sharp contrast to what happens in the case of English, these variations in Esperanto do not affect intelligibility, for phonetic reasons that it would take too long to explain here. In other words, Esperanto is to a conventional language what practising scales is to a concert, what gymnastics is to skiing; Esperanto is designed to enable us to take seriously the articulation between two rigid and arbitrary systems. Experience shows that it does this enabling quite well. A class that has done one year of Esperanto plus five years of German reaches the same level of proficiency in German as another class that has done six straight years of German. The “lost” year is not a loss.

If our authorities, our representatives in the European Parliament and in the national parliaments, the political parties, the academic, economic and cultural elite really wanted Europeans to preserve their linguistic diversity, to keep their identity intact and yet become tolerant of different identities, to enlarge their cultural horizons and communicate across national boundaries with the same ease as in their mother tongue, they would acknowledge that the trilingualism of “mother tongue - Esperanto - another language” is found, on scrutiny, to be the only realistic solution. This is the conclusion one reaches when one takes a close look at how these things really work. I am insisting on this need for a close look because what is standardly said about language in the ministries, the European supranational agencies and the media is practically never connected to any examination of real life. That talk belittles the importance of the linguistic handicap in everyday life, it egregiously understates how hard it is to learn a language, it is reduced to hand-waving on all the crucial issues, and it dismisses Esperanto as an idea or a project, rather than a linguistic reality whose workings are easily inspected and judged.

The formula that I am suggesting is, then, the only realistic option at the content level, what one might call the technical level. Unfortunately, I'm afraid it is not yet realistic enough from the socio-politico-psychological point of view. On the one hand, the social forces working on behalf of the monopoly of English are extremely powerful. They have to do with power, with the social situation, with economic interests, but also with such influential factors as fashion and snobbery. On the other hand, there is a tenacious resistance to opening the "Esperanto" file. This is a domain where people in power, as well as many journalists and linguists, jump to conclusions without looking at the facts, as if they already knew all that there was to know, as if one could arrive at an understanding of the nature and functioning of Esperanto as well as the culture associated with it (4) without considering the record and without investigating how it works when it is used.

And yet the stakes are very high, for it is a matter of values as important as linguistic diversity, equality among the nations, and thus democracy itself at the European level. Many people are aware of just how high the stakes are. But very few of them, I'm afraid, have taken the trouble to find out what the options are for dealing with these issues, to investigate what has been happening in practice, and to make the comparisons without which one cannot come up with an objective take.

Fortunately, as Lincoln once said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” People are likely to wake up all of a sudden, and once they do, what needs to be done can in fact be done very quickly. Who knows if, by declaring 2001 the European languages year, the Council of Europe has not taken the crucial step that will at last elicit serious study of the facts, and will lead to solutions that represent genuine out-of-the-box thinking?


1. Claude Hagège, “Une langue disparaît tous les quinze jours”, L'Express - Dossier, 3/11/00.
2. Claude Piron, Le défi des langues - Du gâchis au bon sens, Paris: L'Harmattan, 2nd edition. 2001. See also “Linguistic Communication - A Comparative Field Study”
3. Jyllands Posten, 14 January 1994; Sprog og erhverv, 1, 1994.
4. Claude Piron, L'espéranto - L'image et la réalité, Paris: Université de Paris-8, 1987, pp. 12-15. See also Claude Piron, “Culture et espéranto”, SAT-Amikaro 393, March 1984.