The word kills more than the sword.
The word kills more than the sword.. Echoing the sense of this universal old adage, in 1908 Gandhi went so far as to claim: «To give millions a knowledge of English is to enslave them». Now the bell is tolling for 90% of the world’s languages and cultures, threatened above all by English, and the old adage is more relevant than ever.
The War of Languages is now a much more concrete and terrible reality than the widely-feared war of religions between the Christian and Islamic cultures.
Much more concrete and terrible not only because the heritage at stake is much greater in numerical terms than that of religions, but above all because the War of Languages, unlike wars of religion, does not aim to change your moral values and customs but your way of thinking, the instrument of your thoughts.
Do you remember the N-bomb? The bomb that does not destroy houses, roads and objects, but only living beings, while everything else remains intact. Well, the War of Languages is similar, it leaves your body intact and destroys your “soul”, the instrument you have used since you were a child to think and to understand the world.
Does this mean being enslaved, as Gandhi claimed with regard to the imposition of the English language?
I am not absolutely sure of this. I think that much depends on whether a certain language is chosen rather than imposed through arrogance. As the British and Americans are doing increasingly shamelessly: why, for example, are bilingual Arab-English textbooks now being imposed in schools in liberated Iraq?
And if we move from Iraq to the European Union, where the effects of the monopoly of the English language are increasingly evident, we can immediately see a certain obtuseness at the highest institutional levels.
This is the case with the Consultation on language-learning and language diversity recently concluded by the Commission, in which European citizens were asked what could be done to make the study of a second foreign language compulsory in all the Member States.
In the document illustrating the issue (page 6, the last two lines of the penultimate paragraph), we discover that: «As far as geographical differences are concerned, only 13% of Danish, Swedish and Dutch speak only one language, as against 66% of the inhabitants of the United Kingdom.»
If this is the case, anyone in their right mind would think: “Well, seeing that there is only one Member State in which over half of the population do not even know one foreign language, what can the Commission do to make the British decide to learn at least one, matching the obligations of schoolchildren in the whole of the rest of the Union?”
But no! While British kids continue not to give a damn about learning any language apart from their own, the Commission wants to OBLIGE children in the rest of Europe to learn TWO!
Do schoolchildren in the rest of Europe intend to complain about this second linguistic tax imposed on them, or do they intend to continue to accept the blatant injustice that sees them doubly penalised compared to children of the same age in the United Kingdom?
In any case, two main issues depend on the question of languages in Europe:
1. the salvation (in the sense of not becoming dialects) of our national languages;
2. the economic, social and political development of the Union.
Let us begin by considering the first point:
that the linguistic and cultural patrimony of humanity has diminished considerably, and that it is doomed to diminished much further, is clear from the statistics and forecasts of all the experts (both scholars and research bodies). Although estimates vary slightly, it is generally believed that around 90% of the world’s languages will disappear by the end of the century.
The environmentalist associations often inform us that a certain plant or a certain animal is in danger of extinction, and we are suitably alarmed, but no-one seems particularly concerned by that fact that one or two languages disappear from the face of the earth every week. Even linguists, who see the object of their studies diminishing by the week, seem to be dazed, almost petrified in the face of this huge loss. Everyone understands that each language that disappears takes with it not just a way and a model of life but also a patrimony of knowledge.
A piece of the culture, history and diversity of the world dies with it.
Equally clear is the fact that the main culprit of this linguistic and cultural genocide is – and will continue increasingly to be, due to a macabre domino effect – the English language, or rather the American language. The fact is so self-evident and important that even the highly cautious UNESCO, in the resolution on plurilinguism in education adopted by the 30th General Conference, warned of the «danger now threatening linguistic diversity because of the globalisation of communication and the tendency to use a single language, with the risk of marginalisation for the other major languages of the world, and even of extinction for less widely-used languages, beginning with regional languages».
