The hidden perverse effects of the current system of international communication

(Speech delivered by Claude Piron (, Switzerland, at the Inter-national Youth Forum "Interweek", Akademgorodok / Novosibirsk, Siberia, Russia, 15 May 1994, with a few modifications)

There is so much interdependence in today's world that we can regard mankind, or even the Earth with all the living beings it nurtures, as one huge living organism. Once this working hypothesis, or this metaphor, is adopted, it becomes obvious that this living organism is sick: some parts are destroying the environment of which the organism has a vital need, others are acting like a cancer: overfeeding, they drain the resources of the whole for their own sake, while starving out the rest.

If we analyze the situation with a view to achieving a cure, we cannot fail to realize that the organism's nervous system has a crucial role to play in solving the problems. To respond immediately to a crisis, nerve impulses acting at light speed are indispensable. The necessary information has to reach the brain at once, and a decision taken at the brain level must trigger off without any delay the appropriate gestures or movements. This is just as true in a wide society as in any individual. If the information received by your eyes can reach your brain only through some prosthesis, and the orders given by your brain move your members only after a complicated, delaying process, how could you drive a car, play a musical instrument or save somebody from a fire or a drowning? Instant communication is the key to the good functioning of any organism and of any society. Mankind, as a whole, is not different. Hence the importance of language, the means it uses to communicate.

It is strange that this basic need for effective linguistic communication is so seldom taken into account in today's international life. Indeed, it is all the more curious since language is what makes us human: it is the basic feature that distinguishes us from animals. However, there is a tremendous resistance throughout society to face up to reality in the field of language. As a result, people do not realize the perverse effects of the communication system currently in use at the world level.

A few examples of perverse effects


Language choice selects the people who will take part in international activities. Our seminar is a good example. Since we use only two languages, Russian and English, we have closed our door to many young people who had the required competence and interest to share our discussions and bring their specific contributions. It is obvious that, apart from Russians and participants from the former Soviet Union, the only countries really represented here are the countries where a Germanic language is spoken: Great Britain, USA, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. Where are, for instance, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, the French, the Greeks? Where are the Japanese, the Koreans, the Africans, the Latin Americans? It is not only a matter of financial means, as shown by a comparison with similar meetings held by the world youth organization TEJO, to which I will refer in my final remarks. Because TEJO uses another system of linguistic communication, it does not select its participants according to language. There, a forum like this one benefits from the participation of people from Asia, Africa, Latin America and all countries of Europe. The selection of English as the language of many international gatherings is based on a misapprehension: the idea that English is understood all through the world. This is a gross mistake. The only peoples with a fair knowledge of English in the average population are the peoples I listed, who reach rather easily a good level in that language simply because their mother tongues belong to the same family.

Now that, thanks to satellite dishes, a single television program can be watched all through Europe, a British advertising company planned to broadcast English language advertisements. But before carrying out this project it decided to check what proportion of the Western European population would understand them. An extensive survey was made to get an answer to that question. The company had to give up its project: it appeared that 94% of the surveyed population were unable to understand an average English text (1). An international event using only English thus excludes a large majority of the inhabitants of our planet.

A similar situation is found in the work of international organizations. An American or British expert recruited to do some specialized work will be the best in his field, period. If he is Czech, Finnish or Brazilian, he has to be both an expert in his specialty and a person with a great talent for languages, since being able to use a foreign language at a high technical level is not within everybody's reach. A colleague who is much more competent, creative, with a higher potential for solving the kind of problems for which this expertise is needed will be excluded simply because he is poor at languages. This is both unfair and counterproductive. It is one of the perverse effects of the use of English as a world language.


Another perverse effect of the current system of language communication is the distortion of information it brings about. We had a very good example of that yesterday with the speech of Dr Augusto López-Claros, who represented the International Monetary Fund. The girl who did the interpretation transformed a whole part of his speech from mere statements of facts to advices and recommendations. Apparently she did not grasp in what spirit he was speaking. As those of you who understand both languages have noticed, there were so many distortions that the part of the audience which understands only Russian heard a different speech from the one which was being delivered. To quote just one example, there was a time when Dr López-Claros quoted infant mortality rates. It was translated as smertnost', which simply means "mortality". This is a gross mistake, since the infant mortality rate is an indicator of the economic and social development level of a given country, which general mortality is not. The whole point he made was lost for most of the Russians. Simultaneous interpretation is not a better solution to the problem. It saves time, but from the point of view of quality it is much worse than the cumbersome system we are using here (2), as I have shown in a book I have recently published (3).

