English is fast becoming the national language of Europe, but not everyone approves. A German scientist wants to restore German at least as the language of science in Europe, and a Swiss linguist claims that dropping English for Esperanto could save Europe an easy $34 billion a year.
Centuries ago, English leapt oceans to become the dominant language of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Now it’s jumped the English Channel as well. European parliamentary committees conduct their business in English, often without simultaneous translations, and across the continent speakers address conferences on the arts and sciences in English, even when it’s not their native language, sometimes even when there are no native speakers of English present.
Five hundred years ago Europe shook off the yoke of Latin, and vernacular languages thrived. But now, laments the German biophysicist Stefan Klein, English is the new Latin, poised to take over not just Europe but the world (“Dumber in English,” July 12, 2007, signandsound.com). According to Klein, the goal of science is to improve the world and, forgetting Germany’s fatal attempt to improve it through eugenics, he would like to make the world a better place by requiring German science students to take their exams in German and “encouraging” German scientists to use their native language if they want to their grants renewed.
The Swiss linguist François Grin has an even grander scheme to get the European Community off the English-only bandwagon. Grin is well aware that talk is not cheap, that Europe, with 23 official languages, spends a large chunk of its budget on expensive and wasteful translation. But the expanding role of English means that Europe is pouring over 17 billion euros a year into British coffers for such things as translation services and English lessons, and Grin sees no reason for the British to get rich this way (L'enseignement des langues étrangères comme politique publique, 2005, cisad.adc.education.fr/hcee/documents/rapport_Grin.pdf).
Grin recognizes the need for a single European language in which to frame the European Community’s expanding set of rules and regulations, but he argues that the EC could avoid unfairly privileging English while saving €25 billion a year (over $34 billion) by switching from English to Esperanto.
Of course Grin’s enough of a realist to understand that getting 27 nations to learn Esperanto might take time, even if it is a discount language, so he’s recommending that Europe remain resolutely multilingual for now, while systematically reducing the role of “big” languages like English, French and German. But he also thinks that Europeans could learn Esperanto quickly: it shouldn’t take more than a generation to get the entire continent (that’s kontinento, in Esperanto) up to speed (rapideco).
Nonetheless, rebranding Esperanto as the new English would require a massive public relations campaign, since people’s language biases are hard to change and right now Esperanto isn’t high on most Europeans’ list of things to do. Plus Europe’s member states would have to cede national control of the schools to a common education plan, at least so far as language is concerned.
But bolstered by his belief in the economic theory that people will choose what’s in their own best interests, Grin is sure that such obstacles can be conquered by an appeal to reason: unlike English, Esperanto comes with no imperialist baggage, and because it will be everyone’s second language, no one will have an edge when it comes to debate. If Europe can accept the kilogram and a common currency, it should be able to accept Esperanto too.
Training Esperanto teachers is no major hurdle for Grin. Just as Russian teachers switched to teaching English after the fall of the Soviet Union, teachers of other languages can be redirected to Esperanto when the need for their original language evaporates. In addition, Esperanto is quicker to learn than other languages – teachers will only need a 200 hour course – and once qualified, they’ll be able to teach ten times as many students.
Since Esperanto has no native speakers, schools won’t have to worry about importing native teachers or sending students abroad to acquire a proper accent or learn the slang. So once Esperanto schools are up and running, Europe will learn the language overnight, and English will go back where it came from.
Grin is right about one thing: people are particularly stubborn when it comes to language. It takes more than laws or even economic self interest to get them to change their linguistic ways. The French tried outlawing English, and now they’re teaching business and science in it. Reformers promised that simplifying English spelling would lead to huge savings both in printing costs (shorter words mean less paper used) and time spent learning to read (spelling rules with no exceptions can be picked up in weeks, not years).
But economic arguments don’t work with language: nobody bought English spelling reform, and no one’s buying Esperanto either. While promoting a politically and economically neutral language to “official” status might seem like a good idea for Europe, it’s not likely to happen – no artificially-created auxiliary language, not even Klingon, has ever been widely-used, and Europe isn’t ready to promote a natural language, whether it’s a big one like English or a little one like Maltese, with about 300,000 speakers, as the most official of Europe’s 23 official languages.
Maltese, one of the European Community’s 23 official languages, is only controversial in the movies.
As for those retooled Russian teachers, even if they managed to stay a page ahead of their students in the textbook, their English never did get all that good. Plus, now that they've become capitalists of a sort, it's not clear that they will buy into the idea that Esperanto gives them a competitive edge in the marketplace of ideas.
Whether it’s the fault of British and American imperialism, global capitalism, or simply rock ’n’ roll, the European Community’s unofficial official language will probably remain English, at least for now, and whether or not a small army of Esperanto teachers takes the field, Europe’s business and its science will continue to be conducted in English until China and India come into their own and start dividing up the world for themselves.