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A global language?

September 14, 2009

One Integrated and Tribalized World

In my recent book Designing 2050 (launched in February 2009) I described in detail the emergence of a single, integrated, global society in the 21st century. Globalization will make this society increasingly interdependent, whilst tribalization (my expression) generates many new independent countries. Timor Leste , Montenegro and Kosovo have been the most recent nations born and there will be more. These could include Chechnya, Tibet, East Turkisan, Scotland, Catalonia and Aceh. In 25 years there are likely to be another 20-30 members of the UN. All of these will be integrated into a single global trading system under the auspices of the WTO , and committed to collaborating to build a new integrated global society and protect the world from climate change and financial piracy such as by those who catalyzed the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

Treasuring Diversity

It is interesting to note that global public opinion is consistently on the side of those seeking independence rather than on those who are increasingly regarded as their imperial oppressors. We are also treasuring our cultural uniqueness and differences more and more as we integrate into a single integrated global society. We will take an increasingly dim view of those who try to replace the political imperialism, from which many cultures have recently emancipated themselves, with any from of cultural imperialism which undermines often hard won cultural uniqueness and independence. And these changes are generating new industrial concepts such as World music which involves the simultaneous celebration of cultural difference and global unity. The simultaneous celebration of cultural difference and global unity is a major feature of emerging 21st century global society . So the world is simultaneously integrating into a single global society and increasingly celebrating and nurturing its cultural differences. I worked as an adviser to UN in the 1992 Earth Summit. With the Bio-diversity Convention signed at the Earth Summit, and subsequently ratified by national governments, the world took the position that all species have an innate right to continue to exist and there is no need to demonstrate their usefulness to humanity, a utilitarian perspective which dominated in modernist times. In the next ten years a similar cultural diversity convention will most likely follow in which it will be accepted that all languages and cultures have a right to exist and, where necessary, be protected. Post-modernists increasingly appropriate useful concepts from other cultures and integrate them into their own cultures, and they increasingly enjoy and appreciate the richness that the world cultures offer all of us.

Language and Identity

Language is at the base of all cultural difference. Because we are one species with the same human genome, humans are very similar and languages have more aspects in common than they have differences. That said, cultures are different largely because our languages are different. One of the first things which an imperial oppressor which seeks to subjugate a culture will do is to ban the speaking of the language of the conquered. The English did this to the Irish and the Turks did this to the Kurds. Another example is the pressure against the speaking of Tamil in public by the majority Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. There are hundreds of examples drawn from the tragic effects of conquest and colonization on indigenous peoples which demonstrate that suppressing languages leads quickly to the destruction of cultures. During the modernist era we accepted this destruction of both language and culture as an inevitable part of modernist ‘progress’. In the postmodern and the emerging planetist society of the early 21st century, this attitude is mercifully changing and we are witnessing an immense growth of intercultural respect and tolerance. Global public opinion is at last catching up with the principles enunciated in the UN Charter and similar international agreements. This change of global heart needs now be embedded by two measures. The first of these is global dialogue leading to the adoption of a cultural diversity convention. The second is to dramatically improve the way we communicate with each other and this means the universal introduction of a global language with is easy to learn, universally accessible and culturally unthreatening .

Language and Global Communication, Need

Humanity is growing at a startling pace. As Al Gore pointed out in “An Inconvenient Truth”, all time up to his birth had produced a world population of 2 billion people. We now are 9 billion, by the end of his expected span, we will be 15 billion people on this same small world. Clearly, we have things to discuss. We all share our air, our water, our fisheries, our ozone and our climate. We share biodiversity and science and creativity. We share obstacles like pride and prejudice and ignorance too. The single most useful tool that we can choose to equip ourselves with, to succeed in this challenge, is a common language. In the next twenty-five years the proportion of products and services traded across international boundaries will probably double. With more and more communication occurring between different cultural groups and the formation of regional groups such as an expanded EU, we face a rapidly growing global language problem So far the magnitude of the problem we face is not fully recognized, possibly because there is such a low expectation that there could ever be really effective communication between peoples and cultures, perhaps because the immense costs are growing gradually (and being borne by others), and perhaps because it just looks too hard. But here is the problem as outlined by David Richardson: With language, intellect joins intellect, and there are few limits to what we can ultimately accomplish. But it is a great irony that even in our advanced century, languages effectively divide, as well as unite the human race. If your language is English there are some 423 million other people with whom you can communicate freely (or could if everybody talked English the same way), but there are four billion people on the globe with whom you cannot communicate at all. Of the two hundred mutually unintelligible ‘major’ languages spoken by a million persons or more, Mandarin Chinese heads the list with just about twice as many speakers as English. At least the names of a few dozen other tongues are familiar to us: French (115 million speakers), German (118 million), Russian (286 million), Arabic (180 million), and so on. Few of us could identify, much less understand a single word of, such other languages as Gujarati, Hakka, Kannada, Malayalam, Min, Oriya and so on, each with anywhere from 20 million to 40 million of native speakers or more. And nobody knows for sure how many are mother tongue—and therefore precious—to many more millions of our fellow inhabitants of Planet Earth.