As to written translation, I have illustrated in the same book how far it is from being satisfactory in the majority of the cases (4). Most news reaches the various countries in English, since the main news agencies are Associated Press, United Press International and Reuter, and their news items are translated locally before being transmitted to the various papers and radio stations. The kind of distortion we just discussed is very frequent also in this case. For instance, all French language papers translate poverty threshold as seuil de pauvreté, whereas it should be seuil de misère. Poverty is a state which implies much more lack of essentials than the situation that the French word pauvreté evokes. Readers of French papers thus get a picture of the world which is considerably different from that conveyed in the original information.

Unethical use of financial resources

"An effective malaria control program would cost only $800,000 a year," says a French doctor fighting disease in Laos, "but there is no money to finance the operations. Simply no money. No money to pay the staff, no money to purchase equipment, no money to buy gas. There is simply no money." (5) But when the Twenty-Eighth World Health Assembly decided - against the recommendation of the WHO Secretariat - to add two languages to the four already in use, it accepted to earmark for its language services $5,000,000 a year, "to begin with". (6) It refrained from carrying out a cost/effectiveness analysis that might have determined if its decision would facilitate or complicate matters. As a matter of fact, observation of the functioning of international organizations shows that the addition of new languages entails for them only complications and added costs. True, a few States are put in a better position, since they can use their own language, but this involves no advantage for the organization as a whole, nor for most of the Member States. Yet, all international organizations have undergone the same evolution: they have kept increasing their language budget at the expense of the activities they were meant to perform. To save a child from malnutrition costs only $10 per year. This is the cost of one 7 word sentence in a document translated at the UN (7), which translates many millions of words a year. The European Union translates 3,150,000 words a day at a cost, avowedly, of $0.36 a word (8).

Translation and interpretation are unproductive operations. The UN worked better at far lesser cost when it used only English and French. Moreover, the addition of new languages has been useless to most governments: a Hungarian, a Japanese, an Ethiopian still have to use a foreign language to take part in discussions or negotiations, just as they did in the fifties. For the sake of slightly increasing the number of privileged countries - which is unfair to the majority, called upon to pay their share of this increase in expenditure without receiving any benefit - tremendous amounts of money are being diverted from substantive activities towards unproductive language work. The unavailability of financial resources for many social, educational, environmental and developmental purposes and their availability for language services point to an approach to world problems which is both irrational and unethical. Priorities should be revised.

Obstacles to development

In the field of development people think and act as though language played no part at all. The emphasis is on credits, technology, food, equipment. However, development implies training. Two facts are generally ignored in this respect: 1) that training implies the use of language, and 2) that acquiring one of the main languages of the developed world is impossible to most people in the developing countries. English has an official status in India, but only 3% of the population speaks it (9). The situation is worse elsewhere. To quote Jamaliah Mohamad Ali, head of the language training program at the University of Malaysia: "Even among English teachers the standard of English is low. Many cannot converse in English" (10). If teachers who have devoted so much time and effort to study the language cannot use it in practice, how can you expect to communicate in it with the average citizen? There is a tremendous resistance in the Western world to accept the fact that a language like English is far too difficult to ever be mastered, in most of the world, by the man in the street. Or the man in the bush.

A friend of mine was recruited by a non governmental organization to teach Afghans in the use and maintenance of the machinery which is his specialty. This French speaking Swiss had to deliver his teaching in English. Then a local interpreter translated his words into Farsi, the language used in that part of the country. You know how cumbersome this system is: you experience it at this very moment. It more than doubles the time required to communicate, since quite often, as you have noticed, the interpreter has to ask a question to ascertain if he has understood properly. In the instance I am referring to, there were many more problems because the interpreter did not understand in concrete details how the machines worked and was unable to use an appropriate technical terminology.

