The humiliations I suffered when learning my native language must have a meaning! The challenge of international communication

The Swiss translator and then psychotherapist Claude Piron spent his 20 years of activity at the Department of Psychology of the University of Geneva understanding the psychology of international linguistic communication, of which he had a direct experience by working for 17 years at the United Nations Organisation (UNO) and at the World Health Organisation (WHO). He summed up his reflections in a book (unfortunately only in French and in Portuguese), “the language challenge”, which he summarised in a very concise video and in several articles (check those in English).

Claude Piron argues that the existing mainstream systems for international linguistic communication don’t work, and that the (definitely not mainstream, but efficient) alternative, the international communication language Esperanto, is the purpose of neurotic resistance. His main arguments are the following.

International linguistic communication generates huge costs or inequalities, and often both

There are basically three mainstream solutions for international linguistic communication (see Claude Piron’s complete argument here):

  1. at one extreme, mono-lingual operation in one natural language, currently most frequently English (it was French until the 1920s). This option is taken by multi-national corporations in a business environment. The advantage is that it requires no technical infrastructure, and implies no translation costs. The main drawback is that it generates fantastic inequalities of power:
    • social inequalities between those whose parents are rich enough to afford paying them expensive linguistic courses as teenagers in the highly lucrative business of English teaching for foreigners, and then even more expensive studies in a (most often private) Anglo-Saxon university.
    • international inequalities between native speakers of that language and the others, and between native speakers of languages of the same family (e.g. Dutch, Danish, Swedish, German, i.e. Germanic languages, for English), who learn that language much more easily, and the native speakers of other linguistic families (e.g. Spanish, Chinese, Japanese), who struggle for life without managing to master the language properly;
  1. At the other extreme, fully multi-lingual operation in as many languages as there are native speakers of. This option is taken by the European Parliament, where all documents are translated in all 23 official languages of the European Union, and simultaneous interpretation is also provided in all of these languages. The advantage is that it is more egalitarian: every person can receive information and express him or herself in his/her mother tongue -with the caveat that the translations or interpretations between the most represented languages are direct, and thus more faithful, while that to and from the languages less represented go through a “pivot” language, and induce more information loss. The main drawback is the cost of infrastructure: all meeting rooms are equipped with interpretation booths, and half of civil servants are translators or interpreters.
  2. In between, many international organisations (such as the UNO) operate with a limited number of “official” languages – with costs and benefits intermediate between the two extremes above.

People over-estimate their level in foreign languages – with severe consequences when negotiating

Claude Piron exposes several studies comparing the level that people believe they have in a foreign language, and the one they have actually reached. The results are clear, and disappointing: whereas most people are convinced that they master a foreign language well or very well, the reality is that they don’t, by a wide margin. This has particularly severe consequences in situations that are linguistically most demanding, in business or political negotiations: the linguistically weaker party invariably loses also in negotiating power.

Learning a natural language, including one’s own, is a humiliating experience

According to Claude Piron, human learning of languages operates naturally by using “generalising assimilation”, i.e. by applying a rule newly discovered to all other cases. Despite this being logical, it is the bitter experience of any language learner that this does not work, and that any natural language (and English perhaps even more than others) is a clumsy arrangement of exceptions and specific cases. Any person learning a language thus experiences the humiliating situation of being corrected for “mistakes” that make no sense – other than violating a fully arbitrary and unpredictable exception.

Refusing to use the obviously best available technology, Esperanto, is a form of collective neurosis

Claude Piron then exposes, in a way that convinces me, that the planned language Esperanto enables an egalitarian mono-lingual international communication, thus combining the advantages of all 3 systems described above, and building a form of “Best Available Technology”. He also lists the despising fallacies and lies being disseminated about Esperanto, and considers them as a form of neurotic denial.

Claude Piron however, does not explain deeper the causes of this collective neurosis.

My personal interpretation is the following. A deep psychological need of humans is to believe that their woes have a meaning. It may have been an evolutionary advantage during the hundreds of centuries when humans experienced hopeless hardships, and when this belief was a means to cope with them. Said differently, the reality that one has suffered in vain is so terrible that one prefers to build any insane theory rather than confronting it face to face – what I call Uncle Vanya’s syndrome. Children being mistreated display this psychological mechanism very strongly: rather than confronting the abysmal reality that their parents are harmful tyrants, they prefer to internalise the belief that they are guilty of imaginary faults.

Similarly, when people are confronted with the evident simplicity and efficiency of Esperanto as an international communication language, they revolt against the idea that their suffering and humiliation in learning their own mother tongue, and then English, may have been in vain – and accumulate lies and despising appreciations of Esperanto.

Author: Sergio Arbarviro

My competences are originally those of an engineer – but I have been making incursions, for quite some time now, into several other fields, such as economics, politics, psychology, social sciences and history. I am the designer of the KuneAgi deliberative on-line democracy software, and a founding member of the CosmoPolitical Cooperative.