Claude Piron

Article in "Cafebabel" (Victoria Donovan)

Dear Ms Donovan,

I'm referring to your article in Cafebabel.

The Esperanto option, you say, “would inevitably result in politicians speaking a different language to their electorate, effectively taking the demos out of democracy.”

I’m afraid you've mixed up two different situations. The politician-politician relationship is quite different from the politician-electorate one. What is paramount in the politician-politician relationship, if we value democracy, is that they stand on an equal footing. There is no equality if non-English-speakers are to use English in meetings or in interactions with colleagues who are native English speakers. This is the opposite of the democratic spirit, since it gives an unfair advantage to a given section of the people concerned without any merits on their part.

Unless you belong to the tiny minority of people who have been exceptionally privileged in the field of languages, when you express yourself in a foreign language, you are like a right-handed person forced to use his or her left hand. You’re awkward, you’re racking your brain for the right word, you have an accent which, whether it sounds bizarre, laughable or simply exotic, presents an image of you which is at variance with your real self, as it is perceived by your fellow citizens when you use your own language, your vocabulary is restricted so that you don’t say exactly what you want, you drop many nuances : your freedom of expression is limited, even if you’re not aware of it.

The European Parliament has emphasized this point in a report on language use:

“Whoever has struggled to learn a foreign language knows that a true capacity to speak one is a rare occurrence. As a rule, the mother tongue is the only one which can be mastered with all its subtlety. There is no doubt that one finds oneself politically most forceful when expressing oneself in one’s own language. Using the mother tongue is to enjoy an advantage over those who – willingly or not – are burdened with a language which is not their own.(European Parliament, Rapport sur le droit à l'utilisation de sa propre langue, 22 march 1994, p.10.)

For reasons pertaining to neuropsychology (see Claude Piron, "Le défi des langues" , Paris : L’Harmattan, 2nd ed. 2001, chapters 6 and 7), Esperanto is the only foreign language in which you can feel as much at ease as in your mother tongue. Age and number of hours per week being equal, six months of Esperanto give a communication capability which, in the case of English, demands six years. It suffices to compare in practice a few international sessions, some in English, some in Esperanto, to see how superior the latter are, whatever the criterion : spontaneity, equality among participants, precision, richness of expression, humour, etc. (see my article “Linguistic Communication – A Comparative Field Study”, This system is undeniably the most democratic : nobody is spared the effort of learning the language thanks to her or his birth place, but the required effort is quite reasonable, as compared with other languages : it’s a matter of a few months for all participants.

Moreover, if Esperanto is adopted at the politician-politician level, it will mean that its value has been acknowledged by governments. This official recognition will encourage simple citizens to learn the language, which is no big deal. The gap between politicians and electorate would thus disappear. Demos would return to democracy, simply through honest and factual information on the language situation and on the results of objective comparison of the different means applied by humankind to overcome the language barriers.

It would be wise to place the above considerations in the light of the data collected by Professor of Economics François Grin on the various options in language policy, and in particular to take into account two facts he emphasizes in a recent report (L’enseignement des langues vivantes étrangères comme politique publique, Geneva : Service de la recherche en éducation, 2005) :

(1) The advantage that the United Kingdom derives from the present dominant status of English can be estimated at 17 billion euros per year (without quantifying, of course, the superiority enjoyed by its citizens in any negotiation or discussion) ;

(2) The net amount that would be saved by Europe if it adopted Esperanto can be estimated at 25 billion euros per year.

Taking all those facts into consideration, is there any doubt about which is the most democratic approach ?

Yours sincerely,

(french version)