The Dream and the Reality
The dream is beautiful. All over the world everyone studies a certain easier-to-learn language for just a year or two, and then anyone can go anywhere in the world and talk with anyone else, even though the two people do not know even a single word of each other’s native tongue.
Imagine this: An American woman visits a city in central China. She wanders away from the hotel where the staff has some basic knowledge of English. She winds up in a small market where she spots a little treasure that she would like to buy. No one in the market can speak English and she knows no Chinese, but this does not bother her at all. She simply starts speaking in the one language that everyone in the world has studied. She is confident that the Chinese sales clerk will be able to understand her perfectly and that she will be able to understand him perfectly.
More than just being able to understand each other, she discovers that there is an instant little bond between the clerk and her. Both of them have taken the same course so that they would be able to talk with each other. Both of them studied the same language in their respective classrooms half a world apart so that they would be prepared for this moment. Both of made the same kind of effort, studying and learning this neutral, common, easier-to-learn language, and now they find that they can communicate with each other as effectively and as comfortably as they do with their compatriots in their native tongues. In some sense they are both part of a world community, a community that is now made up of all the people in the world, because everyone knows how to talk to everyone else without ever having to devote many long years of study in an attempt to master someone else’s very difficult language.
Imagine this: A young Japanese woman wants to travel to America. Although she has studied English for twelve years and although she can read the language to a fair degree, she knows that she speaks poorly and is frequently misunderstood.
However, according to this dream, she has no problem. Wherever she goes, she simply uses the one easy language that everyone in the world has spent a year or so studying, and everyone she speaks to understands her and communicates with her in that language just as easily and effectively as if they were both native speakers of the same national tongue. In a Taco Bell restaurant in a Mississippi Delta town, on public transportation in Boston, wherever she goes throughout the United States, she is at home linguistically.
This is the dream.
An American wants to write to a Senegalese in West Africa where French is the common language of the elite. The American writes in the language that everyone has studied, and the African responds in that same language. A Greek wants to communicate by electronic mail with a Moroccan about a business deal. He knows that the Moroccan understands Arabic and French which the Greek, who knows four languages but not those two, has no knowledge of. There is, of course, no problem. The Greek simply sends his e-mail message in the easy language which everyone has studied, and the Moroccan, at his computer, sends his reply in the same language. Communication is easy, as one would expect it to be in an electronic age.
At international business conferences, at meetings between representatives of different governments, at the United Nations and other international organizations, business goes much more smoothly than in the old days before the easy language was universally adopted for international use. Speakers from any different countries who have many different native tongues speak freely and comfortably in turn, and everyone present listens to their voices (not the voices of interpreters) and understands what they are saying.
When the President of the United States wants to have a private conversation with the President of the Russian Republic or the President of China, there is no need to have a third and maybe even a fourth person present to relay their thoughts. They speak directly to each other in the one easy language that everyone knows, and they enjoy complete privacy.
And children send messages to each other around the world.
The world has truly become a global village because, just as in a regular village, everyone can talk to everyone else, confident of being understood.
Of course there are still quarrels and wars and disagreements. Criminality and selfishness and chauvinism have not vanished from the face of the earth.
However, when people disagree with each other, they can now communicate that disagreement directly and clearly and they do not have to turn it over to some intermediary who may unintentionally distort it and magnify it.
What is the actual situation in the world today?
If our American woman in central China wanders into a small shop the odds are that the people there will not understand her at all and that she will not understand them. She will not be able to ask questions about the attractive object that has caught her eye. She will not be able to ask what it is made out of or whether a discount is available if she buys a number of such items. Shopping will be a rudimentary affair and often frustrating, and she will feel like a stranger operating in a strange place.
The young Japanese woman in the United States will be able to communicate to some degree, but only haltingly, and with quite a bit of misunderstanding. This is because she is one of the vast majority of people who have no special gift for very difficult languages. (For the Japanese, English is very difficult, just as Japanese is very difficult for Americans.)
She realizes that she does not understand thousands of American idioms and everyday expressions. If people were to say things like, “You’ll get over it” or “Get off your high horse” or “Freeze!” she would not really understand them. She is so uncomfortable speaking this foreign English tongue that even those words which she has studied do not come easily, and she has to smile a lot, embarrassed, and admit that she does not understand much of what is being said.
When the young woman asks directions on the street she will not be confident that she is being understood; following those directions, because of her misunderstanding, she may find herself in a very dangerous neighborhood.
The American who wants to communicate to the Senegalese will either have to find someone to translate his letter into French (never mind the Senegalese’s native Wolof) or else send the letter in English and hope that the Senegalese will be able to hunt up a competent local translator to make the letter comprehensible to him. The Greek will have to find someone who knows French or Arabic to write the message he wants to send by e-mail. The American, the Senegalese, the Greek and the Moroccan, when it comes to this kind of international communication, find themselves back in the times when most people were illiterate and were obliged to employ professional scribes to write and read their letters for them. This is a very odd reality in an age of instant electronic mail.
