Languages and one universal language

The Tower of Babylon

Almost everyone knows the story about the Tower of Babylon, if not because they heard the story then because they saw paintings or photos illustrating the unfinished building. The story tells about people coming from the East after the flood to a plain in Babylonia to build a city with an enormous tower that would reach the sky so they could all live together. Of course, God interfered and confused the people so they started speaking many languages and the tower was never completed and collapsed.

As in a dream, the tallest building ever.
I can imagine many people were needed to build the tower and the people from the East used the local people to build the city with tower (today in the Middle East poor foreigners are used as cheap labour to build their new cities and towers). The local people spoke different languages (in the chapter before the tower story the Bible mentions many languages were spoken) and thus they misunderstood the architect or incorporated their own building techniques as they found them superior to those from the East or people from the East started mixing with the locals and thus changed their own habits. As a consequence, the tower was wrongly built and collapsed. Then people immigrated to other places and settled to be able to speak their own language and organise their society as they preferred.

I think the story learns us that it is never good one power enforces its own language and thinking upon others because the others will rebel. It also stops the creativity as everyone is forced to act in the same way. Equally, a society can't survive when too many people speak different languages and thus behave differently. Therefore, people moved to different areas so like-minded people could work together on projects and finish them successfully.

Belgium

Belgium is an artificial country, founded in 1830 by the then superpowers who tried to prevent each other gaining more power and thus founded a small country. Two different societies were forced to live together under one king. The majority speaks Dutch (Flemish) in the northern region of Belgium called Flanders while about 40% of the Belgians speak French and live mainly in the south in a region called Wallonie. The capital Brussels is officially bilingual (I joke this means French and English). After WWI it became even more complicated when Belgium annexed a small part of Germany and there people speak German. One can think of Europe as a large version of Belgium.

Over the past decades, when French was still the international languages, Flemish people had to speak apart from their mother tongue also French or they had no future while the reverse was not true. E.g. many Belgian politicians from Wallonie only spoke French while politicians from Flanders were nothing if they only spoke Dutch and not French. Then the international language changed and the Flemish started speaking English while French in Flanders became poor but also people in Wallonie started to learn English and even Dutch (although I can understand the Walloons' reluctance to learn a language only 20 million people on this planet speak who live in cold and wet countries you don't want to visit during a summer holiday).

As you can understand, the need to speak three languages makes life difficult for many people. Of course not for those who are blessed with excellent language skills. However, most people are not blessed with these skills and struggle. E.g. people try to find work and fail because they only speak two languages fluently and not three or even four while others only manage to speak their own dialect. Certainly during an economical crisis when people struggle to find a job tensions may rise to boiling point and that always hurt. For instance, I am bilingual, i.e. Dutch and English while in a bar I manage to communicate with French-speaking people and I even understand some German. But my French is sometimes too poor to understand everyone at work. I went to London to improve my English as that is the language of sciences but I should instead have gone to Paris because French is still diamonds in Belgium while English exist.

Then there are people who despise the language and culture of the other community. As long as they live in their own region it is no problem. However, some prefer to live in the other region while they refuse to learn to speak even one single word of that region. That is why there are often problems in Flanders: many Walloons (not all) move to Flanders while they refuse to speak Dutch while they expect others to speak French. There are few if any problems in Wallonie because when Flemish people move to Wallonie they accept they have to speak French. And still the Flemish get the bad name because they demand a mayor speaks the language of the region, i.e. Dutch in Flanders. I think accepting the language border and federalism is crucial in the survival of Belgium.

I am more and more convinced most people manage to learn two languages but three becomes hard (e.g. I start mixing French and English pronunciation) while some people find it hard to write and speak even one language properly. As I mentioned above, the inability to learn languages can destroy people's careers and lives, even when they are very good in their skills. Indeed, some very good scientists struggle to publish because of the poor quality of their English manuscript while native-English speakers can publish much more as they can always think in their own mother language (e.g. they win many more Nobel prices although also the interaction between scientists from different disciplines is larger). In the past French was the international language and every intellectual wanted to be in Paris and thus arts, sciences and philosophy flourished there.

As some suggest, splitting the country may be a solution as we are no longer forced to speak three languages we have difficulties speaking or don't want to speak. Then everyone can discuss subjects in their own language or the international language. Then people no longer need to become frustrated for not getting a job because they can't speak three languages sufficiently and thus people no longer need to become enemies. Flanders could work more closely together with the Netherlands or Wallonie on subjects of common interest (idem for Wallonie)? In one large Europe, what will be the difference except they are no longer forced to find a solution for something they disagree completely? Europe will never allow borders are closed and thus people can still meet their friends and family on the other side of the border, as now many people do when visiting people in other countries. This is a delicate subject as Belgian nationalists accuse others of being nationalists while it should be someones democratic right to suggest this solution; then the people can decide. If one can't discuss things then never a solution can be found.