Here is another example. There is a need, today, for a good, up to date handbook on medical laboratory techniques to be used in the bush, i.e. in areas remote from so-called civilization. Development is impossible if people are not in good health, and maintaining a proper physical condition requires a number of diagnostic and other procedures that are to be performed in outposts lacking any sophisticated equipment. Such handbooks do exist. But only in English, French and Spanish. Which means that they are of no use whatsoever where they are most needed, because, for people whose mother tongues are quite different from any Western language, reaching a proper level in such languages requires too many hours of study to be feasible. Publishing such a handbook in the local languages would be too expensive, considering both the costs of the translation and the printing of a very limited number of copies bound to become obsolete after a decade or so. Why is it that the language factor in such situations is constantly overlooked?


International life implies the working of many networks of world or regional organizations that do a lot of translation. Everywhere, translation is done in two stages: the translator prepares a first draft which goes to a reviser who corrects and improves the text and sends it over to a typing pool which produces either the final document or a typescript that will be printed. This procedure involves an extensive use of paper. An institution with eleven languages, such as the European Union, uses at least twenty-two times more paper than an organization with only one language, since each page has to be translated from the original into ten languages and typed at least twice. In the European Union, the staff employed because of the multilingual system numbers some 7,000 people (translators, interpreters, secretaries, typists, terminologists, librarians of language units, messengers, additional staff in administrative and social units to service all this personnel). This is a large community that requires a lot of supportive work: these people use elevators, telephones, offices that have to be heated and cleaned. In a small town of 7,000 inhabitants, people themselves are responsible for the maintenance of their houses, the cleanliness of their premises, heating or air conditioning, use of fax or telephone, consumption of electricity. Not so in the language community of the European bureaucracy: the corresponding expenses are paid by the taxpayers. How many forest acres does this unproductive consumption of paper represent? What is the cost of the energy used by this bureaucratic community? There are no answers to such questions. Official documents relating to language costs are always restricted to direct costs. Indirect costs are simply ignored.

Inferior position

All the languages in use in present day international life (with the exception which will be described in my concluding remarks) are very difficult for the average non-native speaker. A mastery of English, for a Frenchman for instance, requires some 10,000 hours of study or practice (this difficulty is the reason why 94% of the population of Western Europe, in spite of the many hours they have devoted to language courses in school, are unable to understand a simple text in English). The capability to use a foreign language at the level required for serious exchanges is thus limited to a very small élite.

As a result, there is an obvious lack of spontaneity when people with different language backgrounds have to exchange ideas, to say nothing of the misunderstandings and of the risk of being laughed at, a risk unfairly spared to people who can use their own language. The difference between what one means to say and what is actually said can be considerable. Mr. Cornelio Sammaruga, the Director General of the Red Cross International Committee, who comes from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, had all his audience laughing when he said - I heard it myself - "Nos délégués sont des zéros" ("Our delegates are nullities"). He meant Nos délégués sont des héros ("Our delegates are heroes"), but failed to apply the pronunciation rule which distinguishes hero from zero in French after a z sound. His French is excellent as a rule, but in this particular case, his flaw was particularly regrettable.

You never feel quite secure in a foreign language. I have more than 40,000 hours of study and practice of English, but when I improvised the inaugural speech last Friday, since, as you know, I had to replace the Secretary of the Club of Rome at the last minute, I mistakenly said costed instead of cost. I suddenly realized that I did not remember what the right form was. Irregularity of grammar always puts non-native speakers in an inferior position.

This inferiority has been well described by a Dutch mayor in a TV program: "Even if we have a good knowledge of English, as is often the case in this country, we hesitate to speak up in an international group which uses that language because we are afraid: afraid of not saying exactly what we mean, afraid of making mistakes, afraid of being deemed ridiculous because of our accent, afraid of not feeling at home enough in the foreign language to give tit for tat to an Anglo-Saxon with all the necessary strength..." (11) It is a fact: in a debate or a negotiation, language is a weapon, as every lawyer, every politician knows. The current system of language use in international contacts is extremely unfair to a large number of people. This is especially the case when a foreigner has to deal with a local authority. There are people who find themselves in jail because they could not explain themselves adequately to a policeman or a judge.