Language and Global Communication, Risks

Language is a huge cause of misunderstanding. In 1955 the English-speaking world was shocked when Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) apparently declared ‘We will bury you’ in a speech to the United Nations in New York. It was a translator’s mistake. Khrushchev actually said, ‘We will outlive you’. At present, governments spend large sums of money to enable the world to communicate effectively. In 1996 the cost for the European Parliament of every published word was 36 cents (US), and is presumably more today because the European parliament allows the use of many more languages. The expense is due to the cost of translation and transcription services. As more nations join the EU the situation will become worse if each nation insists, as is likely, on speaking its own language in the European Parliament. If it is difficult with the present number of EU members what will it be like with twice this number? Ten new member nations joined the EU in 2004, with others to follow. Despite this high cost, the quality of communication is very poor. In international organizations such as the United Nations many delegates are disadvantaged in critical negotiations because they must express themselves in one of the six official languages of the United Nations. The pressure to add more languages will grow, particularly if Japan and Germany are elected to permanent membership of the Security Council as part of the reorganization of the United Nations system. Even in the late 1980s translation and transcription used 7% of the UN budget. Even in the late 1980s translation and transcription used 7% of the UN budget. It requires 400 hours of expensive translators’ labor to translate a one-hour speech in English into the other five official languages of Russian , French, Arabic, Spanish and Chinese. The translations have to be very carefully done, because a single mistake like the one made in Khrushchev’s speech could cause an international incident. The difficulties of training and finding translators are going to increase exponentially. Imagine the European Parliament with a Hungarian or Slovenian speaking and expecting this speech to be simultaneously translated into Italian, Swedish, Lithuanian, Polish and so on: a linguistic organizational nightmare! How many people would be fluent enough in both (say) Hungarian and Portuguese to translate simultaneously both ways? Imagine what fees they could demand for their services! Translations of documents require frustratingly long waiting periods, and those who suffer these frustrations are, in reality, privileged people in terms of their communication skills. Their proficiency in languages is very high by most standards, and they usually have the support of language specialists. But the support of language specialists is not available to most people. Ordinary people who travel face the language problem every day. Consider, for example, communication between doctors and patients in a country where the language is not known by the visiting patient, or by newly arrived migrants who do not yet know the language of their new home. As global interdependence, trade and travel increase, these problems get worse every year. They are regarded as a normal and unavoidable consequence of trade and travel, but are they unavoidable? Any rational person would come to the conclusion that the birth of a planetary culture requires the adoption of a planetary language.

