International Language by Mariko Harumi
A common language helps us to reason, plan, share ideas and understand one another. Without it, one may assume that his or hers is the only proper and 'ordinary' way of communication. Such linguistic provincialism will cause distrust, hatred, and intolerance with other culture. However, throughout history, the language of politically powerful country has always been used as a common language and a tool to subjugate the people. The dominant culture associated with the language has undermined economic, political and cultural organizations of less-powerful countries. Language has divided people, as well as united.
Today, English is studied as the first foreign language in most European and Asian countries. According to Rune Bergentoff, English is by far the predominantl first foreign language learned in elementary and secondary education in Europe and Japan. More than eighty percent of students in Japan, Spain, France, Sweden, Germany and Finland study English as the second language next to their mother tongues.
History of English as a dominant international language goes back to the early 20th century. In Europe, during most of the Middle Ages, Latin was the language of the Church and the learned. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the French gained ground there, and in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the German language was disseminated in various regions of Europe. After the eighteenth century, the French language was again supported as the language of communication among socially privileged classes. Then, in the twentieth century, the outcome of World War I and II gave English world wide popularity. However, it was not until the fall of communism in 1989 that English gained the position as the world's most dominant official language (Bergentoft 9).
These historical facts tell us political and economic power that lies behind the dominance of an international language. In Geopolitics of Information, Anthony Smith refers it as 'Cultural Imperialism' Like imperialism which prevailed in western Europe in the late 19th century out of economic, political and philosophical consequences, its powerful ideology has influenced the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. Smith states:
Although the term 'imperialism'is often used in international propaganda or to denounce an opponent's foreign policy today and no one country will claim their foreign policy as imperialism, it seems that English 'cultural imperialism' has prevailed in today's world. Like economic imperialism, it has undermined the cultures, societies, and political organizations of native peoples by creating linguistic power structures among them. James M. Rubenstein points out that 'people who forsake their native language must weigh the benefits of using English against the cost of losing a fundamental element of local cultural identity' (183). People in smaller countries, however, are necessitated to learn English in order to participate in a global economy and culture, while risking the minimization and devaluation of pride and dignity in exchange.
Is it ture, then, that the people whose mother tongue is English always enjoy the benefit of their language status? Not necessarily. Communication is a two way system. No one country will be benefited by taking advantage by the linguistic superiority. Although many native English speaking people may think they are enjoying the lopsided preeminence of their language, it does not necessarily work to their advantage. David Richardson reports that British and American scientist often complain that their foreign colleagues publish papers in their own language and keep the discoveries among themselves without translating them into English, while they keep abreast of technical discoveries and absorbed the idea from English publication to their advantage (15).
According to Bergentoft , among young people in European Union countries 70 percent between ages 18 and 24 speak English. On the other hand, only 15 % of American high school students studied a foreign language and only 8% of American colleges and universities required a foreign language for admission in 1979 (9-34). American's incompetence of understanding foreign language also works against them in the areas of foreign trade and diplomacy. Richardson reports that S.I. Hayakawa once pointed out that Japan had 10,000 English-speaking sales representatives in New York City alone, while America had barely 1,000 salespeople in all of Japan, hardly any of whom could speak nor read Japanese. He further cites that General Motors could not sell Chevrolet Nova in Latin America, because due to lack of the knowledge of language and sensitivity they did not know that they were trying hard to sell a car named 'Nova' which meant in Spanish 'It doesn't go.' When President Nixon visited Peking in 1972, U.S. government could not find a qualified interpreter who command English and Mandarin, so they used Chinese leader's own interpreter (5-9).
English is not the only international language. The United Nations currently recognize six official languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Russian and Mandarin Chinese. Translation work is, however, very costly. Richardson remarks that in the United Nations, every official word spoken and written in any one of these languages has to be translated into some or all of the others (4). He reports:
However, translation can not always convey clear or correct message to the people of other language groups, because language reflects culture, and it often contains terms and expressions that cannot be found their equivalents in other languages. For instance, According to Ronald B. Adler and Neil Towne, Eskimos have a large number of words to express 'snow' which are not found in English vocabulary. Distinctive expression of a weather is important to them to survive in the severe Arctic environment. Another example illustrated in the book is Nemawashi in Japanese, which means the process of informally feeling out all the people involved with an issue before making decision.(217) It cannot be translated into English nor other languages. Even if it is literally translated, people who don't understand the Japanese culture may not be able to fully conceive its meaning.