Distortion of relationships

The sane relationship between grown-ups is a relationship on an equal footing: it is an adult-adult relationship. If one of the participant in an exchange is forced to use his partner's language, the relationship is automatically distorted. It becomes a parent-child relationship. He feels inferior, he is not sure of himself, he is in the position of a child. His partner, on the other hand, feels all the time that he could give lessons to the other, this one feels like a parent. Of course, most of the time these feelings are unconscious, people are not aware of the way the relationship is structured. Nevertheless, it is so structured, and it causes distortions that should be taken more seriously than they usually are.

Weakening of intercultural exchanges

Yesterday, somebody in our group suggested that we split according to languages. We decided not to do so. But other groups of our Forum have adopted this way of solving the language problem. While on my way here this morning I talked with a German participant who belongs to such a group. He was furious. He told me: "What's the point of coming all the way to Siberia if I am to find myself discussing only with fellow Germans?" Such a situation is an extremely frequent feature of international congresses. It prevents the cross-fertilization of ideas. Intercultural exchanges are enriching precisely because people with different backgrounds have different approaches, different outlooks. This tendency to meet only people from your own culture even in international settings is not the least of the perverse effects of the current system of language use.

Cultural contamination

The most perverse effect may be the less obvious. We have seen that language selects people. It also selects what people watch and read. "Cultural goods" represent the second item in the list of US exports. No other country exports so much "culture". Actually, this heading covers mainly TV films. Why has the whole world watched Dallas and Dynasty? Because they were produced in English and were thus in a language that was more or less understandable to the persons doing the programming for television in the various countries. "Because it's so dominant and yet so varied, English can be both attractive and dangerous - dangerous because it exerts enormous power", acknowledges Tom McArthur, the editor of the Oxford Companion to the English Language (12).

The result is that a single culture, the Anglo-Saxon culture, especially in its American variant, has in the whole world an impact which is not proportionate to its quality, simply because of the language structure of international exchanges. This introduces changes in mentalities which are not to be welcomed. Films that extol violence over gentleness, immediate, reflex action over thinking and meditation, having over being, noise over silence and youth over old age are transforming whole societies whose outlook used to be more adapted to the requirements of a serene, happy life. An enormous number of people all through our planet watch television, but what they see is very far from reflecting the extraordinary variety of our world. Diversity is completely submerged under the values and life patterns of just one culture, or rather of a very partial aspect of it that sells well abroad and is widely - and unfairly - confused with "America".

The same can be said of light reading. A mediocre author can reach the whole world if he is lucky enough to have English as his mother tongue. Competition in the chances of being published is not fair, from a global point of view. Language is a writer's basic material: whatever your talent, you cannot write, at that quality level, in another language than your own. Anybody who is not English-speaking is thus handicapped in the highly competitive world of writing.

This situation has a negative impact on the cultural richness of mankind because cultural influences are not reciprocal. They instill a particular mentality and flatten out differences. The whole world is conditioned by American (mainly Hollywood) productions, but the US public is not reciprocally influenced. "These days, Americans watch few foreign movies, listen to few foreign songs and borrow few foreign words", says a New York Times senior journalist (13). Such a one-way transmission of models, outlooks and attitudes is not healthy for a global society.

The various systems in use

Essentially, there are three methods of international communication in use in today's world, the third one being so marginal that it would hardly be worth mentioning, if it was not precisely the only one that succeeds in avoiding all the perverse effects that have been listed above.

Ineffective, unfair or unethical systems

One of the systems is the bureaucratic one. Several languages are used, and communication is ensured through translation and interpretation. As is usually the case with bureaucratic methods, it involves much waste and a lot of unproductive work. With this system, human energy is not put to efficient use. What has been said above about the unethical earmarking of financial resources refers essentially to this system. It presents all the negative features of the Soviet way of life.