Even English may start to cause problems as many people speak English and thus companies can choose those who speak the language very well, certainly with a surplus of unemployed people. For example, in Flanders universities want to introduce more English courses because locals demand to be taught in English to improve their chances on the markets but also to attract more foreign students as they pay more for courses and to improve interaction with other societies. But students complained of the poor quality of the English of some lecturers. Foreign students may have complained but I think mainly Flemish students complained. E.g. I lived eight years in London but I feel uncomfortable to speak English in Flanders because many people will make comments. Indeed, I have a strong accent (e.g. red, rat and wet all sounds the same because I have problems pronouncing the "r", even in Dutch). Another example is our PM Elio Di Rupo who I admire for doing his best to speak Dutch (if only my French was as good as his Dutch) while many people (and not only his political opponents) ridicule his Dutch (still, should he waste time learning Dutch during this financial crisis?). But is it mostly not more important what is said (although correct written language is also important) than how it is said? Also American English sounds differently from British English. That is also a reason why many foreigners stop talking Dutch in Flanders because Flemish people often continue talking in their own dialect while judging others who speak with another accent than themselves and then wonder why people don't want to speak Dutch. Therefore universities, together with the British Council, will organise tests to investigate the English of lecturers and give them a certificate. I fear they may be surprised some lecturers may fail their English test. A large number of lecturers are older and grew up when French was still the dominant language in Belgium; therefore their French is perfect while their English is not. That doesn't mean it is not sufficient to have a conversation but it may be too poor to past exams, although I may underestimate the lecturers. Nevertheless, some world-famous scientists may no longer be allowed to teach some courses in their own country because they are not perfect in a foreign language, i.e. English. And thus students may loose the lessons given by very good scientists. Or if all lecturers succeed, some students may fail, not because they are not very good in the subjects but because their English is poor. And should foreign students who want to study in a certain country not have sufficient interest in that country to learn its language or move to a country where English is spoken well? Of course, I exaggerate because indeed it is important the universal scientific and business language is known by students who study at university (that is why I studied one year in London), but it may have consequences (including that fewer Flemish people bother to learn French because many people think English is used while three languages really is over the top).

Indeed, language sciences showed that up to the age of 6 months we are able to distinguish all sounds and thus learn to speak each language without accent while after that age we start loosing the ability to hear all sounds. That is why people from certain cultures have so much difficulties hearing why they pronounce words wrongly (well known example: many Chinese have difficulties differentiating the "R" and "L" as these vowels do not exist in their language).

Europe

In Europe even more languages are spoken than in Belgium and the beauty of Europe is so many languages are spoken, resulting in many different cultures. This is also its curse.

As the USA became the dominant power in the West and later in the world, English became the world language in business and sciences. And thus many people chose English as a common language throughout Europe so understand each other as they already used the language at work, while some chose another language such as French but noticed fewer people spoke that language and thus started also using English.

The EU used (maybe still?) translators during meetings so everyone was able to become e.g. an elected politician even when they only spoke their own language. Everyone was sure to receive information in their own language, and thus everyone felt good because every person felt accepted. But things are changing.

Over the course of the last years, working languages were used by those working for the EU, mainly English, and this is a good thing (it also saves the EU lots of money as fewer translators are needed), although I think sometimes other languages are still used. (If only English is used, then people working for the EU have to know fewer languages than when you work for Belgium). But also in the European Parliament, ambitious politicians start using one of the working languages, often English. As a result the European Parliament looses its diversity. Of course, it is normal that the leaders of Europe such as the President speak one of the working languages as he/she can't learn them all.

But like the European Song festival, Europe starts loosing its charm and becomes less loved. It is seen as if it belongs less to the general public and more to politicians (and technocrats) who no longer defend the people who elected them as they even abandon their own language. European politicians are now seen as speaking for lobby groups. It is understandable people try to communicate with each other in one language. But the information provided for the general public should remain in all official languages of the union. Indeed, not all European citizens need to speak one of the working languages. E.g. a local hairdresser in a small village in a country should receive information in his own language.

Certainly the British (those who always complain the rest of the EU doesn't like them) benefit as most officials in the EU speak English, even the French although French remains one of the official European languages. Thus, chances the British explain something wrongly are slim although they may misunderstand people who speak English as a second language. E.g. years ago I heard the story of a Dutch minister who was explaining something in his best English and finished by saying something like "Let us stand behind our point" when he mend "Let us stick to our point of view". A British diplomat(?) responded he was not standing but sitting. No mercy for those who do their best to speak English, but then the Dutch minister could have spoken in Dutch as translators were present. And indeed, many British (including Stephen Fry) are getting very angry the English language is changing because so many foreigners introduce errors. Instead, they should be happy everyone tries to speak their language; but who wants to loose his/her mother language and thus culture?