The search for the perfect artificial international language has been the dream for many people throughout the ages. According to Umberto Eco, the author of The Search for the Perfect language, Couturat and Leau analyzed 19 models of a priori languages, and another 50 mixed or a posteriori languages; Monnerot-Dumaine reports on 360 projects for international languages; Knowlson lists 83 projects of universal languages during the 17th and 18th centuries; and, through limiting himself to projects in the 19th century, Proset provides a list of 173 titles (1). Among the many artificial languages, two of the most successful ones are Chinese and Esperanto.
Esperanto was first proposed in 1887 by Dr. Ledger L. Zamenhof in his book, The International Language, which was written in Russian. Esperanto was his pen name, which meant 'Hopeful' and it was soon adapted as his language. Born in a Jewish family and raised in Polish Lithuania, Zamenhof experienced oppression of race and language by anti-Semitism in his childhood. It was through his personal experience that he desired creating an international language which would serve for peace among peoples of the world. The Esperanto has a very simple grammar which is logical and regular. Its alphabets consist of twenty-eight letters and each letter has only one sound. The accent always falls on the next-to-the-last syllable. There is only one article, la, which does not change by the gender of a word. In the words of Richardson:
According to Britanica , Esperanto is one of the most successful artificial languages, and every year experts meet to update it. It is estimated that over 100,000 people speak it, and more than 30,000 books have been published in it (24).
However, Esperanto is short to be called a universal language. Since it is rooted in Indo-European language, it is closely associated with the regional (European) culture, which does not contain the elements of other cultures. Secondly, since it is based on phonetics (sound system), it has been modified to various versions in each different country until it has becomes almost chaotic. Today, the reorganization and restructuring of Esperanto is an imminent issue.
Comparing to the phonetic written system, the ideogram used by Chinese characters is more versatile and universal. They are pictographic; they depict the features of the object. Once the meaning is identified and recognized, they can be read and conceived by any other languages. It was widely adapted by neighboring countries, such as Japan and Korea, and gained ground there as Asian 'International'language. While Esperanto reflects European culture, Chinese language reflects Chinese philosophy. Henri-Jean Martin states that 'it expresses the idea of a people for whom superior wisdom lies in a conformity with nature'( 23). While Esperanto has undergone many variations, the Chinese character has increased its complexity and number in the course of its 3,000 year history. Florian Coulmas reports that 'The number of characters increased from about 2,500 on the Shang oracle bones to almost 10,000 in the Han dynasty. By the twelfth century AD it had soared to 23,000 and to as many as 49,000 in the eighteenth century'( 99). Although many attempts have been made to cut down the numbers by abbreviating the syllables, the modern Chinese dictionary still contains more than 12,000 characters! Although ideogram or pictogram seems to be more versatile than phonetic system, the complexity and difficulty of memorization makes Chinese characteristics unsuitable for a universal communication method.
Earth Language, a new type of universal languages, was developed by Yoshiko McFarland in San Francisco in 1988. It borrows basic ideas from ideogram of Chinese characteristics except that it is much simpler and easier to remember. McFraland explains that it uses rationally standardized images, similar in concept to the metric system or mathematics formulate. The bases are visual codes (not vocal like Indo-European languages) for elements which people can commonly recognize anywhere in their common home, the Earth.(1) The unique lay-over system makes any complicated expressions or intricate pronunciations possible, which makes Earth language a very potential tool of universal communication. McFarland believes that global peace will be attained when people of the world can equally communicate in an artificial universal language and understand one another beyond the difference of cultural or scholarly background. The philosophical background and outline of Earth Language are available in a Web page: http//www.sfo.com/ucathinker/earth/jhome.htm
Artificial language has been searched throughout history and its search is still continuing. Today, development of computer technology and Internet brought a revolution to the communication network. We can now send and receive message less costly across the world. We can exchange ideas, share information, and learn from one another without relying upon mass media. However, as long as we use a dominant regional language as a language of international communication, the cultural dominance of a powerful country is still inescapable. Grass-root communication among people should be based on the awareness that everyone should be able to equally express his or her feelings and thoughts without borrowing other's language and culture. Although it may still be a long way for people of the world to communicate in an artificial language, when such time has come, it will bring a real revolution to the communication.