[langue-fr] L'anglais est-il une langue universelle ?

From: Alain LaBonté  (alb@riq.qc.ca)
Date: Wed Dec 20 2000 - 10:08:03 EST

Is English the best marketing and communication tool?

According to the latest figures supplied by GlobalReach (see
http://www.glreach.com/globstats/index.php3>), during the year 2000, English
content of all Internet messages worldwide (web queries and mail) dropped
50%. It is clear that, as the net goes global, it also goes multilingual. The
Internet was born in English but it has become quite obvious that those who
attempted to promote it through the use of English only slowed down its
development rather than accelerating it. Once again, we are discovering that
localization is the key for the international dissemination of any tool, and
more especially when that tool is designed to facilitate communication.

It is well known that anyone who is serious about pursuing commercial
has to use his customer's language. This policy was especially pushed by firms
that sought expansion through the development of international markets. In the
old days, the success of firms such as IBM rested mostly on this approach.
translated all technical manuals, offered seminars and training in over twenty
languages. IBM went as far as translating push button labels on its hardware
and even coining new foreign words. That was the case for instance with
"ordinateur", which is now the French word for "computer". Let us not forget
that IBM often offered computing equipment that was relatively backwards
from a
technical standpoint with respect to its competitors' and also far more
complicated to use. For instance, the Burroughs 5000 computer, which was
released in 1960 was far more advanced that any of its IBM counterparts. Yet,
Burroughs, with far superior hardware and software racked up 8% of the market
at the most when it was the second largest computer manufacturer...

The success of Microsoft mostly relied on the same approach. Probably inspired
at first by Apple, Microsoft went to great lengths to provide fully localized
operating systems and application software. As far back as 1995, Microsoft had
already 60% of its market outside English-speaking countries. Again, few
and analysts note that this tremendous success rested less on the quality of
Microsoft products than the capability of the company to sell in its
tongues. Even though Microsoft has been accused of unfair competition and
business practices, it has remained for very long the only microcomputer
software vendor that seemed to be really concerned about the needs of its
international customers to function in their own respective tongues.

Many Internet companies have now come to realize the importance of languages
other than English. Very early on, Yahoo, for instance, adapted to
international markets its search engines and on-line services by
translating textual information, redesigning screen and indexing foreign
companies registration entries in their corresponding country's national
languages only, thereby pushing aside systematically all attempts to make
English a de facto "international" language. Five years after its birth, Yahoo
is now operating in 24 countries...

The use of English on the Internet
The Internet is supposed to facilitate international communication, not to
preclude it. Yet, it is surprising to find out that many Internet users
that restricting expression to English only on the net is necessary to bridge
our differences and make it possible for us to fully understand one
another. Is
English really adequate in this context? English is the native tongue to a
6% of the world population and, even though it is widely studied, over 70% of
the world population has no knowledge of it. If 20% or so of the world
population has some knowledge of Englishas a second language, those of us who
travel a lot can testify that fluency in English in non-English speaking
countries is just wishful thinking. If English may be understood well enough
for us to check into a hotel, order a meal or tell a cabby where to take
us, it
does not often allow us to go much beyond addressing our most immediate needs.
True, English has been widely adopted as the international language for
but can those of us who attend international conferences honestly tell us that
foreigners can make themselves understood in English as well as we can?
we noticed that - apart from a few exceptions - even highly educated
professionals whose mother tongue is not English have a much harder time to
address our questions and more especially when their work is being questioned
and criticized? Are we blind to the post-conference syndrome that affects most
of the participants who speak English as a second language when they
and regroup as soon as the plenary session is over to communicate freely in
their own native tongues ?

In the hard sciences and in technology, when Powerpoint slides and
transparencies can compensate for the lack of fluency to present an
experimental setup, a pilot plant or a bunch of equations to model physical
phenomena, English does not seems to be much of an impediment but can we
expect a top level scholar in psychology, in social science, in history or in
literature be able to present his research in a fully effective way and in a
manner as convincing and persuasive as if he was conducting his talk in his
native tongue? Of course not. The widely known Jacques Derrida used to give
talks in English when he traveled to the US until his American audiences told
him to switch back to French! Even though they did not fully master the French
language, Derrida was far more understandable to them in his own native talk
and even more so as they were already familiar with his work. The more
sophisticated the message is, the more its wording is important. Resorting
to a
foreign tongue which is never fully mastered can only distort, simplify and
degrade the quality of the message. It would be extremely naive to expect
international communication not to be limited by language barriers even though
people might resort to foreign tongues on their own volition. People who are
not conscious of this problem are usually unaware of the various views that
foreign languages usage might bring about. Such an attitude is typical of
people who master only one language - their own native tongue - even though
they might have a limited knowledge of another. They do not realize that
language is not neutral and that translation implies switching over to a
different system of coordinates. The views, opinions and knowledge
developed in
one language may be difficult to communicate in another language as the points
of reference and knowledge representations in the other language are
How can we expect a great poet, a great philosopher, a great sociologist or
psychologist to be fully able to communicate the true essence of his thoughts
by using a tool that simply does not support such thoughts. Attempting to
express this knowledge in a language other than the one that served the
thinking process that put it together would deliver a half-baked incomplete or
mutilated package. If I can talk in English about hamburgers, management
planning and stock market gains, describing the contents of the Koran in
English would deliver a by-product of the real thing which cannot be cut off
from its Arabic language source. Those of us who are eager to promote English
as a unique medium for international communication mistake masturbation for
real love making. Attempting to reduce expression to a single language is
equivalent to destroying all expressions which are not native to this tongue.
Instead of a healthy body of knowledge, it would deliver a corpse in the
basement and, at best, a digest of little value. In addition, language carries
values and culture. By adopting English as a means for "real international
communication", I will necessarily have to adapt to the English speaking
and use references that are common to English speaking countries and
anglo-american culture, thereby losing in the process the best of my message.
So, under such conditions, what would be the point of attempting to
at all ?

