Archive for August, 2010

Fair linguistic communication

Friday, August 6th, 2010

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.