Recently Europe allowed that companies request one patent for the whole of Europe. It is indeed too expensive to request in each European member state a patent (this means 27 patents in a free market). Europe decided the languages that can be used are English, French and German. These three languages are spoken in three main countries in the EU. German? OK, it is a main language in Europe but small in the world while many non-European companies will try to get a patent for whole Europe and will not use German. Two countries decided not to join this agency because their language is not used; these are Italy and Spain. And this may show another sign of the near end of the EU (after the austerity measures whereby the more the EU tries to unite the more it divides). Italy was a founding country of the EU while in Spain a very important worldwide language is spoken: Spanish. Even the language of the USA is slowly shifting from English towards Spanish and thus Spanish would be a useful language for the agency. Why can't a company choose the language it wants to use? Companies in countries where another language is spoken while still be disadvantaged. And what will happen with the people who dealt with the patents in the past when they can't speak one of these languages? Can a country that is not happy with a certain patent opt out so that countries are still in charge or will they had to obey the European decision?

(If the above information about Europe is wrong, then the EU should do a greater effort to explain itself to its citizens.)

World

Worldwide people move from one country to another, often from poor to rich but also from rich countries to countries with more sun or comfort. This causes problems, and certainly during financial crises.

Most immigrants leave their country to find a better future and thus learn the local language and thus may be able to find work (and then they are accused of taking the local jobs), but as e.g. the USA shows, many immigrants refuse to learn the language of their new country, increasing tensions within the society as those foreigners refuse to acknowledge the good of their new found country. Therefore, more and more countries are introducing integration courses, and rightly so as people who arrive in a certain country should know the language as well as the local customs (e.g. in the UK you can't jump a queue). Some call this racism, I call this prevention of future troubles as those people need to understand how to function in their new found society. Because, as the story of the Tower of Babylon demonstrates, when too many languages are spoken in a society and people don't obey the laws of the region, that society may collapse as tensions will rise because people no longer understand each other.

Another problem are rich people moving to certain countries (e.g. for the sun or comfort). Many of these people avoid contact with the locals as they do not thrust them because they are poorer while there presence result in increased house prices forcing local people out the area. Often they refuse to speak the local language or even eat the local food because they do not see the need to integrate and this causes tensions.

Ideally, a neutral language

In Belgium during meetings, sometimes both Dutch and French are spoken (German is so small it is ignored) so everyone hears the message in their own language (doubles the length of meetings).

During other meetings people speak their own language and thus one has to switch continuously between both languages, something very exhausting when the language knowledge is poor, certainly when even the subject is not well known.

I think ideally in Belgium a neutral language is spoken such as English, certainly when science is discussed as publications are in English (another language means usually an unimportant article that didn't manage to pass the reviewers). Then each person needs to speak a foreign language and thus, although some are better in a language than others, everyone understands the difficulties of expressing oneself in a foreign language.

However, although I think English is the most beautiful language in the world and could be the solution for Belgium, it may not be for Europe because native English-speaking people will have an advantage compared with others while foreigners destroy the language by changing it. Also, as the example of the patent agency demonstrates, countries may not always want to accept their language (and thus culture) is never chosen while another is always. A solution is that people never speak their mother language (e.g. the British speak French while the French speak English) but then still two languages are spoken although everyone understand the difficulties of expressing themselves in another language.

Therefore, I think best a neutral language such as Esperanto is used, or a very small language that hardly anyone speaks. Then there is little competition between countries. Esperanto has the advantage it is an invented language and thus one expect it is an easy language with few exceptions and exceptions can still be removed if possible unless it makes the language more difficult. If Esperanto is the universal language, it would mean people only need to learn two languages to understand everyone and this could be worldwide. When people learn Esperanto when they are young, after their mother language then most people will be able to speak the international language fluently. Another advantage is that the international language no longer changes. Today people expect that maybe Spanish may overtake English as the dominant language (Chinese will probably always be too difficult to become a world language).

Of course, this doesn't mean that people moving from one country to another should no longer need to learn the language of their chosen country.
  1. Another language means another culture, making life more interesting but also allowing people to think differently and thus solve certain problems.
  2. People moving to another country should do this because they love that country, its people, the culture and thus they want to learn the language to understand the culture and people, even when they are not able to speak more than a few sentences because the language is difficult. 
  3. I think Esperanto should never become a real spoken language that people use in their daily lives. It should remain kind of an administrative language because when it becomes a spoken language it will start changing too quickly and thus differences will emerge (remember Babylon). It should be the language spoken and written during international meetings with different languages or when travelling as a tourist to foreign countries so one can communicate with the local people.
Thus, the international language (let us say Esperanto) would allow for a diverse world with respect for other languages and cultures whereby all people speak a second language and thus every culture is treated equally while the universal language allows everyone to understand each other wherever they are in the world.

In conclusion, it is interesting so many languages exist and these should be kept in order to save diversity, even between cities. But we also need an international language. This can be English but that causes envy because some people are jealous their language is not chosen while native English-speakers become irritated others don't speak their language properly. Further, a spoken international language can change according to the dominant power and thus it becomes difficult to read old books.

Therefore it is preferable to use a neutral language so no-one speaks its own language and every person has to speak a second language and thus understand the difficulty of expressing oneself in another language. This language can be Esperanto, or another one but should be as simple as possible to allow everyone to learn it easily.

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