But beyond “linguicidal” English, as The Independent of 20 March 2003 defined it, we also need to look at the role of the English language in the context of world empire, an issue examined by The Economist. in a long article published on 20 December 2001, entitled The triumph of English: a world empire by other means, which can be summarised in five main points:
I. English is difficult.
The Economist explains that English has not become the global language «because English is easy. True, genders are simple, since English relies on “it” as the pronoun for all inanimate nouns, reserving masculine for bona fide males and feminine for females (and countries and ships). But the verbs tend to be irregular, the grammar bizarre and the match between spelling and pronunciation a nightmare. English is now so widely spoken in so many places that umpteen versions have evolved, some so peculiar that even “native” speakers may have trouble understanding each other. But if only one version existed, that would present difficulties enough. Even everyday English is a language of subtlety, nuance and complexity. John Simmons, a language consultant for Interbrand, likes to cite the word “set”, an apparently simple word that takes on different meanings in a sporting, cooking, social or mathematical context—and that is before any little words are combined with it. Then, as a verb, it becomes “set aside”, “set up”, “set down”, “set in”, “set on”, “set about”, “set against” and so on, terms that “leave even native speakers bewildered about [its] core meaning.
This difficulty has also been implicitly acknowledged by the Italian government in its decision to bring forward the study of English by another two years, now beginning at primary school.
Despite this, English has become established as the world language, the real reason being «the triumph of the English-speaking United States of America as a world power».
II. English as the imperial language of the US.
According to The Economist, the practical effect of “the triumph of English” in the world is the construction of the world empire of the United States of America.
This observation, that the mother of all American multinationals is the English language, so to speak, comes not from a representative of the no-global movement, but from The Economist, the most prestigious European business magazine.
III. English as the destroyer of languages and of the “market” of languages.
«Languages are not only means of communication which allow one nation to converse with another. They are also stores of cultures and identities. And in many countries the omnivorous advance of English threatens to damage or destroy much of the local culture. Even England itself often complains of this: although the language that is now making a clean sweep in the world is English, the culture it conveys is American.»
With respect to what we have called the “war of languages”, the British daily The independent is even blunter: «Is it not an even more sinister form of the colonialism we practised a hundred years ago? Not too long ago we took their raw materials. Now we invade their minds, by changing the primary tool by which they think: “their” language.»
IV. The monolingualism of native English speakers.
«Native English speakers are becoming increasingly less competent in other languages: last year only nine students graduated in Arabic in American universities, and the British are the most monolingual of the peoples of the European Union. So the triumph of English not only destroys the languages of others, but also isolates native English speakers from the literature, the history and the ideas of other peoples. It is, in other words, a Pyrrhic victory.»
On this subject, it is worth recalling an article by Passarini entitled “Monolingual England”, published in La Stampa on 12 February 2002, which describes an appeal from the ambassadors of Italy, Germany, Spain and France asking the British government to improve language-teaching in state schools because schools in continental Europe had (and still have) long queues of requests for exchange projects, but were unable to organise them because of the lack of foreign language courses in English schools. How can you have cultural exchanges with British kids if they don’t learn any other languages?
Passarini also cited the words of Estelle Morris, Secretary of State for Education, who admitted openly that “Great Britain is the only European nation that does not teach foreign languages in secondary schools”.
What is absurd is that while the Italian Ambassador was begging the English: “Please learn other languages, understand their utility. It happens all over Europe, but not in Great Britain,” in Italy we have now brought English teaching forward to primary school and made a second foreign language compulsory at secondary level. And nobody, on the left or the right, seems to be remotely scandalised by this.
V. The pointlessness of measures for the protection of languages
On this subject The Economist cites a whole series of legislative and other initiatives: in France, Spain, Germany and Poland, and even in English-speaking Canada – against «the violent publishing attack by the United States» which jeopardises the Canadian publishing industry. An episode that is further proof of the fact that linguistic hegemony leads to economic hegemony, and where the former is accomplished the latter follows on immediately.
All these measures, however, have failed to halt the spread of American English in all the countries of the world.
It is clear, therefore, that the attempt to save our languages through the introduction of a compulsory second language at secondary school level or by encouraging the teaching of the minor and native languages spoken in many European countries are nothing but palliatives, whose only result will be to prolong the agony of the death or the dialectisation of our languages.