Language and Global Communication, Choices

The choice the world needs to make is whether this should be an existing national language which is given a new job to do or a new language designed specifically for the purpose. For a question of such immense proportion, it is worth investing in a bit of thinking about the thinking called for. As Edward de Bono observed: Most bad thinking is not failure of logic, but of breadth. So, pause to consider “who has a choice?” and “how does, and should, the world make choices?” There are many who believe that the world has already ‘decided’ that the international lingua franca should be (or will be) English. English is favored as the priority language for people to learn if they want to be effective on the international stage. There is no doubt that this situation is a consequence of US political and cultural power in the 20th century, and before this the imperial power of the UK in the 19th century. But is that the model of decision-making our spaceship Earth should use? Most citizens of wealthy English-speaking countries pay taxes for the common good, support worthy causes, at least occasionally, and, at least nominally, subscribe to the belief that it is right to aid the disadvantaged. Perhaps they can, and will, see that this global decision should not be claimed by commercial interests, or by the exercise of inherited privilege but by a more equitable consideration of the consequences to all stake-holders. If they do they may recognize that this question impacts on every single person in the world, and even future persons not yet born. Taking this into account, the proportion of the current and future Earthlings who already speak English goes from being a minority, to being a tiny fraction of the total stakeholders. The significant statistic becomes the difference in learning time, for English and the alternative, for the vast majority who have neither. English is a notoriously difficult language to learn and most people who try to learn it fail. English is relatively so difficult that it will only ever be an elite language , just as it remains an elite language in India after more than 100 years of language instruction in Indian Schools. The recent market penetration of English has been huge. However will this (and should this) continue as India and China emerge as powerful nations in the 21st century, and an integrated Europe and resurgent Russia regain some of their former influence? It is not sensible to make choices about global language policy to reflect temporary political power realities. Instead it should be based on more rational criteria such as ease and cost of learning, and whether any cultural imperialism would accompany its widespread use. Esperanto has been a living language for about a hundred years since it was designed as an international language that would promote the development of internationalist values. Ludovic Zamenhof spoke twelve languages and combined the most useful elements of each to design a politically neutral language of remarkable economy and flexibility. The American linguist Mario Pei says, of Esperanto, ‘it is an artificial language just as a motor vehicle is an artificial horse’. Esperanto has a mixture of linguistic roots derived from Romantic, Germanic and Slavic languages so it will be widely accepted as a trans-European language. Some of its strongest adherents are Esperanto clubs in Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, so the accession of eastern European countries into the EC will improve its visibility across Europe. Interestingly, China and the Republic of Korea have strong Esperanto movements and these cultures find Esperanto very easy to learn. Most people can use it effectively after studying it for six months to a year. Many people involved in languages perceive Esperanto either as a threat to national linguistic cultures or as a language of no culture. In fact it is a language for a now emerging planetary culture; Zamenhof was a visionary a hundred years ahead of his time. Esperanto has survived through the intolerant and culturally imperialistic modernist era intact and can be now looked at afresh as a possible lingua franca for the emerging 21st century global society. Esperanto does not threaten any tribal culture as would English or another national language as an international lingua franca. Esperanto solves in a practical, low cost and culturally non-threatening way the problem of international or universal communication. In late 2003 a meeting in the EU considered the possible role which Esperanto might play in the future of Europe. It is possible that in the not too distant future Esperanto will be added to the official languages of the European Parliament. Imagine the UN General Assembly on the 1st September 2014 making a collective decision to adopt a global lingua franca and to commence its world wide use 10 years later after that date and after the implementation of a 10 program After 1st September 2024 all international conferences would be held in this language, as is the case with the World Esperanto Congress today- with thousands of participants from all continents and with no expensive translators in sight! Each cultural group would discuss things in its own language, but when they come together with other cultural groups they would use a language which is both everybody’s and nobody’s language. It would be a little like monetary union in the EU but on a much grander scale.

Future Taking/ Future Making

When the state of Israel was established, Hebrew was chosen as the language of the new state, and it is now at the centre of Jewish culture there. At that time Hebrew was a language spoken fluently by very few Jews even though almost all of them knew some Hebrew. All immigrants arriving in Israel were required to become fully fluent in Hebrew so that they could participate effectively in Israeli society, and through this all were put on an equal footing. Had one of the other national languages spoken by these immigrants been chosen instead, some migrants would have been advantaged against all the rest. The choice to use Hebrew and to require all would-be Israeli citizens to learn it was an act which consolidated their nation building and created an astonishingly cohesive society in Israel within a generation, because it de-emphasized difference and emphasized unity and cohesiveness. The world now faces a choice similar to that made by the founders of the state of Israel. If Esperanto was everyone’s second language we would be better off because we would be placing everybody on an equal footing, avoiding any cultural imperialism, and so enhancing global cohesiveness. It would not have been hard to find opponents to the introduction of Hebrew in Israel, to find those who said it was too hard, not their problem, something that would solve itself. Nevertheless, some people found the resolve to make a future. We could do that too.

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