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The aliens have landed

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Paul Gubbins, University of Salford

International culture in a multinational world

On Tuesday, November 12, 1996, the worst mid-air collision in the history of aviation took place over India. All 350 passengers and crew aboard the two planes – a Saudi jumbo and Kazakhstan Ilyushin-76 – were killed. Preliminary investigation into the disaster indicated either equipment failure or – significantly – communication problems between the Kazakh pilot and Delhi air traffic control. One newspaper, The Guardian, reported on November 13: 'Indian aviation experts said that pilots from the former Soviet Union have always had problems in understanding instructions given in English.'

This statement should give pause for thought. English, it is widely claimed, is the international language, used the world over by 300 million mother-tongue speakers, by a further 300 million as a second language, and by and additional 100 million who use it 'fluently' as a foreign language (Crystal [1987: 358]). Nevertheless, aviation accidents in which English is a factor continue to be reported. Edward Johnson tried to estimate the number of lives lost as a result of obligatory English in aviation. He was concerned with the English 'often spoken by non-native pilots and ground controllers with different heavy accents and varying concepts of grammar' (Sunday Times, April 2, 1995). Professor Johnson abandoned his calculations when he reached 3,000 deaths – to which can now perhaps be added a further 350 from the Delhi disaster.

Misunderstanding between pilots and controllers arises not only between speakers from different language backgrounds but also between those sharing a supposedly common language. An incident was reported following the Delhi disaster when an 'American pilot, second in the queue to touch down at Gatwick, received the instruction to "pop over". The English controller meant he should keep circling, but the pilot thought he was being told to leap-frog the first plane and land in front.' (The Guardian, November 16, 1996)

Similar incidents involving English are reported elsewhere. When the oil tanker Sea Empress ran aground off Milford Haven in February, 1996, and deposited 72,000 tonnes of oil into the ocean, one of the reasons cited for the accident was the inability of the English-speaking pilot to communicate effectively with crew members for whom English was not the first language. Another incident involved the shooting of a Japanese exchange student on a visit to the USA. The student, dressed for Halloween, so terrified a householder that the latter reached for his gun, shouting to the student to 'freeze'. The student failed to understand the collloquial English, moved towards the householder, and was shot dead (The Guardian, June 12, 1993).

Clearly, perspective is required when discussing incidents such as these and, in particular, the function of English in them. English, having had the role of international language thrust upon it, has proved itself the principal vehicle in the late 20th century by which global community conducts its business, takes its leisure, or communicates: 60% of all radio broadcasts, 70% of addressed mail, 80% of data transfers and 85% of international telephone calls are, apparently, in English (The Guardian, November 5, 1996). The teaching of English as a foreign language is a growth industry: British and American publishers reap enormous dividends from the sale of English-language teaching material, and educational establishments benefit from an influx of students wishing to learn English. In 1993, 33% of Erasmus exchange students chose the United Kingdom, compared with 27% for France, 18% for Germany, and just 1% for Denmark and Portugal. English is big business, and those who dare to suggest that publishers and TEFL promoters are parasites, on the one hand feeding off the sense of material well-being that knowledge of English appears to bring, on the other hand cynically exploiting babel, the inability of men and women to communicate easily and directly with their own species, are condemned as out-of-touch reactionaries.

One person, frequently depicted as an out-of-touch reactionary, nevertheless put his finger on the limitations of English as a tool of international communication. Prince Charles, a regular visitor to countries where English is not the first language, dubbed the international language not English but 'broken English' (The Guardian, May 9, 1990). In other words, while the quantitative statistics concerning English are impressive, the qualitiative data are less so. English, while functioning in rudimentary fashion as a code by which drinks can be ordered, hotel room booked, airline tickets ordered, rarely goes much beyond this. The people who have the necessary time and money to devote to the 12,000 hours required to express themselves 'plus ou moins couramment' (Piron [1994: 79]) in a foreign language, including English, are few and far between. They form an elite: linguists, diplomats, members of the bureaucracies of international organisations such as the UN, NATO and the EU, together with a handful of politicians and businessmen. The majority of language learners are excluded from this elite, and many resent the time and effort invested merely to achieve survival, or subsurvival skills in their target foreign language.

