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.

Collapse of cod fishing around Newfoundland (Canada): a metaphor for our unsustainable and over-confident societies?

(Picture: Total capture of North Atlantic cod, from 1950 to 2000, in thousands of tonnes. Graphic by Epipelagic — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

For over 500 years, fishermen from Canada, but also from Europe (Spain, Portugal, France, Germany) had been fishing the abundant banks of North Atlantic cod around Newfoundland in Canada. Pierre Loti, in his novel “an Iceland fisherman” published in 1886, describes the “myriads upon myriads of fish, all alike, gliding slowly in the same direction”, which could be seen immediately below the surface of the sea, “plainly distinguished through the transparency”, and illustrates the fantastic plenty of these cod banks, where fishermen just needed to drop their lines, see the cod biting the hooks, haul the lines, take the cod off the hooks, and throw the lines over and over again. A fisherman’s dream, explaining why boats travelled from Europe, thousands of kilometres across the Ocean, to participate in this bounty.

However, these fisheries were brutally closed in 1992, following a complete collapse of the number of fishes – and have not recovered since, making it the most important industrial closure in Canadian history, with 35,000 jobs lost overnight. I find the history of this collapse an interesting metaphor of the flaws of our over-confident, technology-driven societies.

What happened? Traditionally, fishermen used lines to selectively catch cod only, near the surface, and depended upon luck to find the fish banks. Starting in the 1950s, new technologies were introduced: trawlers captured all kinds of fishes in addition to cod (including the commercially worthless capelin), at greater depths, using sonar to locate the fish banks. As a result, the quantities of cod being fished initially exploded, from 500,000 tonnes yearly in the 1950s to 1.8 million tonnes in 1968. Additionally, the individual size of the cods being captured rose, so that the economic yield improved even further. Technology seemed to have triumphed, economic growth brought prosperity, in an endless upward curve.

A first warning happened in 1968, when the quantities being fished experienced a first partial collapse, from 1.8 million tonnes captured yearly to 1 million and then further to 500,000 tonnes in the mid-1970s. The Canadian government reacted by setting up an Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles around its coasts in 1976, and forbade any foreign fishing boat from operating in this Zone. This had an immediate effect of reducing fish capture, because the number of fishing boats temporarily declined. This resulted in a partial recovery of the fish stocks. Under the intense political pressure of local economic and social interests, and despite increasingly alarmist warnings by scientists, the Canadian government did not impose stringent enough fishing quotas to prevent Canadian fisheries from increasing their capacity, so that the captures of cod increased again over the 1980s, until the final collapse of 1992.

The fundamental reason of this collapse are that deep-sea fishing using trawlers captured two ecologically important categories of fishes:

  • the capelin, which is an important prey of adult cods
  • the old adult cods, which are by far their most productive reproducers.

This was overfishing, because it depleted the food upon which cods depended for their survival, and because it destroyed the basis of the population replacement of cods. But this did not appear in statistics, bearing on economically valuable fish only, so that capelin was not accounted for. In addition, these large, old adult cods captured from deep sea increased the mass of captured cod in the short term. They made believe that the deep sea accessed by new technology contained a wealth of unexploited resources just waiting to be harvested – a fatal illusion.

I consider this sad sequence of events as a good metaphor of our contemporary societies:

  • our addiction to economic growth, and our refusal to accept limits to the ecological pressure we exert on our natural environment
  • the pressure of social and economic interests to preserve short-term economic activity and employment,
  • the denial of unpleasant scientific evidence, under this social and economic pressure, and because of our aversion to loss, delaying and watering down the policy measures necessary to reduce our pressure on environmental resources
  • our over-confidence in technology, where we believe that the solution consists in doing more of the same, employing ever more energy and resources to maintain structurally wasteful techno-economic models
  • and the ultimate collapse that these factors lead to when our over-consumption collides with the biological and physical limits of our natural resources, if strong, restrictive policies are not implemented early enough.

A cause of “populism”: the mismatch between the scale of political action and that of underlying phenomena

Let’s take “populists” seriously. Let’s listen to them. They want to “take control back”. They feel that democratic institutions at national scale have lost the capacity to act on the collective future of the population.  My argument is: they are right in this statement – but wrong in their solutions.

What are the important political decisions? Those addressing large-scale, long-term issues, such as global warming, international trade, or the taxation of multi-national corporations. Where are they taken? In the secrecy and unaccountability of inter-governmental negotiations, in the United Nations, bi-lateral negotiations of free trade agreements, in the G20 or in the Council of the European Union.

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