MCMLXXXIII The international year of communication

Linguistic communication

Where are the myths? Where reality?

by Claude Piron, Geneva University

When I was a child, I was said: Who has a language, can go to Rome. But several kilometers away they spoke a different language. Asking people was no good at all.

I was told that to communicate abroad we should study languages at school. But over 90% adults era unable to express their thinking clearly in the foreign languages they learnt at school.

I was said: With English you will manage all over the world. In a Spanish town I saw an accident between a Swedish car and a French one: neither between them and with the Civil Guards (policemen) could the car drivers communicate. In a Thai village I saw a tourist in a distressed face try to explain his symptoms to a local doctor: communication was not possible. I have worked for the UNO and the World Health Organization in the five corners of the world, and I have seen that in Guatemala or Czechoslovakia, in the Congo, Bulgaria or Japan, and in any kind of countries, English was not good enough to communicate, outside big hotels and airway companies.

I was said that thanks to translations, the furthest cultures were within everybody's reach. But when I compared the translated texts with the original ones, I discovered so many omissions, misconceptions and distorted meanings, that I surrendered to the evidence: in our languages, every translation is treason.

I was said in the West that it was meant to help the Third World, regarding their local cultures. But I have seen how they made, by means of French and English, the strongest cultural coercion. I have seen that, with no respect for the linguistic dignity of the other ones, we started with the imposition of our language to communicate with them. And I have seen the countless which the training of intermediate and low grade staff, because the Western technique could not speak the local language, and there was no instruction manual there.

I was said: public tuition warrants opportunity equality for children from every social background. And I have seen, especially in the Third World, the families who had money send their children to England or the USA to enable them to master English, and the great masses, enclosed in their languages, I have seen submitted to this or that publicity, closed to the world, kept by their language inside a lesser socioeconomic level.

I was said: Esperanto is a failure. And I have seen en Switzerland, in a small mountain village, little peasant children, after a six month course on the International Language, keep a conversation with Japanese visitors, as if they all spoke in the same common mother tongue.

I was said that Esperanto lacked human values. I took the pain to learn the language; I have read their poems, I have listened to their songs. And I have received the confidences in the conventional language from Brazilians, Chinese, Iranians, Polish and even from a young Ouzbeca. And these have been the most unprompted and deepest conversations I have ever had in a foreign language.

I was said: Esperanto is the end of any culture. But when in Latin America, East Europe, Asia, I was received in the homes of esperantists, I could perceive that, for the same social level, they were simply more learned than their countrymen. And when I have attended international debates in this language, where one would have believed that every one spoke their own language, the intellectual level of the intercourses was amazing.

Of course I have spoken about this in my surroundings! I have said: Come and see, as I have an appalling trick: it is a language which solves perfectly the communication problem between peoples. I have seen a Hungarian and a Korean discussing about politics and philosophy, after ten months learning Esperanto, with the same easiness as we do in French. And after I have seen this and that.. But I was answered: That is not serious. And, above all, it is artificial.

But my fate is touring through the world. And I see puzzled people in their wish to talk with the inhabitants of the country where they lodge or through which they travel. I can see communications between peoples which lead into sharp misunderstandings. I can see people thirsty for culture, whom the language wall bar from the access to the desired works. I can see those who, after a language study lasting about six or seven years, speak in a painful way, searching words, with a horrible accent, giving up those nuances which they would like to express. I can see flourish inequality and linguistic discrimination. I can see diplomats and specialists manipulate selecting switches, speak to a microphone and listen on their headsets a different voice from that of the person talking to them. Is this the natural solution? The art of solving the problems with intelligence and sensibility, is not part of human nature?

What I am said has nothing to do with what I see and hear. Meanwhile, I wander helpless in a society who proclaim everybody's right to communication.

And I do not know if it is that they lie at me, or if it is me, who is crazy.

Claude Piron

Go back to Esperanto Spain.