Others suffer from the inequality inherent in the native/non-native speaker relationship. Native speakers enjoy considerable advantage over non-native speakers who can appear clumsy, inept and even stupid. This is one of the reasons – national pride is another – why the Chinese foreign ministry announced that from September 3, 1996, news briefings would no longer be in English but in Mandarin Chinese. The China News Digest (September 2, 1996) urged foreign journalists to drop their 'chauvinist ideas' about language – a clear indication of a backlash against Anglo-American linguistic imperialism or linguistic 'macdonaldsisation' (an ugly word for an ugly concept) of the global community.

Looked at in another way, the Chinese example – together with the qualitative weaknesses of English as a global means of communication – strikes at the heart of the cross-cultural dilemma. In simple terms, there is no national solution for an international problem. English is a national language, just like American; any attempt to operate in a multi-cultural environment is doomed, or can achieve at best limited success, if the means adopted to promote that multi-cultural environment are mono-cultural in origin. Language, the key to cross-cultural capability, must somehow contain in itself that same cross-cultural capability if it is to succeed in carrying out any non-national role which is assigned to it. A national language proves inadequate the moment it transcends its national bounds.

Once this erroneous notion – national means to achieve international ends – is recognised, the contortions of the global community as it attempts to establish terms of international reference can be understood. Global self-awareness and perception cannot be wrought with the tools of nationalism. Efforts to attain trans-national understanding through, for instance, foreign language teaching are rooted in nationalism. British schoolchildren, as a rule, learn just one language: French. Apart from the fact that the experience is enough to prompt 12 out of 13 boys to give up foreign language at the age of 16 (The Guardian, November 5, 1996), study of French is of scant assistance to a young person holidaying in Spain or taking a first job with a German company. The nationalistic mono-lingual, mono-cultural approach to foreign language learning can hardly be said, despite claims made for it, to raise international awareness or prepare users for survival in a multi-cultural world.

Nor can translation and interpreting, which lend an air of cross-culturalism to large and well-funded multinational organisations, be seen as anything other than a variation of the national game, a game, moreover, which favours inequality. The European Union, for example, discriminated against widely-used, but regional, languages such as Occitan (9.5–12 million speakers) and Catalan (5–7 million) – the figures are Crystal's (1987) – in favour of lesser used, but national, languages such as Danish (5–5 million) and Finnish (4.5–5 million). Furthermore, translation and interpreting lend undue influence to members of the linguistic elite. As Sara Su Jones (1993: 46) points out: 'The translation process has proved unsatisfactory as a means of communication. The presence of translators undermines confidentiality, while … discussions conducted through interpreters resemble parallel communications rather than truly spontaneous exchanges.' In addition, the financial costs are huge: Baratta and Clauss (1991: 146) calculated that in 1989 the European Union spent 1,400,000,000 ecus (over £1,000 million) of tax-payers' money on language services. That figure is now undoubtedly higher because of subsequent EU enlargement.

Thus, by the imperfect means of broken English, foreign language teaching or translation and interpreting, the world fumbles towards some sort of crude internationalisation. At best, this situation represents a compromise; at worst, a disaster. Is this really the best the global community can manage? In particular, is there an international solution for an international problem? Is there a pattern, a model, that might not only prove instructive but also hold the key to a multi-cultural community founded on respect, trust and understanding, where all peoples, of whatever linguistic or cultural origins, can have equal say in contributing to, and shaping, the new global order?

Fortunately, the response to these questions is not as utopian as it might seem. The reason is simple: the aliens have landed. Like all aliens, they bring alien notions, alien concepts, which appear at odds with current thinking and practice. Many of the ideas and inventions which, almost unnoticed have taken their place in mainstream thought and life started out as alien: Galileo's revolutionary belief in the solar system, George Stephenson's unwavering faith in railways, even the home computer, which in the 1970s was dismissed by IBM executives as a superfluous and irrelevant luxury. Today's alien creed is tomorrow's accepted doctrine; for this reason it is not too fanciful to imagine that one day the alien notions which currently attach themselves to the concept of an international auxiliary language – the international solution to an international problem – will be dispelled.

