Linguistic diversity, a desperate case?

Jeannine Routier-Pucci is a language professor at Cornell University, an affiliate professor at ESCP Europe and a translator. She studies the systems of representation of "the Other", and the linguistic mechanisms specific to languages and to the cultures they articulate and spread.

Linguistic diversity, a desperate case?

An increasing number of countries are now only offering English as the first compulsory language in primary and secondary education. Other languages are often considered as mere options in the linguistic journey of the learner. How do you analyze this standardization?

There are two realities behind the imposition of "English as a first compulsory language". It may be the first compulsory foreign language or the first language learned in school, regardless of the mother tongue.

If we think of the first case, first compulsory foreign language, we see a valorization of English as a kind of global lingua franca. This situation gives to English, and to the cultures it conveys, a great prestige that could be considered an advantage.

However, one must ask oneself what kind of English is being referred to: usually, this is what we might call essential international English, based on a vocabulary of 300-500 words and dedicated to practical communication related to the circumstance, profession or need. It is therefore a language with limited cultural references: in fact, more a code than a language. However, in order not to paint a negative picture, it must be recognized that learning a foreign language is always an act of open-mindedness that gives a comparative vision of linguistic systems and of the "arbitrary" nature of any language.  

A language is a way of seeing, understanding, classifying and establishing links between things: it is both the expression and invention of the world that surrounds the speaker.

If we think of the second case, i. e. pupils whose mother tongue, or native language, is not English and who are educated in English, the experience is richer. If it is possible for them to maintain a good linguistic-cultural level in their native language, education in English can only be an advantage. Beyond linguistic codes, they learn cultural codes and break the monolingualism that is gaining ground every day. It is therefore an ideal situation: enrichment of the learner without impoverishing the language.

When you talk about standardization, you are probably referring to the instrumentalization of foreign language teaching. Linguistic policies are often put at the service of a political project. Multilingualism as a model of human development is an ideological project. When we talk about standardization in France, we mostly think of the domination of English, to which we would prefer that of French. But the ideological position seems to be the same in both cases.


More generally, do you think that there is a linguistic impoverishment in the world, given the increase in endangered languages?

The terminology used to describe the linguistic situation is often confusing and deserves to be explored. Multilingualism is when several languages coexist in a society; and plurilingualism when the same individual uses several languages depending on the situation.

Multilingualism was the norm in the world before the emergence of the nation, which is often understood as a State, a people, and therefore a language. Although several nations mention more than one national language in their constitutions, or, as in the United States, none, multilingualism is now everywhere in retreat. One can point to the democratization of education, which "harmonizes" exchanges within the nation. Also worth mentioning are the new communication systems, starting with the radio in the 1930s, television in the 1940s, and the computer boom that began in the 1980s. It seems hard to imagine a cure. Some libraries keep records of several hundred or even thousands of speakers in languages that are in great danger of disappearing. These archives are already a nostalgic testimony.

Plurilingualism is an acquisition, not the preservation of a heritage. It is understood as the knowledge of several languages in order to expand one's communication capacity. The school system, which is partly responsible for the extinction of many regional languages, became a place to compensate for this impoverishment through the teaching of foreign languages. Indeed, there is a singular paradox that can be described as follows: we want more speakers of a handful of hegemonic languages today, and fewer speakers of many local languages.

Linguistic impoverishment is not only related to endemic monolingualism, which favours the "strong" language, the one most spoken nationally and internationally, over languages with a weakened cultural and political impact, of regional scope and without prestige. Language is also a political construct. The proof of this is that we speak of "national language". According to the UNESCO, there are approximately 7,000 languages belonging to the intangible heritage of humanity. The list of vulnerable and even severely endangered languages is growing to the point where 230 languages have disappeared since the 1950s. In short, 40% of known languages have different levels of danger of extinction, according to the same source. The most pessimistic predict that 90% of the languages existing today will disappear by the end of the century.

Thus, what is called regional dialects or languages, according to the chosen ideological position, or pre-colonial languages that have been displaced by a politically stronger language, are in decline in all regions of the world: the Basque language is threatened in Spain, and several dozen pre-Columbian languages are threatened in Mexico, to name but two examples. In France, regional languages seem to be in agony, with occasional increases in usage. It is undoubtedly a reduction in cultural diversity.

How can multilingualism be promoted?

We have just demonstrated that multilingualism and plurilingualism are not contradictory: we can maintain both. If addressing this challenge proves to be difficult, we can try to encourage the whole population to reflect on it. Under the impetus of the French presidency, the French Institute (Institut Français) opened an online consultation until 20 March 2018, to gather ideas from all over the world in order to promote the use of French and plurilingualism (My idea for French: This consultation should feed into an overall plan to that end. Let’s see how it works out.

And how does the French language come into play in all of this?

Today, French is the 6th most widely spoken language in the world, after Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic.

