Claude Piron

Open letter to the members of the European Parliament

15 February 1996

Dear Member of Parliament,

In Article 10, the European Convention on human rights and basic liberties states, with regard to freedom of expression, that this right encompasses the freedom to receive and communicate information and ideas regardless of frontiers.

Certainly, it is not in the spirit of the Convention to reserve that right de facto for an élite. Concrete measures designed to enable all citizens to exercise it fully need to be seriously studied. Such is the purpose of this open letter. But first allow us to clarify the matter by formulating four basic questions.

1. Do you deem it important, in building Europe, that all citizens be able to communicate with one another, regardless of frontiers, with maximum fluency?

2. Do you deem it acceptable that, in a continent which advocates cultural diversity, 90% of young people choose to learn the same foreign language - English - which gives Anglo-Saxons a disproportionate cultural influence and seriously limits the chances of mutual understanding among various cultures?

3. Do you consider it in conformity with democratic principles that the European population finds itself - de facto - divided between English and non-English speakers, as well as between people able to learn English and people deprived of the means of doing so (for reasons relating not only to financial resources, but also to intellectual ability and available time)?

4. Do you recognise that the prevalence of English is due to a desire to communicate across frontiers, which implies that the communication language be the same for everyone? (In other words, that all the efforts invested in the acquisition of a foreign language are useless for inter-European communication if those concerned have no common tongue.)

The ground being thus prepared, we would like to draw your attention to a series of facts which point to an interesting way of solving the problem. The references will help you to verify this information. Each statement is followed by a "challenging sentence" (in bold type) aiming at making you conscious of the fact that, in the field of languages, our society tends to substitute prejudices and hearsay for objective knowledge of reality.

1. The real mastery of English is beyond the power of most Europeans (above all in countries where Germanic languages are not spoken).(1) If you challenge this fact, please tell us on what evidence you base your challenge.

2. Every national language is so difficult that after six or seven years of study for four hours a week, the average pupil is not capable of communicating on an equal footing with a speaker of the language he has learnt.(2) If you challenge this fact, please tell us on what evidence you base your challenge.

3. Given an equal number of study hours per week, one year of Esperanto provides a communication capability clearly superior to that which the average pupil has reached in other languages at the end of six or seven years of study, so much so that Esperanto no longer feels like a foreign language.(3) If you challenge this fact, please tell us on what evidence you base your challenge.

4. This speed in mastering the language is due to the fact that Esperanto follows more closely than any other language the paths of spontaneous linguistic expression used by the human brain.(4) If you challenge this fact, please tell us on what evidence you base your challenge.

5. The study of Esperanto at an early age stimulates and helps the student to acquire other languages later in life.(5) If you challenge this fact, please tell us on what evidence you base your challenge.

6. As a rule, people who have learnt Esperanto know more about other cultures than those who have learnt no other language or have learnt only English. If you challenge this fact, please tell us on what evidence you base your challenge.

7. Everyone who has researched the Esperanto milieu confirms that the study and use of Esperanto entail no disadvantage.(6) If you challenge this fact, please list the relevant disadvantages and tell us on what evidence you base your challenge.

8. The principles of operational research can be applied to comparison in the field between the various communication methods used by people with different mother tongues: use of English, translation and simultaneous interpretation, use of Esperanto, use of a language not really mastered, gestures, and so forth. If the relevant criteria are applied - duration needed to reach the required communication level, precision, economy, absence of nervous fatigue, fluency, ease in expressing feelings, ease in drafting and editing, equality between communicators, spontaneity, richness of expression, immediate response to humour, etc. - Esperanto is found to be clearly superior to all other systems. (7) If you challenge this superiority, please tell us on what evidence you base your challenge.

9. The fact of choosing Esperanto as a preferred means of international communication is often associated with a particularly strong bond with the local culture and with a strengthening of regional or national identity.(8) If you challenge this fact, please tell us on what evidence you base your challenge.

10. Unfavourable criticism of Esperanto invariably comes from people who have not checked the facts and have not compared Esperanto, in practice, with the other methods applied to communication between people with different languages.(9) If you challenge this observation, please quote authorities who unfavourably judge Esperanto on the basis of objective research: study of the Esperanto milieu; observation of meetings; analysis of recorded conversations; study of literary texts; research in Esperanto magazines; comparison of translations; teaching experiments; etc.

