The value of Esperanto
The value of Esperanto
ABSTRACT: This article was written by Claude Piron, a linguist and psychologist, professor at the University of Geneva.
(THE PARTY new - n. 6 - march 1992)
Millions of young people learn languages, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, and when they become adults their governments waste just as much money on their absurd system of international communication.
In 1989, for example, the European Community spent 1.4 billion ECU on translation and interpreting services. The cost to the Community for each word printed is 36 American cents; the cost has doubled over the last ten years.
Despite these astronomical figures, the quality of communication is dreadful: microphones and headphones are used; omissions and misunderstandings are frequent; at the meetings of international organizations, delegates are forced to speak in a language which is not their own, and are therefore at a disadvantage in negotiations; the translation of documents leads to an enormous waste of time. Those who suffer these difficulties are, moreover, the privileged few: government representatives with their own teams of translators and interpreters. For the common mortal, transnational communication does not exist, or is of mediocre quality. Serious and painful problems often occur, for example, for tourists, patients undergoing treatment in a foreign country, or immigrants. And the reality of this situation, far from being admitted openly, is concealed.
It is implied that: 1) there are no problems, as English is spoken everywhere; 2) languages can be learned at school; 3) the difficulties of the current situation are secondary; 4) it is impossible to organize things differently.
I will answer these points one by one:
1) If the widespread knowledge of English solves the problem, why spend so much money on translation and interpreting? Research carried out in six countries in Western Europe shows that only 6% of the population can really understand a normal text in English. The "English" argument is a fallacious myth.
2) Language teaching in schools does not lead to mastery of the various languages, because in order to master a foreign language it is necessary to memorize and assimilate hundreds and thousands of details which have no rational justification. In France, only 1% of school-leavers are able to express themselves correctly in the language they have learnt.
3) The money spent on one activity is no longer available for another. Governments take no account of this fact. They overlook the fact that translation and interpreting are, from an economic and social point of view, sterile activities. The members of the World Health Organization, for example, earmarked a further five million dollars for translation services during the same meeting in which they rejected, due to lack of funds, a series of realistic and well-planned projects for health improvement in Africa, projects which required only 4.2 million dollars.
When people who speak different languages want to communicate with each other, they can choose between a variety of systems on the basis of the situation and of their language abilities: gestures, a smattering of one language or the other, the use of English, of interpreters, of Esperanto, etc. If we analyze the cost-effectiveness of each system, we discover that one formula, and only one, allows optimum communication for a very low investment in terms of time, money and energy.
This formula completely eliminates the cost of translation and interpreting; it puts all parties on the same level; it does not lead to any waste of time; it allows confidential communication; it facilitates ease of expression; it respects everybody's ethnic, national and cultural identity; it is psychologically very satisfying; it promotes the reciprocal awareness of other cultures; it allows the spontaneous expression of feelings and genuinely human dialogue between people of different origins. The formula I am referring to is Esperanto. Fairness implies not giving judgement before carrying out a thorough analysis of the facts. But no government has ever allowed its people to judge on the basis of knowledge. No government has ever said: "We use enormous sums of the money you pay in taxes for the sterile activities of translation and interpreting. Do you agree with this, or would you prefer to spend these sums on activities which improve the well-being of the population?" No government has ever said: "80% o
r 90% of you choose English as the main foreign language for your children, but remember that most schoolchildren will never be able to use English; if they learned Esperanto, on the other hand, at the end of one school-year (with the same number of lessons) they would be able to communicate with people of other countries as easily as in their own language: language barriers would no longer exist. The teaching of Esperanto would thus save time and allow pupils, in the following years, to learn another language - not as as an international lingua franca, but as a means of broadening their culture, of understanding another people, another way of thinking, of feeling, and of reacting."
Why do governments not say these things? Why do they hide the truth? Has the time not come to force them to act in an honest and reasonable manner?