The second system is the "jungle" one. It is based on the precedence of power. One language is in use. Those who cannot use it are excluded. In many cases, although they are victims, they are made to feel guilty ("I have been too lazy or stupid to learn the language that everybody uses; if I cannot communicate, it's my fault"), so that they do not realize that they are the victims of an unfair method of communication. This system is not without common traits with the caste system of India. People have a lot of privileges if they were born in the right society: where English is spoken, i. e. where you can be lazy and selfish and still enjoy access to international contacts, and even expect, for what is felt as legitimate reasons, to be able to communicate wherever in the world you are traveling. An English-speaking physicist has been able to devote to physics the many hours that his colleagues from other cultures have had to devote to the painful and slow acquisition of English (14), but he is unaware of his privilege. When you are a member of the upper caste, you take your advantages for granted. This caste system involves a hierarchy: people from Germanic cultures can reach the required level in less time than people with Romance languages, and the latter in less time than people with Slavic languages. Peoples with languages like Chinese or Indonesian are even more likely to be excluded, since the amount of time they need to master the language is enormous. Not only have people outside the upper caste been forced to devote many, many hours to the study of the upper caste's language, moreover when they have to negotiate or discuss with somebody belonging to this upper caste they are at a disadvantage: their opponent can avail himself of a richness of vocabulary and a feeling of security in language use that they will forever be lacking. Their opponent has a mastery of the language weapon, they have not. We should meditate the following comment of a Hopi lady who sadly realized that by authorizing mining in the reservation, they had destroyed the harmony of their environment: "If, twenty years ago, our English had been better, we would never have signed that contract." (15)

An effective, fair and ethical system

Contrary to what most people imagine, there is an alternative to both the bureaucratic and the jungle systems. A really democratic system exists and works perfectly. Its functioning can readily be observed in the field. When the various means of communication used to overcome the language barriers are compared in practice, with objective criteria, the third system, which is only marginally used, stands out as the only one which avoids all the perverse effects discussed above. It is called Esperanto.

Esperanto is a language born of one century of international interactions in a small community of people spread all over the world and encompassing most cultures, most religions, most professions and social layers, linked by nothing else than the use of that language for international communication (16). This community developed simply because all over the world there were people eager to communicate across cultural barriers and to enlarge their horizons who did not have the time to acquire one of the prestigious languages. So they adhered to a communication convention proposed in Warsaw in 1887 by a young man, L. L. Zamenhof, under the pseudonym Dr Esperanto. By using it in practice in all sorts of settings, they transformed that project into a living language. Speakers of Esperanto use that language only in international communication, as a substitute either to interpretation or to the kind of broken English usually in use, today, in intercultural situations (17). They think that the language which has grown out of Zamenhof's project offers the best means of preserving all mother tongues and of protecting the cultural diversity of our planet.

Esperanto can be learned in an eighth of the time required to be able to communicate in an acceptable way in another foreign language, and in a thirtieth of the time required to have an actual mastery of another foreign language. It can be said that one month of Esperanto is similar to one year of another language as far as the communication level is concerned. It is the only existing language in which the average person can have a communication capability equivalent to the one he has in his mother tongue.

Language and psychology

The neuropsychology of language

To demonstrate how this is possible I should give you a whole course on the neuropsychology of language acquisition and use. To summarize a very complex subject, let me say that using a language is a matter of reflexes. Two sets of reflexes intervene in the use of national or ethnic languages: innate reflexes, and conditioned reflexes. The first ones are the inner ones, the congenital ones; the others come from the outside world, they have been introduced in the natural, spontaneous, first-level functioning by a lengthy process of correction, which is two-pronged: correction by parents, relatives, friends and teachers; self correction by the child who wants to imitate its human environment as perfectly as possible. If you say feet rather than foots, many sheep rather than many sheeps, he came rather than he comed, it is because you have been conditioned to repress the first forms, to which your innate reflexes used to lead you, and to replace them by the standard forms.