11. Esperanto is a language remarkable for its flexibility, vigour and richness of expression, as testified by its literature.(10) If you challenge the literary qualities of Esperanto, please tell us on what evidence you base your challenge.

The above facts cannot be ignored. When you examine them, you will find that the researchers and authors who have studied them in practice unanimously reach the same conclusion, namely, that of all communication systems employed among people with different mother tongues, Esperanto is the means which presents for the majority of people the maximum advantages and the minimum disadvantages.(11)

We are certain that your responsibilities in serving Europe and the Europeans are of vital importance to you. Therefore, taking into account the facts reported above, we ask you to take action in the European Parliament with a view to:

a) counteracting the influence of the misleading assertions often spread about Esperanto, which only result in depriving Europeans of the ability to effectively exercise their right of communication;

b) explicitly recommending the study and practice of Esperanto;

c) inviting the Member States to consider the possibility of introducing the teaching of Esperanto in schools as a first foreign language in order to prepare for later study of other languages;

d) warning Europeans of the dangers which the dominant position accorded to English in international life creates for the cultural diversity of Europe, democracy and the development of a local identity, dangers which widespread use of Esperanto would avoid.

Do you agree to take such action? If not, please explain the basis of your refusal. It is particularly important to us to know how you rate that refusal to be compatible with:

- official statements emphasising the need to promote mutual knowledge of the various European cultures;

- the moral duty of every Member State to use money received from tax-payers as efficiently as possible;

- the right of every citizen, recognised in article 10 of the previously mentioned Convention, "to receive or communicate information and ideas regardless of frontiers".

To proclaim a right, but refuse to inform its beneficiaries of the most suitable means of exercising it, is hypocritical.

The European traditions of mutual respect and intellectual honesty forbid making a judgement before the relevant information has been studied and the facts have been checked. But in the area here dealt with, it is a common practice to make unsubstantiated judgements. We trust your sense of responsibility to reverse the present trend, with a view to advancing objectivity and a democratic spirit. Democracy cannot exist without discussion, and debate at no cost on all levels of the social scale is only possible when those involved have at their disposal a suitable common medium for the exchange of ideas and information. When you agreed to represent a section of the European population, you accepted the responsibility of ensuring respect for basic rights and liberties, including the right to communicate. That responsibility involves impartial study of the various alternatives available to overcome language barriers, as well as action in favour of the most advantageous.

If you wish to receive further information, please do not hesitate to contact us.

We thank you for the attention which you will devote to this open letter.

Yours respectfully,

Claude Piron
Antonio Alonso Núñez, Rosa 26-5°-C, ES-15701 Santiago de Compostela
Märtha Andreasson, L. Tolseredsväg 2265, SE-426 42 Hisings Kärra
Raymond Boré, 481 Square Zamenhof, FR-73000 Chambéry
Umberto Broccatelli, Via G. Brodolini 10, IT-00139 Rome
David R. Curtis, 7 St Jude's Terrace, Weston-super-Mare, BS22 8HB, GB
Giordano Formizzi, FEI, Via Villoresi 38, IT-20143 Milan
Miguel Faria de Bastos, Edificio America, Rua S. Pereira Gomes 7.9°-906, PT-1600 Lisbon
Ejnar Hjorth, Christianasgade 38-2, DK-9000 Ålborg
R. Hoogendoorn, P.C. Hooftlaan 14, NL-3768 GS Soest
Liam O'Cuirc, 14 Céide Ghleann Alainn, Séipéal Iosoide, Ath Cliath 20, Ireland
Germain Pirlot, Steenbakkersstraat 21, BE-8400 Ostend
Angelos Tsirimokos, 405 Avenue Louise, BE-1060 Brussels
Katrin Uhlmann, Beethovenallee 7, DE-53173 Bonn


1. See Mark Fettes, "Europe's Babylon: Towards a single European Language?", History of European Ideas, 1991, 13, No 3, pages 201-202. An enquiry carried out by Lintas Worldwide revealed that 94% of European Union residents are unable to understand an average sample of English. In France, 82% of the switchboard operators in businesses and institutions contacted were unable to answer elementary questions put to them in English. ("Une enquète exclusive Multilignes-Actiphone/Challenges - La standardiste file à l'anglaise", Challenges, February 1995, page 80).