What we need to adopt as a method of struggle against the premature death of languages is the method of “biological struggle”. A method which is increasingly used with success in the world of agriculture against parasites and other threats.
In order to understand which “biological” solution to turn to, we must first consider the essential role that English now plays in the world: that of a transnational language. English has acquired this role in a hegemonic framework, as The Economist explains, thanks to the fact that it is the language of the most powerful country in the world, but the hegemonic path to the monopoly of international communication cannot be accepted by democratic Europe, in the knowledge that this monopoly, with the help of the mass media, condemns its own languages to death and its own citizens to non-communication.
With almost 20 official languages after enlargement, Europe must find and uphold the democratic path to international communication. First of all by separating the concepts implied by transnational communication from the cultural requirements of learning a foreign language not out of need, but out of the desire to do so.
a) behind the concept of international language there must be the idea of a language that serves to safeguard everybody in transnational communication without any discrimination whatsoever. And by everybody I mean everybody: a simple language that can be learned fully at school, and also by those who have left school long ago, a sort of public language (just as there is public education and a public health service, in the sense that they are for everybody), a language of social communication which, being public and social, does not belong to any “private” linguistic system (in the sense of ethnic, in other words French, English, Japanese, …) and does not favour a richer class or a more powerful people.
b) the concept of foreign language must return once again to the healthy, humanistic concept of study for the understanding of cultures and peoples: not, as happens now, I must study English to get a job but, for example, I want to study Arabic because I am curious to learn about a culture so different from my own. Thus finally freeing the market of languages from the monopolistic and monopolising shackles that suffocate and destroy diversity.
Having traced these conceptual and operative lines, the solution to international communication/the salvation of languages has only one name: the International Language, Internacia Lingvo or, as it has been called, Esperanto: I prefer the original name, not that of the pseudonym of its creator (Dr. Esperanto) with which it was subsequently labelled, because it conveys more fully its political and democratic role.
Let us consider the matter in more detail. Why is the International Language capable of making a powerful contribution to what I have called the biological struggle against the premature destruction of languages?
– First of all because of its simplicity, and thus of the fact that it is easy to learn. The ratio with English is 1 to 20, in other words while experts put the average number of hours needed to learn English at 10,000, for the International Language 500 hours is enough to achieve complete mastery. This means it can be learned easily at school, leaving enough room for the free and liberated study of foreign languages.
– Secondly, because of the fact that it is not the mother tongue of any single ethnic group, being the fruit of invention. It is precisely this factor that allows all languages – national or regional – to be protected from any linguistic and cultural colonialism and/or destruction. In other words, we are no longer involved in a clash between more powerful peoples and poorer peoples, but are all in a sort of “world organisation of linguistic democracy”.
If we now move from the world context to that of our own continent and to the need to consolidate and develop the integration of Europe, the scenario acquires much more worrying outlines.
In The Costs of European Linguistic Non-Communication, edited by R. Selten (winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics), I set out the costs before enlargement that citizens have to pay for their linguistic non-communication. With such high costs for a Union comprising eleven languages, it is easy to imagine what they will be when there are almost twenty languages and a population almost twice that of the United States. Those who wish to can read the article for themselves by purchasing the book on-line at www.linguainternazionale.it: what must be considered now, however, is that without an official common language in the Union free circulation, the economy, and the labour market for millions of Eurocitizens will be blocked. Europe will not get out of first gear.
After the introduction of the Euro, if we want to build a Europe that is not a permanent political dwarf we must give high priority to the introduction of the International Language, a European public language, the same for everyone (including the British!), which everyone can feel as their own, at the same time preserving their native tongues. The serious political error of the European Federalist Movement, or of European federalists in general, has been precisely this: not to have realised that without a “federal language” the European federation could not (and cannot) get off the ground for the simple reason that hundreds of millions of people, although members in theory, are actually kept out.