The aliens, in fact, have been around for almost 110 years. They landed in 1887 when the Polish doctor Ludoviko Lazarus Zamenhof published his international language, Esperanto. Zamenhof, a product of his time but, in his thinking, decades – even centuries – ahead of it, launched his language to demolish the linguistic walls separating mankind. In 1905, in a speech to the first international congress of Esperanto in Boulogne, France, Zamenhof summed up part of the rationale behind Esperanto: 'People from the most disparate countries and nations have gathered here, meeting not as if they are deaf and dumb but understanding each other, speaking as if they were brothers, as members of one nation.' (Zamenhof: 361) 'As if they were one nation' … this is the essence of cross-cultural awareness, the ability to engage with a person whose origins, linguistic and cultural, are fundamentally different from one's own; the ability to be able to integrate, easily and harmoniously, in the pluralistic, multi-cultural society which is a characteristic of the global community. As Zamenhof recognised, the key to internationalism is an international language, not a national language masquerading as an international lingua franca, a language which favours native speakers at the expense of others, but an accessible, neutral language, expressive yet easy to learn, which can be adopted without offence to national sensibilities and used in all walks of life.

Zamenhof, in planning his language, was merely following in the footsteps of literally hundreds of thinkers, including Descartes, Leibniz and Comenius, who, through the centuries, had understood the need for a neutral, universal language. Many schemes were proposed and published, most of which were banished to the footnotes of history. Only Esperanto spread, to the extent that it now has speakers officially registered in 88 countries in the world. During its brief existence – brief in the history of language development – it has engendered its own traditions and culture, including vibrant original literatiure. In 1993, the writers' association, PEN International, accepted Esperanto as a fully fledged literary language. Every day of every year there is at least one event somewhere in the world involving Esperanto; however, because of the Esperanto Diaspora, a better measure of use is provided by written communication. The November 1996 edition of the house-magazine of the official Esperanto movement (called, simply, Esperanto) reported 10,426 sites on the world wide web devoted to the language and its culture. On November 27 the web search engine AltaVista indicated 11,414 sites (an increase in some four weeks of almost 1,000 sites). It is apparent not only that the aliens have landed but that they are here to stay.

The example of Esperanto gives a clear indication that internationalism can work. International culture, 'world-mindedness', is not some vague or academic concept but reality for hundreds of thousands of users of Esperanto. Certainly, no one would pretend that Esperanto is anything other than a minority culture, but over 110 years it has grown significantly to reach its present proportions. The reasons are plain: Esperanto is some five times easier to learn than national languages; it has none of the irregularities and exceptions encountered in national languages, and above all it is neutral. It belongs to no one country or race but, instead, to all peoples and all races: charges of linguistic 'cocacolaisation' of the global community, complaints about linguistic imperialism (the objection raised by the Chinese foreign ministry), do not apply. These are Esperanto's strengths; these are what lift it above or other languages and make it so appropriate for the international function for which it was designed.

Designed. This is where the traditionalists rise up, refusing to countenance a so-called artificial language. Language, they claim, is organic; it must grow; it must develop naturally. That point is debatable: many national languages contain elements of artificiality. Speakers of German are currently agonising over language reforms designed – note designed – to remove certain anomalies. This is the principle behind Esperanto: removal of anomalies to render the language as accessible as possible. Presumably, objectors to the alleged artificiality of Esperanto refuse to adopt the metric system, given that this is measurement based not on parts of the human body but on a forty-millionth part of the meridian of the earth. The fact that an item is assessed by an artificial, planned system of measurement does not invalidate that object. Perhaps, too, those same objectors scorn the car or aeroplane, claiming these are planned artefacts which in some way violate the natural sanctity of walking. Zamenhof countered such arguments by pointing out in his essay Esenco kaj Estonteco (Essence and Future) of 1900 that it is perfectly possible to despatch goods from Paris to Saint Petersburg by horse but nobody in their right mind would do so in the age of the train (Zamenhof: 300). It is curious and illogical that society should be prepared to accept artificiality in every area of life – even the most beautiful garden rose is a product of intense cultivation – other than in language. A problem arises; a solution is planned, designed and executed. Why should there be so much fuss about accepting a successful, tried and tested design to solve the problems of multi-culturalism?

