The feebleness of linguistic internationalism - Albert Branchadell

2005 April 19
The feebleness of linguistic internationalism - Albert Branchadell

In Spain «linguistic internationalism», aka «the ideology of the great languages», has become quite fashionable, both expressions having been taken from Juan Ramón Lodares’ latest book, El porvenir del español (The future of Spanish). The idea behind them, however, has been around for some time and its standard-bearers include philosophers of the ilk of Félix Ovejero or illustrious members of the Royal Spanish Academy such as Francisco Rodríguez Adrados and Gregorio Salvador.

The postulates of linguistic internationalism are easy to discern. The first says that languages are vehicles of communication. Given that nobody argues with this truism, the postulate is formulated more genuinely in a negative manner: stating that languages are vehicles of communication is to deny that they can also be signs of identity, despite the fact that a significant part of humanity believe exactly the opposite and often act in consequence, even to the point of sacrificing their lives for their own vehicle of communication.

The second postulate holds that languages which have a greater number of users are preferable to those with less speakers, and from this arises certain political-linguistic consequences or conclusions that the various «internationalists» draw with greater or lesser subtleness. Salvador, at one extreme, has no hesitation in publicly expressing his wish for the extinction of what he refers to as «miniscule» languages, in open opposition to the efforts of intergovernmental organisations and an endless list of NGOs dedicated to the preservation of the planet’s linguistic diversity.

Finally, a third postulate suggests that the spreading of the great languages is a «natural» process and a consequence of people’s free choice. In other words, linguistic imperialism does not exist. With a somewhat different nuance, Lodares could easily have been the author of what the King of Spain said (or was made to say) in presenting the Cervantes Award: «Ours was never a language of imposition, but one of a coming together; nobody was ever obliged to speak Spanish: it was the most diverse of peoples that, through their own wish and in a totally free manner, made the Language of Cervantes their own». Félix Ovejero wrote in similar terms in these pages («Of tongues, paths, markets and rights», El País, 2005-02-28): the processes that consolidate the languages with most users «has nothing to do with the market or with capitalism» – once more flying in the face of the experience of many inhabitants of the planet.

But, the problem of linguistic internationalism is not the doubts thrown up by its postulates; in the end, the millions of people who believe that languages are valuable in themselves and, thus, that it is a good thing to preserve them in the face of threats from linguistic imperialism, could be totally wrong. The real problem of linguistic internationalism is its unbearable internal defects. The first of these is a double-edged practice, applied more or less shamelessly: the internationalised nature of Spanish is brandished in order to discredit the use of Guaraní in Paraguay or of Basque in the Basque Country, but is discreetly put away when Spanish is within a situation where other languages have more users, as with English in the USA or with the grand languages of the European Union in Brussels. In this respect, the recent incident involving the spokeswoman for the European Commission, Françoise Le Bail, is very instructive. With the laudable intention of saving some euros for the European taxpayer, it occurred to Le Bail to cut down on the generous system of simultaneous interpretation into the three of the languages most commonly used in the Union (English, French and German) in certain of the Commission’s press conferences. Some authentic «internationalist» would have judged the cuts as insufficient: if we get by with just English, why complicate life with superfluous French and German? Luckily for Spanish, our ambassador at the EU, who clearly does not agree with Lodares, protested energetically against the reduction imposed y Le Bail, together with his Italian colleague and the support of both Governments. The spokeswoman had no option but to backtrack on her initial proposal, to the chagrin of our authentic «internationalist» who, not wanting even three, was now going to get seven (the three Le Bail languages plus Spanish, Italian and Dutch). It is very interesting to read ambassador Carlos Bastarreche’s argument: the problem is not that the Brussels-accredited Spanish journalists do not understand English, French or German (a bad state we would be in if that were the case), but that «the defence of Spanish is one of the priorities of my Government»!

The second defect of linguistic internationalism is its antidemocratic propensity. Taking a card-playing metaphor from Dworkin, a liberal that Lodares and company have not read, the value of the grand languages becomes a triumph in the wish of the speakers of the lesser languages: and, facing triumphs, there is no argument or debate. In the Spanish context, the aid received through policies boosting the Catalan /Valencian, Basque or Galician languages does not matter, nor their validation by the Constitutional High Court. In a recent article («Spanish in Spain», Abc, 2005-03-04), Francisco Rodríguez Adrados called directly for the abrogation of the «anticonstitutional» autonomous regions’ legislation regarding language use. Rodríguez Adrados is one of those who refer to the 1994 High Court decision as anticonstitutional in having given the green light to the language model in Catalan schools which, while not excluding Castilian (Spanish), has the Catalan language as its «centre of gravity». Or he might even use the aforementioned epithet for the very same Constitution, in that it suggests a contradiction within its Article 3 – that between the officialdom of the Spanish language and «the other Spanish languages». Be it as it may, the wish of speakers of smaller languages is something that has once again blossomed politically: at least in Catalonia: many who voted «no» in the 20 February referendum did so because of the insufficient recognition for Catalan /Valencian in the European institutions. And many of those who voted «yes» did so trusting in Foreign Minister Moratinos memorandum to the Commission 13 December last which called for the recognition by the European Union of «all the official languages in Spain».

But without doubt the greatest defect of linguistic internationalism is its Manichaean oversimplification, one that reveals extremely poor linguistic anthropology. Let us put ourselves in the shoes of speakers of a smaller language: taking the comment of an «internationalist» like Gregorio Salvador («Lenguas minúsculas», Abc, 2005-01-19), such speakers have but two options: to succumb to the «parish-pump spirit» and «reactionary aberration» to maintain themselves enclosed in their «meagre linguistic prision» or otherwise abandon their language and integrate themselves into a more extensive and more spoken language that enables «widening their world and future perspectives». Tertium non datur: the possibility of our speakers acquiring the greater language without detriment to the smaller one is simply ignored. And, given this zeal for ignorance, also ignored is the oldest profession in the world, not the one that is normally ignored for what it is in itself but for what the interpreter interprets it as: the «internationalists», thanks to their interpreters, make us lose sight of the fact that speaking the same language has never been a necessary human condition for mutual understanding.

It is said that the Ancient Greeks were horrified by emptiness; our «internationalists» are clearly horrified by linguistic diversity. Their big problem is that they live in a plurilingual world and country that are going to carry on being so. What remains to be seen in the next months is if that internationalism trumpeted by the media is put into practice at a political level. The presence of Catalan /Valencian, Galiciana nd Basque in the Congress of (Parliamentary) Deputies in Madrid is one of these forthcoming tests. If any of these languages are prohibited, «internationalism» will have gained the upper hand (and some Deputies will have added arguments to «leave» Spain); if a calm, sensible debate is the order of the day, finally free of counterproductive squabbles, it will be possible to accommodate these languages in terms and periods that only laid down by prudence, and without any other negative effect than our most frenzied «internationalists» throwing up their hands in horror.

Albert Branchadell
is Professor of the Faculty of Translation and Interpretation at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and President of the Organización por el Multilingüismo.

This article has been first published in El País, 29 March 2005; translated and reprinted by permission of the author.