Interview with Claude Piron, expert on international communication

The problems of communication, even though this field has been one of the most researched in recent years, do not stop tormenting people, who need to speak in order to live. We offer you an interview with Claude Piron, author of several essays on interlinguistics, former professor at the Department of Psychology and Educational Sciences of the University of Geneva, who was for many years a translator from English, Chinese, Spanish and Russian at the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, now one of the major experts in international communication and collaborator of the Abruzzan association Allarme Lingua.

° Professor, what is your opinion as a psychologist on the current worldwide language situation?

That unfortunately it highlights a whole series of deplorable traits of human society, for example its masochism, its tendency to act irrationally, the strength of its inertia and its reluctance to face up to reality.

° Why do you speak of masochism?

Well, our society has chosen one of the languages least adapted to international use for communication: English, a language which is difficult even for people born in Anglo-Saxon countries. As a matter of fact, no real choice has really happened, because we allowed ourselves to be carried along by the force of inertia. 95% of humanity resignedly accepted a linguistic position subordinate to the remaining 5% – native English speakers –, who find it normal that everyone else should assume the effort needed to make communication possible. Struggling to conquer the language and watching the ever more obvious decadence of their own tongues.

° As a French speaker, you should not complain. Do you know that in Italy we have a law on "privacy" [in English], a Ministry of "Welfare" and that members of parliament call the time allocated to questions "Question time"?

It is very humiliating that precisely the impetus towards language decadence comes from politicians. In this case, it is not a matter of calling on national values, but simply of good taste. Everywhere, inertia prevails and no one is trying to understand where reality stands.

° But the reality is the supremacy of English, reality is what the newspapers call "The Great English Divide", the gap between those who speak it and the new "barbarians" [1] who are desperately fighting to get to the other side. In what sense do you say that society is reluctant to face up to reality?

People say: there is no language problem – English is available! It isn't true. The current system creates a great many victims. There is no compassion for a foreign worker who is treated unfairly by the police because he is incapable of making himself understood; for the director of a medium-sized business who loses a contract with a foreign firm because his knowledge of English is insufficient for the delicate negotiations he has to carry out; for an anxious tourist with some terrible stomach ache who cannot explain what he feels to a local doctor, etc. But instead of seeing them as victims, society sees them as guilty : "They should have learned the language". As if that were easy for everyone! There are millions and millions of young people in the world who during many years exert their brains uselessly striving to conquer English. What a huge collective investment of nervous and intellectual energy – without results. It's all the more absurd because the factors that make English so difficult to master are in no way related to the needs of communication, they are only whims of the ancestors of the British people. The president of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, once said : "English is only a tool, a computer software". Correct. A language can in many ways be compared to a computer program. But what rational being, having the possibility to choose between one type of software which you do not yet master completely after seven years, and another with which you feel at home after only one year – with the same number of hours per week – will choose the former, if moreover practice shows that the one that was assimilated most quickly works better? However, that is the situation, if one compares English with Esperanto. That means that the choice was not rational.

° Is our society too frivolous concerning languages?

A matter which our society refuses to face up to is the enormous difficulty of languages. "Learn English in three months", "Russian in 90 lessons", "French without toil". Deceptive messages. In Europe, on average, after six years of study only one student out of 100 is capable of using the foreign language correctly. In Asia, the proportion is 1 in 1000. But no Minister of Public Education has the courage to face the fact that our languages are too difficult to be learned in courses.

° But isn't it the same with every language?

In a certain way, yes, but that is not a reason for refusing to seek the best solution. However, English represents a special case. Think of the letter "a". It is pronounced the same way practically all over the world. But not in English-speaking countries, where it can be pronounced as in case, as in bad, as in father, or as in hall. And it is similar with all aspects of the language. Consider for example the vocabulary. The effort is double to memorize "tooth" and "dentist" in English compared with the same expressions in practically all other languages, in which one of the words derives from the other. In Esperanto, you don't even need to look up the word in the dictionary. After you have learned that professions are indicated by the suffix ‑isto, you can yourself form dentisto 'dentist' from dento 'tooth', as you form programisto 'programmer' from programi 'to program', seruristo 'locksmith' from seruro 'lock', and parolisto 'announcer' from paroli 'to speak'.

° So are you against the idea of teaching languages in school?

Not at all. I am against the illusion that English solves the language problem in the world, and that it can be learned, as a communications tool, in school conditions. I propose that Esperanto be recommended to citizens so that they can have relatively quickly a pleasant means of communicating with people of other languages, and that at school students learn languages, not as communication tools, but as a means for cultural enrichment, as a path for comprehension of other peoples. It is absurd that in the world 90 percent of students in second-grade schools make considerable efforts to acquire only English, and neglect all other cultures which they could approach via language courses. It is all the more absurd since, after all that effort, the great majority cannot even communicate efficiently and on an equal basis with people from other cultures on a worldwide scale.

° If you are right, why do so few people say the same things as you?

Because many emotional factors, in the unconscious mind, confuse the problem and create irrational fears. Language is linked to the feeling of identity. People don't see that they would much better protect their identity through a language like Esperanto, that does not belong to one people, rather than through a language like English, which carries with it, invisibly, a subtle way of thinking, many connotations, many myths which are not consonant with the continental European, African or Asian traditional ways of thinking.

° In your opinion, can the situation change?

Maybe the situation in the European Union with new members and therefore new languages will force a basic reconsideration of the whole problem, but maybe the courage to formulate the fundamental questions will continue to be lacking. Unfortunately, people are very conservative. To change the current language (dis)order demands a change in the way of thinking, and such a change is "a psychologically expensive action", as the French psychologist Janet used to say.

° It is fine to teach Esperanto in schools, which at all events can be useful because it paves the way for learning other languages. However, in European institutions one does not speak about friendship and hobbies but about the most complicated economic, legal and technical subjects. The accusations aimed at Esperanto as a so-called planned language or for its alleged lack of culture are nonsensical for educated people who are conversant with the problem, but in the light of your knowledge of communication in international organizations, would not an insufficiency in terminology be a serious obstacle in view of the complexity of the highly technical subjects dealt with in the European Union?

Certainly, the problem exists and it is not insignificant, but it can be solved by means of the techniques of language planning, which are used also with national languages, as for example Estonian, and which were used to bring Hebrew, which before being used in Israel had only 5,000 words, to its actual state of a modern language. The problem is to sensitize public opinion and therefore politicians so that there is more respect for one's own language and more attention given to international language questions, spreading the concept of language democracy and, especially in English speaking countries, a new approach to culture and languages, integrating the right to understand and the duty to make oneself understood. I hope that the number of people who are aware of cultural values worth defending will keep increasing and that they will react before these are endangered forever. That Esperanto should be continuously rejected at a high level, without the file on it even being opened, is too absurd to be accepted.

Giorgio Bronzetti

Coordinator of the Association "Allarme Lingua"

*The article appeared in Abruzzo Oggi, a daily newspaper of the Italian region Abruzzo, on 1 September 2006 with the title and introductory note by the editor. The original title was : "The new global language order". It was posted in Esperanto on the webside of Disvastigo :