Moreover, the so-called artificiality of Esperanto is much exaggerated. Many of Esperanto's words are instantly recognisable: tablo, for instance, is English or French 'table' minus the arbitrary e-ending and given an o-ending to denote a noun. Trinki is clearly related to English 'drink' or German 'trinken': the i-ending denotes an infinitive. The Esperanto for 'yes' is jes, pronounced exactly as in English: where is the artificiality here? Zamenhof's genius consisted in taking elements of existing languages, stripping them of redundancy and irregularity, and creating a flexible, expressive and cohesive whole. The Esperanto poet William Auld sees his chosen language as a work of art akin to the Mona Lisa or the nine symphonies of Beethoven; indeed, Auld argues, Esperanto is more, for it is not only a major work of art but also a potent tool for the creation of yet more works of art. As such it is probably unique in the history of civilisation.

So too, because Esperanto is unique, because Esperanto presents a Weltanschauung in the true sense of the word, it is treated with suspicion, with hostility, with contempt. The global community prefers the known to the unknown, the safe to the audacious, the national to the international. It prefers the opacity of Anglo-American linguistic imperialism, elitist language-teaching or expensive translation and interpreting to the clarity that a planned international language such as Esperanto, the key to cross-culturalism, could bring. World leaders, of course, favour the linguistic status quo, despite fine words about collaboration and cooperation with neighbours and partners. Babel, as Zamenhof recognised, divides the peoples of the world, it militates against understanding and trust. An international auxiliary language – God forbid! – might enable ordinary people from different countries to speak to each other, to discover truths inimical to political propaganda or the poison of the popular press. For politicians, and others, the present fudge, the veneer of cross-culturalism, is a far safer bet than allowing genuine engagement at all levels between all peoples.

Meanwhile, Esperanto stands patiently in the wings, waiting to be called centre-stage to assume the role for which it was intended. Some esperantists seek to hasten that movement, but evangelical esperantism is being replaced by a maturity and a conviction that the inner strength of Esperanto – its culture, its moral values, its internatioanlism – are of greater significance, and will ultimately serve it better, than worthy but vain attempts to convert the uninterested. There is no question, nor was there ever, that Esperanto should replace other languages, and even the notion that Esperanto should become a second language for everyone is waning. Indeed, its significance as cultural role-model for a multi-cultural global community is slowly being understood, both inside and outside the Esperanto movement. It is this, as much as the language itself, that makes Esperanto so exciting.

If its detractors – and there are many, most of whom know little or nothing about the language and its culture – took the trouble to visit the principal event in the Esperanto calendar, the Universal Congress, they would find people, generally from over 60 countries, conversing easily, fluently and enthusiastically, without recourse to interpreters, on matters ranging from the mundane to the esoteric. If those same detractors took time to study the achievements, organisation and philosophy of the Esperanto movement, they would realise not only that internationalism works, not only that cross-culturalism can flourish, but also that it can do so cost-effectively and in a spirit of mutual respect and equality. Like it or not, the aliens have landed; they are among us; they are not going to leave. It is time to work with them, not against them.


Baratta, M. and Clauss, J.U. (1991) Internationale Organisationen. Frankfurt: Fischer.

Crystal, D. (1987) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: CUP.

Jones, S.S. (1993) Power of Babel: The Struggle to Balance Linguistic Unity and Diversity. Harvard International Review, Vol. XV, 4.

Piron, C. (1994) Le défi des langues: Du gâchis au bon sens. Paris: Harmattan.

UK Erasmus Student Grants Council (1993) Erasmus and Lingua Action II: Statistics Abstract 1991–1993.

Zamenhof, L.L. (1929) Originala Verkaro (Original Collected Works). Leipzig: Hirt.

Ĉi tiu artikolo aperis en La Brita Esperantisto de septembro-oktobro 1997.

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