Perhaps we must recognize that the existence of a lingua franca has some advantages, whether it is English, French or other. For example, in African countries born of decolonization, where borders have been set without taking religious and linguistic differences into account, English and French have become the continent's two languages: we often refer to English-speaking Africa, and French-speaking Africa, often leaving aside the part of Africa that speaks Portuguese, or Arabic. In some cases, such as Nigeria, where there are more than 500 languages, English, the language of the colonizers, has imposed itself. Urban elites all speak English; this is not the case in the countryside.

Is it possible to live in a multilingual country? This seems to be the case in India, with two national languages, Hindi and English, and 22 regional official languages, to which we must add about 400 other languages, often with different dialectal forms. It sounds like a bold mechanism, but it is easy to understand that speaking Hindi and/or English is a serious advantage. We should therefore speak of a multi-speed multilingualism.

In your opinion, what are the effects of globalization on linguistic diversity? Does it threaten or promote this diversity?

On the one hand, globalization makes us aware of the existence of new regions, countries that once belonged to the world of imagination and travel, and which today have become economic and political interlocutors; on the other hand, this big global village has tough and inescapable rules. In fact, the phenomenon of globalization, by bringing the Other into a circle of relative proximity, forces him to enter a certain mould, essentially a linguistic one. By domesticating otherness, globalization plunges a large part of the world into the compulsory use of a global language, often English, sometimes French, Swahili, Hindi, Arabic or Mandarin.

What part do geopolitical stakes play in the dissemination of languages, especially in a context of increased international tensions?

I could say that you have to know the language of your enemy and your client.  You have to know what the other person thinks in both cases.

As far as relations with the enemy are concerned, we often settle for local translators, for lack of Western translators, as we have seen in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The translator's reliability is always questionable on both sides, because, as the old Italian saying goes: "Traduttore, traditore" (translation is betrayal). This paronomasia highlights all too well the difficulty of playing a double role without betraying. When dealing with clients or enemies, negotiations are often conducted in a language that is not the mother tongue of either of the parties. Making the effort to speak the other person’s language is to treat him in a more personal and direct way, without arrogance.

Tensions and conflicts often take place between neighbouring countries, and linguistic affiliations only reinforces each other's position. I am thinking, for example, of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In Ukraine, the national language is Ukrainian, but 13 other languages are also recognized, including Russian which dominates in the east of the country and in Kiev, and which is understood by almost the entire population, especially those who lived and studied before 1991. The USSR imposed Russian during the period of its recent domination, from 1919 to 1991, and yet the Ukrainian language never disappeared. Today, young Ukrainians, whether they are Ukrainian-speaking or Russian-speaking, generally choose English as their second language, with 3.5 million learners, followed by German with 600,000 learners and French with 200,000 learners. Ukraine is a good example of linguistic choices historically related to the political and economic domination of the time. Today, choosing English, German or French as a second language is a way for young Ukrainians to turn their backs on the past and project themselves into a future with a global vocation.

A few days ago, the International Conference for the French Language and Multilingualism was held in Paris. In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the French language compared to other international languages?

The place of the French language in the world: a vast question. We know that French is one of the languages of international diplomacy. In the eighteenth century, international treaties ceased to be written in Latin to the benefit of French, even when France was not a signatory. It was the cultural influence of France at that time, more than its political predominance, that explained the rise of the French language. All the European courts spoke French: a considerable influence among the elites, but no diffusion beyond those closest to power. The decline of French as a diplomatic language dates back to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which was written in English and French. French is still one of the working languages of the European Commission and one of the official languages of the United Nations; it is also one of the two working languages of the Court of Justice of the European Union. However, it is undeniably losing ground.

Its current position as the world's sixth most widely spoken language and his preponderant position in West and North Africa suggests that the future of the French language may not be so bleak.

The European Union is perhaps the best example of promoting multilingualism. But doesn't linguistic diversity have a cost?

The European Union is a linguistic challenge, with 24 or 23 official languages (depending on whether one counts Irish), and the obligation for its institutions to ensure absolute multilingualism and thus to translate its documents into 24 or 23 languages. 24 languages represent 553 possible language combinations, 1600 translators and 450 interpreters. The total cost of translation and interpretation for all EU institutions represents around 1% of the total community budget, or about €2.3 per European citizen. So multilingualism is a viable option, but at what cost? Since 2012, the European Parliament has decided to reduce its budgetary expenditure by ceasing to translate sessions into the 24 official languages: henceforth, debates are recorded in their original language, made available to States, and only translated at their request. Not all MEPs are strong supporters of multilingualism. For example, it has been pointed out that NATO, consisting of 28 member states, operates with two working languages, and the UN, which has 198 member states, operates with six working languages.

All of the above should convince us that the acquisition of foreign languages is necessary from an early age. English dominates but French resists: at the end of the day, speaking several languages is a personal and sometimes valuable asset.

I would like to conclude this interview by mentioning the case of my friend Judith Nemethy, who speaks five languages: Hungarian, her mother tongue, German, that she learned in Switzerland during the war, Spanish in Argentina where she spent her teenage years, English in the United States where she spent her professional life, and French, which she speaks as a perfect former student of a French high school... Don't ask her where she's from.