English and Pluringuim : an European Challenge

Dans un article  provocateur et stimulant, Robert Scarcia prend à rebrousse-poil les idées reçues sur l’anglais et nous invite à ne pas laisser aux seuls locuteurs natifs anglophones l’usage intensif de l’anglais comme langue de culture. Cet article a été initialement publié sur www.viceversamag.com,  qui vient de consacrer un intéressant dossier à la démocratie.

As the saying goes “all roads lead to Rome” and so it seemed for the debate over languages as this past month of October the city of “eternal” fame hosted the Third European Conferences on Plurilingualism.

The three-day event was organized by the European Observatory of Plurilingualism, a Paris-based organization dedicated to promoting linguistic diversity among individuals and institutions in Europe. The conferences were structured around three main general themes: plurilingualism as a facilitator for economic development and social cohesion, plurality of languages as a crucial component in education and the need for a political shift from linguistic imperialism to a plurilingual approach in international relationships.

Given the crucial importance of linguistic diversity in an ever culturally homogenized world this article will try to focus on a couple of outcomes of the conferences that could provide some food for thought for the larger issue of democracy in globalized civil society.

The first indisputable information proved by multiple sources during the sessions is that speaking a plurality of languages is good for business, good for people and good for culture; the second conclusion, whether clearly stated or subliminally suggested is that the overwhelming power of English is threatening the long-term survival of other languages.

Another saying states that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, which is why this latter question of English linguistic imperialism deserves further thought if we are to avoid traps likely to take us straight to a unilingual world that could prove to be as devastating to human culture as monoculture in agriculture has proved to be destructive for the natural environment.

Both empirical experience and scientific statistics confirm in fact that the “social request” for English is overwhelming; but what is too often left out of this assessment is that such “request” is stronger among people and families on the weaker end of the socio-economic spectrum. Brutally put: the poorer the people, the more they want affordable access to the one language they consider the indispensable tool to get a decent job in our “globalized world”. In reverse, the richer the people and the larger the pool of resources they can afford for language learning, the more likely the interest to extend their linguistic competencies beyond the knowledge of English.

What seems to be missing in the legitimate arguments of those who thunder against English linguistic imperialism, who by the way, more often than not, can speak English and at worst fairly well themselves, is the concern that they could be fuelling a populist grassroots revolt in favor of English among those less privileged segments of society who understandably want “first things first” only because they know they cannot afford the rest in the cutthroat competitive context of the neoliberal world.

The first crucial lesson that comes from Rome is thus one of non linguistic nature: a bit of old-fashioned class conscience and inter-class solidarity should be introduced in the struggle for linguistic pluralism.

Stretching the previous line of reasoning further to embrace communities of speakers beyond class and income cleavages, there is also a question to be asked: what other language/s is/are to be taught to counterbalance the overwhelming weight of English in Europe? Is it the native regional non-official languages of the old continent, such as for example Occitan, Basque, Breton and Catalan in France; or Welsh and Gaelic in the United Kingdom? Or is it the languages of immigrant communities such as Arabic in France, Urdu and Hindi in England and Mandarin everywhere? Or again is it the “great languages” of European culture and civilization? And then of course would there be agreement on which ones these would be?

Once these crucial problem are met there comes the logical follow up question: how realistic is it to expect the children of say, North African immigrants, a community of about 5 million in France to take pride let alone find use in learning German, Italian or Occitan?

And what then would be the fate of the “minor” languages of official states such Croatian, Slovenian, Serb or Greek?

In other words: do the languages of Dante and Cervantes interest the sons and daughters of South Asian migrants on Albion’s shores? More to the point: does the Man of the Mancha charm the European-born children of Mandarin native-speakers? Maybe, or maybe not.

Lest these questions are taken into serious consideration the slide along the slippery slope to “de facto” English monolingualism will remain the default trend, to the comfort of those who out of blatant arrogance, sheer ignorance or simple opportunism do not care about the cultural democracy born of linguistic plurality.

The Rome conferences have highlighted also what seems to be a new trend in Europe: language awareness, an engagement to talk about different languages especially in schools with a strong presence of non European immigrant children.

Language awareness apparently does facilitate the integration of immigrant children in the mainstream, which is obviously a good social goal but it does not secure linguistic ends. In other words, language awareness makes the children of Filipino, Arab and Turkish immigrants feel more accepted in Italy,  France and Germany thus fostering the consolidation of a common proto-national feeling but does not do much for the survival of immigrant languages in the respective host countries.

This is the crux of the matter: the issue of linguistic plurality is still prisoner of the old trilogy: “one nation, one state one language”, which entails the fundamental issue of the nation-state. So the final question desperately seeking answers to engage debate would be: is there a future for linguistic plurality without a serious reinterpretation of nationhood?

In the meantime it is high time those of us who do have a sense of social solidarity tried to turn the tables on the issue of English supremacy: accept the English language as the “lingua franca”, all the way. But bear in mind that a “lingua franca” is a common ground, a place of communicative encounter outside the cultural comfort zone that only the mother tongue provides.

Brutally put (yet again): be prepared to debate in English with everybody except… the native speakers of the English language. Anybody who understands the difference it makes in sports between playing on home turf and playing abroad should be able to dispose of the basic sense of fair play to understand this reasoning. In other words we, the non mother-tongue speakers of English of the world should not hesitate to play with each other on our common neutral turf represented by the English language. The onus of effort to learn new languages should be on them, the “Anglo” mother-tongue monolinguals.

Granted, this is easier said than done, but who ever thought the struggle for linguistic democracy was a cakewalk.

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