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.

Equality – and social security – is better for everyone, and for a sustainable future

The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone was published in 2009. Written by [British epidemiologists and economists] Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption“. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries [than in equal rich countries]. (Excerpt from the Equality Trust website launched by the authors, with links to further details on each of the “health and social problems” listed).

The book is structured as follows to demonstrate its thesis. The first chapters contain statistical evidence, in which inequality is positively correlated to each and every one of these “health and social problems” (i.e. the trend is that more unequal societies experience more problems). The entities being considered in the statistical investigation are the large countries of the OECD, the club of industrialised countries that produces homogeneous sets of statistical data, and the 50 united States of America. The following chapters explain the causal relationship (beyond the statistical correlation) between inequality and these “health and social problems”: inequality causes stress, which itself releases the hormone called cortisol. Permanent high levels of cortisol are known to increase violence, to cause inflammations (and thus cancer), to deteriorate mental performance (and thus educational achievements), and to generate obesity.

The conclusion is in the title: Equality is better for everyone – including for the rich. As an example given in the book, neonatal deaths are less frequent among poor Finnish women (an equal society), than among rich English and Welsh women (an unequal one).

This book has changed my life, and the way I look at society and at social problems. I recommend it highly to anyone. I used to feel afraid and helpless when confronted with the myriads of social problems that our societies experience, and discouraged at the thought that no prevention or cure existed for them, only costly palliatives. I thought that there was no other possible action than to give money to the admirable social care associations who fight desperate battles to keep drowning people afloat. After reading this book, I know where political action is possible, and where efforts should be concentrated, because they are effective and efficient: towards equality. The road is difficult, and long – but clear. I stopped complaining about the misbehaviour of motorcycle riders, the rudeness of café waiters or the place taken by obese people in public transport. I know that all of them are victims of the same plague, inequality, and that this political struggle for equality is the common means to solve or alleviate most of these problems.

The book induced in me two more reflections:

  1. it initiates a very interesting argument connecting equality with sustainability
  2. I believe that further research would be needed to investigate the role of precariousness in these stress-induced “health and social problems”.

I knew already that equality is a condition for sustainability policies to work. It is only if the adaptation effort required by the transition to sustainability is fairly shared that it will be socially and politically acceptable. The book “the Spirit Level” adds another, anthropological, dimension to this connection between equality and sustainability. In unequal societies, people consume, over-consume and fall in debt, not to fulfil their needs, but to display their social status. This display is not a personal choice, it is a necessity for them to be protected against hostility: it is only by showing that I belong to the rich and the powerful that I deter people from harming me. Reciprocally, only equal societies can stand to consume to fulfil needs only, and thus be frugal enough to be sustainable.

The connection made by the authors Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson between inequality and stress makes sense. In unequal societies, the competition for social status is fierce, and society gives less to those having less, so that any failure entails a risk of spiralling down: after a failure, I have less, so that I receive less support by society, causing me to fail even more, and fall deeper. The threat of a downward spiral ending in poverty and homelessness is a frightening – and stressful – reality in unequal societies.

There may be a second, and powerful, factor causing stress in societies: precariousness. When my income can disappear at any time, when I have no form of social security nor of employment protection, I live in permanent fear for my immediate future, as the poor social classes in the global South bitterly experience daily. Since the rich unequal societies (mainly in the Anglo-Saxon world: the United States of America, the United Kingdom) are also those with the highest level of precariousness – because of their libertarian “hire and fire” dogma – the respective effects of inequality and of precariousness may be difficult to disentangle from each other in statistical data. But investigating the effects of precariousness on the “health and social problems” highlighted by Pickett and Wilkinson would definitely make sense. Does anyone know about existing studies?