A linguistic challenge

Publié le vendredi 6 août 2004 par admin_sat

Haiving just returned from an Esperanto tourist week in Malta, an island where it is almost true that, in the cant phrase, "everyone speaks English".

I am reminded of the excellent discussion in the work headlined above. This book is indeed a challenge. The author is a psychologist and polygot teacher who sees our collective stumblings over language teaching, learning and usage as a collective neurosis - "the Babel syndrome." That millions of students suffer failure to learn and use foreign languages satisfactorily and the pitiful quality of many regularly used translations, appals him.

From personal encounters M. Piron instances examples of hard cases : such as the French traveller in Yugovslav Macedonia, a 23-year-old, who has a car accident : in hospital, he is next to a 25-year old worker, who speaks Macedonian and Serbo-Croat. Their nurse is charming but cannot communicate with him - for she speaks Croat, Slovene and Macedonian, Albanian, German and Italian but has only a dozen words of English. Again from the Balkans : someone going to help in a Romanian village where no one speaks English and only one has an approximate French. A few kilometres away, a folk-lore group has been invited. One speaks a bit of English, two speak German, but there is no way of communicating adequately.

As a very experienced translator and interpreter (for the U.N. and W.H.O.) who now teaches in the University of Geneva, the author is convinced that almost everyone gravely under-estimates the whole problem of language and its relevance to global affairs. Being a Francophone, he has the advantage of knowing one group of linguistic imperialists intimately while seeing the flaws and inadequacies in the pretensions of the Anglo-Saxon linguistic hegemony. He points out that a good proportuon of air accidents occur despite a "common" language - English.

This work exposes so clearly the defects and inadequacies of our present answers to language problems that it inspires real hope that something better will be accepted, as the pressure of those problems continues to grow. But the will o’ the wisp of machine translation will also continue to bewitch the politicians and romantics who believe that the present rise of English will progress inexorably, converting the world to a universal realisation of using the language of business and science for all human affairs into a future of total understanding.

Poppycock ! Not only will the Chinese go on using their own language but as the economic power there and elsewhere and the increase of non-Anglophone populations enormously unbalances the present linguistic set-up, there will be a refusal of the others to accept the hegemony of English. Because, no matter how much it is said to be international, English remains an imperialist language, with American domination, made ever more patent by the likes of 91 Bush, becoming resented by the linguistically handicapped masses.

It would be unfair to omit to mention that the second part of the book offers a remedy, although that will offend the prejudices of a great many people. Because the author has used and appreciated an international language for over 40 years, he is an unashamed protagonist of that language. Thus he advances all the usual arguments in favour of Esperanto, plus a few new ones. In this he will be very convincing to all but those whose minds are already made up against the adoption of that solution, because he uses psychology, linguistics, logic and common sense to forward the case. The book needs very much to be translated into English and circulated widely. Then it could include a remedy for its one defect - the lack of an index.