Fair linguistic communication

The problem of fairness in language policy gets analyzed again in a 2010 article by Sabine Fiedler.

How can a multilingual supranational government make the language situation in its territory fair for all?

This issue has attracted a bit of scholarly attention, including by me. The latest contribution coming to my attention is Sabine Fiedler’s 2010 article “Approaches to fair linguistic communication” in the European Journal of Language Policy.

Unlike me, Fiedler deals with the practical politics of a concrete case: the European Union. She describes resistance to the growing near-monopoly of English in EU government and commerce and five ideas that have been offered as antidotes to the inequalities that a uniquely privileged language creates between its native speakers and everybody else. Two of these involve individual multilingualism: in one case active and in the other case passive. The other three ideas are to elevate a single language without native speakers to a special universal status; the languages they propose are, respectively, Latin, reduced international English, and Esperanto.

Fiedler considers the last two most practical and meritorious. Recognizing reduced international English as the de jure lingua franca would entail dispossessing the native speakers of English. The non-native-speaker majority would assume majority control over the language, which would diverge from standard domestic English. The more radical alternative, the replacement of English by Esperanto, would be more economical and less discriminatory.

In Fiedler’s judgment, the chief obstacle to the adoption of the Esperanto option is prejudices against human-designed languages. My hunch is that this kind of bias is not as powerful a force as the preference for gradualism. The dominance of English in the EU has been gradual, and the liberation of international English from native-speaker ownership, gradual so far, could gradually continue and accelerate, eventually reaching the point at which all native English speakers would study the reduced international variety of English as a course in school. But could the replacement of English with Esperanto be accomplished in small increments? What would the EU look like when the process reached the 50% point? Fiedler suggests that the advocates of the Esperanto option need to explain why its implementation would be beneficial. Perhaps they could do themselves good also by explaining something else: whether the EU could move gradually from the status quo to the use of Esperanto as a lingua franca, or whether this change (like changing from driving on the left side of the road to the right) would be practical only as an abrupt switch.

3 thoughts on “Fair linguistic communication

  1. This post of yours, written in August 2010, is obsolete, given that later (indeed, shortly afterwards) the death of English was announced. The obituary of the English language was published in The Washington Post, on Sunday, September 19, 2010. The obit starts off, “The English language, which arose from humble Anglo-Saxon roots to become the lingua franca of 600 million people worldwide and the dominant lexicon of international discourse, is dead. It succumbed last month at the age of 1,617 after a long illness.” You can read the rest of the obit here:

    However, joking aside, there is a very concrete and immediate worldwide use of Esperanto available, namely, as a stepping stone to learning English. I have provided some support in that direction, whose front-end I have named The English Engine. Its address is http://www.the-english-engine.com.

  2. The preference for gradualism may itself be conditional, not a given. There are plenty of precedents for non-gradual shifts in language policy, the most dramatic perhaps being Ataturk’s enforcement of a Latin script for Turkish. But then such efforts generally have the winds of nationalism behind them, and I grant that it’s a little difficult to imagine what kind of ideology could gain enough purchase in Europe to propel such a switch. It would have to be in response to some kind of crisis of legitimacy, I suppose. Such things are hard to foresee.

    A grassroots analysis suggesst that Esperanto gradualism would take the form of increasing informal and semiformal use without official sanction. Not much sign of this happening as yet, but this may have more to do with inept organization and public relations than immovable sociocultural barriers. At some point the formalization of a de facto situation, starting with particular areas of concentration, could be congruent with gradualism.

    1. The creeping penetration that you suggest seems to happen in some ways: Wikipedia expansion, getting more schools to teach Esperanto, etc. Is this mainly spontaneous, or coordinated? If we asked the organized Esperanto movement for a copy of its strategy, what would we get? UEA says one of its purposes is “to act for the solution of the language problem in international relations”, but have the debates about strategy and tactics produced a tangible doctrine or plan? If not, is that because the leadership and rank-and-file distrust strategic planning, can’t agree on the principles, or don’t really aspire to the international officialization of Esperanto, or for some other reason(s)?

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