2. "Everyone who has tried to learn a foreign language knows that true multilingualism is rare. As a rule, the mother tongue is the only one in which all the nuances are mastered. One is politically stronger when one speaks one's own language. Expressing oneself in one's own language provides an advantage over those who, whether they like it or not, are forced to use another language." (European Parliament, Rapport sur le droit à l'utilisation de sa propre langue, 22 mars 1994, A3-0162/94, DOC. FR/RR/249/249436.MLT PE 207.826/déf., page 10).

3. Helmar Frank, "Empirische Ergebnisse des Sprachorientierungsunterrichts", Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprach- wissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung, 1983, 6, pages 684-687. "Although it is not a mother tongue, Esperanto is not a foreign language either. By experienced Esperanto users it is never felt to be a foreign language." (Pierre Janton, "La résistance psychologique aux langues construites, en particulier à l'espéranto", Journée d'étude sur l'espéranto, Paris: University of Paris-8, Institute of applied linguistics and language teaching, 1983, page 70). On the subject of the easiness of Esperanto, see also, for example, Norman Williams, Report on the teaching of Esperanto from 1948 to 1964 (Manchester: Denton Ergeton Park County School, 1965); Claude Piron, "L'espéranto vu sous l'angle psychopédagogique", Bildungsforschung und Bildungspraxis / Éducation et Recherche, 1986, 8, 1, pages 11-39; Richard E. Wood, "Teaching the Interlanguage: Some Experiments", Lektos (Louisville: Modern Language Association, 1975), page 68.

4. Claude Piron, Le défi des langues (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1994), chapters VI and VII.

5. This is confirmed by the Esperanto working group of the Finnish Ministry of Education: "The results of teaching experiments show that an introductory Esperanto course considerably improves the success of students in the study of foreign languages" (Opetusministeriön Työryhmien Muistioita, Opetusministeriön Esperantotyöryhmän Muistio, Helsinki: Ministry of Education, 1984, page 28). A comprehensive bibliography on the subject, entitled Propädeutischer Wert der "Internacia Lingvo", can be obtained from the Cybernetic Institute of the University of Paderborn, Germany.

6. Except for the psychological and social disadvantages which can be suffered when truth is preferred to prejudice and a satisfactory, albeit uncommon, choice to choices dictated by fashion.

7. See Canadian Centre for Linguistic Rights, "Une solution à étudier: l'espéranto", Towards a Language Agenda: Futuristic Outlook on the United Nations (Ottawa: Faculty of Law, Conference of 25-27 May 1995), awaiting publication; summary in the interim document. See also Esperanto as an International Auxiliary Language. Report of the General Secretariat, adopted by the Third Assembly (Geneva: League of Nations, document A.5 (1), 1922).

8. "Espéranto: l'image et la réalité", Cours et études de linguistique contrastive et appliquée, No 66 (Paris: University of Paris-8, 1987), first paragraph of page 15 and bibliographical references page 41. See also pages 270-272 of the above mentioned study Le défi des langues (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1994).

9. Alessandro Bausani, "Funzione e pregi dell'Esperanto", in Andrea Chiti-Batelli, ed., La comunicazione internazionale tra politica e glottodidattica (Milan: Marzorati, 1987), page 121.

10. "Esperanto is by no means a uniform, robotic language, but, on the contrary, it is a language which is natural and flexible. It can express the most subtle nuances of thought and feeling, thus enabling the highest degree of correct, literary and aesthetic expression, which will satisfy the most demanding and exacting minds; it cannot cause concern to those who faithfully adhere to their native tongue" (Maurice Genevoix, French writer, Secretary of the French Academy, being interviewed by Pierre Delaire, French National Radio Network, 18 February 1955). About Esperanto literature, see Pierre Janton, L'espéranto (Paris: PUF, 1978), ch. V; Humphrey Tonkin, Code or Culture: the Case of Esperanto (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1968); Margaret Hagler, The Esperanto Language as a Literary Medium (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Indiana, 1971); William Auld, "The development of poetic language in Esperanto", Esperanto Documents (Rotterdam: UEA, 1976, No 4 A). The fact that the international PEN-Club now has an Esperanto section is evidence of the notable level of the literature published in Esperanto.

11. Andrea Chiti-Batelli, La politica d'insegnamento delle lingue nella Comunità europea (Rome: Armando, 1988), especially pages 142-156. See also Umberto Eco, La ricerca della lingua perfetta (Bari: Laterza, 1993), pages 350-357.