On this point, too, we cannot fail to recognise the political failure of those who, in terms of the European language, have placed their money on English. Since the Second World War, English has been the main foreign language studied in schools in Italy (and elsewhere). Yet how many Italians can communicate fluently in English? No more than 10% of the population, at an optimistic estimate! Despite the appeal of rock music, the threats that “you won’t find a job if you don’t study English”, Hollywood movies, and so on.
Having illustrated in general terms the need for the International Language, we must now address the issue of how to turn it into reality. First of all, we must remember that it is not a matter of imposing the International Language, but of beginning to pose it, recognising its national, European and international importance, an importance that regards the whole non-English-speaking world. In the face of admissions such as that of The Independent, «Now we invade their minds, by changing the primary tool by which they think: “their” language», there would seem to be no reasonable counter-arguments: the king is clearly more than naked, he is stripped to the bone.
Let us begin, then, from what should already be done at national level in Europe:
1. First of all, information, especially on state TV, and also on the conference circuit, specialised or otherwise (how many of the innumerable associations and institutions that utter the word “peace” countless times a day have raised the issue of how important a common language that does not favour privileged peoples or classes would be for peace in the world? Of how important it would be, in developing countries, for rapid international literacy?), and in parliaments (parliamentary questions and hearings in the relevant parliamentary committees), starting out precisely from the observations made by the English-speaking press.
2. The presentation of laws that do not create a fast track for the International Language but simply place it at the same level as the foreign languages now studied at school level, allowing fair competition between the international public language and the national private languages (hegemonic or otherwise).
As I have already pointed out, it is not a question of imposing it, but of posing it, giving those who wish the chance to choose it. As far as job applications are concerned, this also means that when “knowledge of one or more foreign languages” is required, the language of transnational social communication should be included among the languages permitted.
2.1. With regard to laws for the inclusion of the study of the International Language in school curricula, the results of research carried out in the past by the Institute of Cybernetic Pedagogy of the University of Berlin and Paderborn should be borne in mind: two years propaedeutic study of the International Language greatly facilitate the teaching of foreign languages. As far as English is concerned, the research showed that children who studied two years of Esperanto followed by two years of English fared much better than those who studied English alone for four years.
3. At EU level, the question of the linguistic holocaust and the neutral European language in the construction and the consolidation of Europe in view of enlargement and after the Euro must be brought to the attention of the Member States. Three main fields of intervention are possible:
a) that of Education: bearing in mind the observations on Esperanto in Circular 126 of 1995 of the Italian Ministry of Education – the 44-page text can be downloaded from Errore. L’origine riferimento non è stata trovata. – plans could be made for the gradual experimentation and introduction of the International Language in all the Member States and in the EU institutions – in the latter case experimentation could begin with the use of Esperanto as a “relay” language between interpreters and translators;
b) that of the economy: the key is the relaunch of the European economy through the free circulation of all the millions of European citizens and small businesses – also needed here is a review of the system of European patents, partly in the light of the fact that the US Patent Office grants patents on living organisms;
c) that of Defence: in relation to the creation before the end of 2003 of the nucleus of a European rapid intervention force. Esperanto, it is worth pointing out, was used by the United States army for training exercises in the early 1960s. The soldiers playing the role of the enemy had to learn Esperanto and use it during training exercises. The experiment did not last long because American Esperantists voiced strong protests: the title of the military handbook was Esperanto, the aggressor language. Definitely too much for a language born to contribute to the construction of world peace. It is also true, however, that the episode shows that the problem is maybe not to think in American, but to think American.
4. Finally, though no less important in terms of political consequences, the need to address the issue with the English-speaking countries themselves: beginning with the United States and the United Kingdom.
Trusting in their good faith, we might argue as follows: dear British and American friends, since your own newspapers have pointed, at times in very blunt terms, to the serious risk of extinction for many of the world’s languages, mainly as a result of the expansion of English, why – in the name of international democracy, equal opportunities between individuals and peoples, the salvation of the world’s linguistic and cultural heritage, and so on – do you not give your backing in the English-language media and in all the international bodies, with the powers of persuasion of which you are capable, to a language which, like the International Language, can avoid the worst and bring out the best of globalisation?