Esperanto relies entirely on innate reflexes. You cannot make a mistake in the plural of a noun or in the tense of a verb, because the possibility to err simply does not exist. The same neuropsychological law that governs language use at the first level - it was called by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget generalizing assimilation - applies to word formation as well as to grammar. If you analyze the speech of small children, or of foreigners, you will notice that they manifest a very strong natural tendency to generalize any language element they have previously assimilated. For instance, your brain has registered that there seems to be a pattern in the derivation of the names of professions: report → reporter, farm → farmer, etc. Your natural reflex will be to generalize that pattern. So you will deduce that the man dealing with fish is a fisher. That is the word that many foreigners will use spontaneously, it may be the word you used as a child. But your human environment has blocked this natural formation and introduced a conditioned reflex so that you say fisherman. Esperanto differs from all other languages in that you can always trust your natural tendency to generalize a pattern. In English, after I have learned tooth and teeth, I am still at a loss if I need to speak of the professional who deals with teeth: dentist is a word I have to learn separately. And why do I have to write translator and not translater, following the general pattern? In Esperanto, once you have learned to form the name of the professional with the suffix -isto, you do not hesitate: there is no conditioned reflex to block your innate reflex, since the right to generalize a structure suffers no exception. Look at the translations of the words I have just used as examples: raporti → raportisto, farmo → farmisto, fiŝo → fiŝisto, dento → dentisto, traduki → tradukisto.

In Esperanto you feel natural and at ease because you feel secure. You know that you can follow your natural reflexes. This is never the case in another language. I once pronounced indict as rhyming with convict. Why? Because I knew the word only through reading and I generalized the pronunciation pattern I had assimilated from derelict, depict, afflict and similar words. This happened to me forty (18) years after I had started learning English, a language I have never ceased to practice ever since. It shows that really mastering English is out of my reach, as is confirmed by the fact that, in spite of so much more practice than the average European, I still cannot publish a text in English without having somebody correct my language. The mistakes I make in English are simply impossible in Esperanto. Since, moreover, the latter is a foreign language for everybody, no one has a feeling of superiority, the relationship is adult-adult from the beginning. The fact that everybody has his own accent does not prevent communication to unfold quite smoothly. And the language is very rich. What determines richness and diversity is not the number of basic elements (a limited number in Esperanto) but the range of possible combinations, as can be ascertained by studying organic chemistry... or Esperanto poetry.

I can testify to this superiority of Esperanto as a means of intercultural communication because I have attended many meetings using it, many meetings using English only, and many meetings using various forms of simultaneous or consecutive interpretation. None of the perverse effects of the other systems can be evidenced where Esperanto has been adopted. For instance, in the meetings of the World Esperanto Youth Organization (TEJO), you find people from all over the world, including Koreans, Japanese or Latin Americans. What a contrast with this Forum! How many Russians would be present here if interpretation from and into Russian were not provided? In a TEJO meeting, as in all other gatherings using Esperanto, human contacts are direct, spontaneous, easy. They can always be confidential. After a few months of study, Esperanto speakers are in a better position to discuss delicate matters among themselves than Bill Clinton is when he meets Boris Yeltsin or Helmut Kohl.


If Esperanto presents such a superiority over other forms of intercultural communication, how come it is so little known? Again, this is a highly complex problem - a sociopsychological one, in this case - that would require many hours to be explained fully. One of the factors is the power structure among nations. Another is that language is so linked to our emotions, our thinking, our identity that there is a very strong, albeit unconscious, psychological resistance to face up to what it really is. Learning our mother tongue meant submitting ourselves to the arbitrary whims of the adult world. When you said my foots and you were being corrected, nobody could give you a rational explanation: the form you used was quite consistent with the purpose of language, i.e. communicating, expressing oneself. Saying foots communicates exactly the same information as saying feet. "Why can't I say foots?" you might have said. "Because that's the way it is," was the only possible reply. Which means: there is no rational justification for that, you have to follow what our ancestors always did. For the child, who tries to understand, such an explanation is the equivalent of "you have to say feet because I tell you so", period. People are not aware of it, but there is an extremely authoritarian model underlying language acquisition. It conveys a message which is never explicitly stated, namely, that the function of language is not just to communicate, it is also to tell if you belong to the good or to the bad group (socially, culturally or from the point of view of generations). A language which forgoes that function and serves only to communicate is frightening to a large part of the population, although people are not conscious of this feeling.