In today’s world the situation at international meetings whether it be a matter of business meetings or academic meetings or meetings of organizations like the United Nations or the European Economic Community, is exceedingly complex.
Sometimes one language, usually English or French, is used. This is wonderful for the native speakers of the favored language and for those fortunate few who have mastered that tongue after thousands of hours of very hard study and practice. The problem is that a great many people who have extraordinary gifts in their particular field do not have extraordinary gifts when it comes to the study of foreign languages. Forced to use a language they are not fluent in, they can make very few remarks, and they miss much of what is going on.
Sometimes in order to cope with this kind of situation, organizations decide to send as their representatives individuals who have a fine gift for foreign languages even though those individuals may be mediocre in the field which the meeting is held to discuss.
All of this results in what has been called linguistic discrimination. Native speakers of English, let us say, can speak freely without ever having to have spent a minute seriously studying a foreign language while those who are not native speakers of English have to struggle to express themselves and to understand what is going on in a language which they have only learned to a certain extent in spite of many years of dedicated study.
This situation is not at all equal. It is, to put it very simply, grossly unfair.
For Americans to imagine how unfair this situation is they would have to conceive of a world in which all international meetings and most international communication are held in Mandarin Chinese, that language which more people presently speak than any other. All Americans would have to spend many years of study to try to master Chinese or else they would have to give up any hope of being effective in international work. If this were proposed, Americans would vociferously protest. They would be outraged at the very suggestion. They would never put up with such an unfair, unthinkable situation.
Unfortunately, it is just that kind of situation that those people who are not native speakers of English face today.
Those people whose native languages are structurally similar to English have a far better chance of mastering English. Scandinavians, Germans and Dutch speak Germanic languages. A larger proportion of people who speak those tongues are able to speak English well after eight years of study and practice because English also is a Germanic language. (Students in Germany who enter a university have already studied English for eight years.) Native speakers of some other languages which are spoken by very large numbers of people (such as the young Japanese women in the example above) never become comfortable speaking English even after as many as twelve years of study!
And as for people who do not have a very rare linguistic gift and who do not have more than, say, two or four years to devote to studying English and who do not have the time to constantly keep their English current – well, most of them are simply out of luck.
Nowadays, at many international meetings simultaneous translation is used so that people who do not speak the same language can communicate with each other. A speaker speaks in one language, and all the translators, sitting in their little booths, repeat what they hear in the other languages. Those in attendance who do not understand the language of a speaker put on little headphones which can become quite uncomfortable after hours of use and listen not directly to the speaker but to the translators.
The big problem with these translations is that they are notoriously inaccurate. Sometimes when translators have an especially good day, they do very well, but, generally speaking, they have to abbreviate and distort what is said. This is partly because languages are so different from each other.
Consider phrases that start with a series of adjectives. In English adjectives come before a noun as in “This intelligent, forward-looking, progressive, brilliant….” In French, with few exceptions, the adjectives come after the noun. So translators into French have to wait until English speakers pronounce the noun before they can begin the French version of the sentence. When the people in the little booths finally translate the first part of what was said, they may miss a little bit of what follows. Sometimes that “little bit” can be crucial.
Imagine people giving speeches in German, where the verb often comes at the end of a long sentence. Those who translate the speeches into English have to listen to the very end of a long sentence before they can say the verb in English right after the subject at the start of the sentence. Again, while finally pronouncing the English version of one sentence, the translator may be distracted from understanding the beginning of the next one.
The economic burdens of translation, whether oral or written, are enormous. Claude Piron, who has worked as a translator at the United Nations and the World Health Organization, gives a number of examples that illustrate this. Perhaps the most cogent of these examples is that of the 28th World Health Assembly, the legislative organ of the World Health Organization, which met in 1975. The Assembly voted to adopt Arabic and Chinese as two additional working languages. By this vote the delegates showed great and appropriate respect for the hundreds of millions of people who are native speakers of these two languages. By this vote they added $5,000,000 a year to the costs of translating.
Later, during that same session, the Assembly considered a group of carefully worked out proposals that would have ameliorated the terrible health conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. After learning that the cost of these proposed programs was $4,200,000 the delegates rejected them due to insufficient funds.
Today when the President of the United States wants to speak privately with the President of the Russian Republic or the President of the People’s Republic of China, the two men have to speak privately with a third person present. One of them has to provide a translator. If the other president wants to be certain that what he is saying is being translated correctly, then he too has to provide a translator, and what was supposed to be a private conversation between two people takes place with four people present.
Conversations that employ the services of interpreters do not flow as smoothly as conversations held directly in a language in which both speakers are comfortable. One president says something. A translator puts it in the other president’s language. The other president responds. A translator puts it in the first president’s language. The conversation goes on at half of its normal speed. An enormous amount of time is wasted. And spontaneity goes out the window.
In today’s world most children around the world cannot send each other messages which can be directly understood.
We live in a queer kind of global village, a village in which most of the people cannot understand the words of most of the other people.
This is the present reality.