Of course, I do not mean that we should distort or debase our languages: respect for our ancestors and love for our culture are worth the effort made to learn our mother tongue as well as possible, and also, if we are interested, languages of other parts of the world. But what is sensible on the scale of a nation becomes absurd at the international level. There, effective communication is more important than any other consideration. To impose our ancestors' whims on our partners is a tremendous lack of respect. If a German says, in his mother tongue, he helps to us and a Frenchman he us helps, why should he give up his habit when he talks with some other national? In Esperanto, the forms li helpas al ni (German structure), li nin helpas (French structure) and li helpas nin (English structure) are equally correct and frequent. Experience proves that this liberty facilitates, rather than inhibits, communication. Why should we forgo such freedom since, in international groups, it does not make sense to demand loyalty to one specific set of ancestors more than to all others?

A third factor explaining why Esperanto is so little known is a history of calumny first launched by those elements in society who considered themselves an elite because they could use the prevailing foreign language of the time. In India today, the thin layer of society that can really use English has also a monopoly on power. Would they rejoice if all Indians, even the poorest ones, were able to communicate across language barriers, not only in their own country, but in the world at large? Indeed, this is true of the whole so-called Third World, and, to a large extent, also of Europe.

Yet, in the last analysis, it may well be that the main factor preventing a faster spreading of Esperanto (it is spreading continuously, but at a slow rate) is simply the force of inertia. People do not want to devote time to thinking about all this. They are not aware of the perverse effects of the current communication system. It works smoothly enough as far as they are concerned. They do not imagine that language teaching in schools could be organized otherwise, or that language use in international activities could be arranged in a more sensible way, freeing large amounts of tax money for productive or social purposes. Why should they favor a change that seems unwarranted? Doing nothing is simpler than facing up to a problem and undertaking the comparisons without which it is impossible to determine where the best solution lies.


As has been emphasized in one of our plenary sessions, the Earth has shrunk. This means that contacts are closer and more frequent. Satisfactory contacts imply easy, spontaneous, precise linguistic communication on an equal footing. It is easy to verify, by comparing in the field the various methods developed by mankind to ensure communication among people with different mother tongues, that Esperanto is by far the system that gives the best results for the smallest investment in effort, time and money. It is the most cost/effective solution to the problem of mutual understanding, the best solution from a social point of view (unlike the present systems, which favor people rich enough to afford an education abroad in one of the main languages), and the best solution psychologically, because a language which follows without any trap the natural path of the verbalization process makes for ease in expression.

These are facts that have never been disputed on the basis of field study or of the analysis of the relevant data. They are easy to check. If we do not act on them, we might just as well acknowledge that the future of mankind does not interest us, that all our talk about development, ecology, fairness in the relationships between West and East as well as North and South is just a smokescreen for our inertia, an excuse for preserving our privileges and a pitiful mask concealing a lack of interest for those who were not born on the right side of the cultural frontiers.

If we really want to organize a "world society with a human face", we cannot avoid dealing with linguistic communication, which has as crucial a function in the global human family as neuronic transmission in an individual body. Thinking is closely linked to language. If you learn a language which is free, your thinking gets free. As long as you deem it normal to think in English or in any other national language, you are not likely to develop a genuine global outlook. You will be conditioned, unwittingly, by the mentality embodied in your language, in its grammar, its semantics, its cultural references. Esperanto is the only language that has a fully intercultural substratum, that has been fashioned by intercultural contacts and that has received from a century of mutual adjustments a genuinely global mentality.

I do not ask you to believe me. I would like you to check my statements and to reflect on what I have said. I strongly hope that you will not engage in a priori thinking. A lot of nonsense is said about Esperanto by people who feel exonerated from having to consider the evidence. They have never attended a meeting using that language, they know nothing of its structure, its history, its literature, its diffusion in the world, they have never compared in practice the various systems of intercultural communication or measured the time required to reach a given expression level in the various languages, including Esperanto, but they do not hesitate to pass judgment. It is obvious that such an attitude vitiates the whole approach to the problems of our planet. If one is not fair in a field as basic to human relationships as language, how will he be in the others?

It may be that in listing the perverse effects of the system of linguistic communication currently in use I have forgotten the most important one: a subtle and hardly conscious manipulation of opinion designed to prevent mutual understanding among all layers of global society. Psychological research (19) shows that this unconscious manipulation derives, among other causes, from a fear of direct contact with the feelings, the aspirations, the philosophy, the experience of people that are perceived as Aliens as long as they do not lose that frightening status by entering the elite club of the English speaking community.

If you discuss Esperanto with friends and colleagues, you will very often elicit negative responses. I hope you will not accept them at their face value. Let the people who react that way tell you what data they have collected, where they compared Esperanto to the other means of intercultural communication, what testimonies they have analyzed. If they cannot answer those questions, how could they be credible? I trust not only your sense of fairness and responsibility, but also your firmness in demanding evidence. These qualities are indispensable to choose the optimal method of linguistic communication. And solving the problem of communication in a world divided into a multitude of separate entities by tight language barriers is an indispensable first step if we want to create a "global society with a human face".

Claude Piron is both a linguist and a psychotherapist. He has been on the language staff of the United Nations and has worked for the World Health Organization in all five continents. He has published many papers on intercultural communication. He has taught at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, from 1973 to 1994.

1. Mark Fettes, "Europe's Babylon: Towards a single European Language?", History of European Ideas, 1991, 13, 3, pp. 201-202.

2. The international youth forum used two languages, English and Russian. Speeches and interventions were translated sentence after sentence.

3. Claude Piron, Le défi des langues (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1994), pp. 31-32 and 107-115.

4. Pp. 34-37 and 115-121.

5. Stan Sesser, "Forgotten country", The New Yorker, 20 August 1990, p. 64.

6. World Health Organization, Twenty-Eighth Assembly, Use of working languages: Report by the Director General, Document A28/50, p. 3.

7. Evaluation of the Translation Process in the United Nations System (Geneva: Joint Inspection Unit, 1980, document JIU/REP/80/7), Table 9.

8. Roman Rollnick, "Word mountains are costing us a fortune", The European, 20 December 1991, p. 6. Comparison with other organizations suggests that this figure is a serious underevaluation.

9. "India faces up to the foreigners", The Economist, 10 September 1994, p. 71.

10. Jay Branegan, "Finding a proper place for English", Time, 16 September 1991, p. 51.

11. Mr Winkel, Mayor of Noordwijkerhout, Netherlands Television, AVRO Channel, 3 August 1990, 08:45 PM.

12. Interview by Daniel Petersen and Deborah Curran, "What Was That You Said?", Newsweek, 26 April 1993, p. 56.

13. Nicholas D. Kristof, "Benefits of Borrowing Le Bon Mot", International Herald Tribune, 26 July 1994.

14. A Korean or Japanese physicist has had to invest some 3000 hours in the study of English, to be able to communicate with his Anglo-Saxon colleagues at a level still far from being really adequate; 3000 hours, that is 75 weeks at 40 hours per week: one year and a half, full time.

15. Quoted by Jean-Claude Buffle, "Indiens américains: 1991", L'Hebdo, 7 March 1991, p. 31.

16. Richard E. Wood, "A voluntary non-ethnic, non-territorial speech community" in Mackey, W. F. and Ornstein, J., ed., Sociolinguistic Studies in Language Contact (The Hague, Paris and New York: Mouton, 1979), pp. 433-450.

17. An interesting description of this use of broken English in today's world, and its impact, can be found in Barry Newman, "Global Chatter - World Speaks English, Often None Too Well; Results Are Tragicomic", The Wall Street Journal, Midwest Edition, 22 March 1995.

18. Typing up my notes, I first wrote fourty. Since I was not sure, I looked it up in a dictionary. This is another example of the natural inclination to generalize the most frequent form. Since you spell four, fourth, fourteen, fourteenth, why not fourty? Such an irregularity would be unthinkable in Esperanto.

19. Claude Piron, "Un cas étonnant de masochisme social", Action et Pensée, 1991, 19, pp. 51-79. A shortened version of this article has been published in English under the title "Psychological reactions to Esperanto", Esperanto Documents, No 42A (Rotterdam: Universal Esperanto Association, 1994).