This is only one aspect of the problem. As a minority, what right do native
English speakers have to foist English upon a world majority ? Because they
have devised the Internet? At a time of globalization, language imperialism is
one of the last and most obvious remnants of a hideous colonial past. People
who are considering using somebody else's tongue for international
communication do not often realize that they put themselves at a great
disadvantage. Using a foreign tongue will make them appear more like silly
asses rather than sophisticated intellectuals or savvy negotiators. Such
are ripe for enslavement as they will never be able to come out from under
their own communication handicap. In fact, the very notion of one universal
"world language" is typical of the neocolonial trends that we see nowadays. On
the other hand, the prospect of a world language that would put everyone on a
equal basis is pure mirage. Can we ever expect non-English speakers to master
English as well as those who have it as their native tongue? Of course not !!

The Chinese are fed up hearing representatives of the Internet Society talk
about globalization and internationalization. The Chinese, along with many
other Asians wonder why some people dare talk about an international Internet
as long as the Chinese have to type addresses in Latin characters. So, they
have devised their own addressing system that uses ideograms. Some experts
think that as long as the Unicode standard does not become universal, there is
a distinct risk for various countries to go their own way for domain addresses
and other "details" important enough to give birth to separate networks that
will no longer be cross-communication compatible. Therefore,
internationalization must permit people to fully localize not only contents
also interfaces. If we had forgotten all about it, the Internet is here to
remind us that the only thing that truly deserves to be qualified
"international" can only transcend national borders because everyone would
to make it his own.

So, what can we do to make international communicationas effective as possible
Yet, a problem remains. Can we achieve international communication ? A glimpse
at past practices for conducting international conferences would give us a
hint. From 1880 up to the second world war, multilingualism - not monolinguism
- was the rule. Every participant would present his work in his own native
tongue. Scientific gatherings would not have been called "international" in
those days without this condition. Any scientist who attended such meetings
a sufficient knowledge of one, two or sometimes even three so-called
"scientific languages" to be able to follow a technical or scientific
presentation. Most of the time, a basic knowledge of German, French and
was sufficient in those days. The turn of the century brought very profound
breakthroughs in science and mathematics. Inventions and technical
of such discoveries flourished. The free flow of scientific and technical
information went unhampered by multilingualism. On the contrary, it seemed to
have boosted creativity. Scientific creativity feeds on language and language
structures as the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf has clearly shown. A scientist
who gives up on his own native tongue to conduct his work can never reach his
full potential and, often, he will be limited to technical contributions only.

So, if we are truly interested in reading something original on the Internet,
the users should be encouraged to write in their own language. Of course, for
practical purposes, there are limits to the language diversity that we can
accept. Participants might also resort to languages that are fairly close to
their own tongue. For instance, Slavs like Serbs or Bulgarians might feel more
comfortable in Russian next to their own native tongue. All things considered,
a Portuguese speaking person will naturally learn French or Spanish much more
easily than, say German or English. A Korean will master Japanese in very
little time. The tremendous variety of languages appears less awesome when we
delineate language families inside which the acquisition of another idiom can
be made relatively effortless. Let us not forget that truly useful
communication takes places in relatively homogeneous groups. Even though it
might be desirable to communicate across language families as well,
understanding will be best when both parties have some linguistic and cultural
knowledge of each other.

The investment required to understand a presentation in another language is
much lighter that what is required to be able to express oneself at a level
that might come close to the native speaker. A hundred years ago in Europe,
serious students studied two or three foreign languages not to become fluent
and interpreters nor because they were mesmerized by any "superior"
civilizations. Educated people learned foreign languages not to turn away from
their own but to be able to understand their neighbors and mostly those who
made significant contributions to their professional fields. Imposing the
exclusive use of a one and unique foreign language on a high level
makes him aphasic. This explains why some of the best scientists and potential
researchers shy away from the so-called international scientific colloquia
nowadays. That is a loss to everyone. That is also why the imposition of one
language in this kind of event has lead to so much mediocrity and compulsive
mimicry. How could originality emerge when everyone uses the same words and
acronyms, the same points of reference and cultural markers, and when everyone
has read the same papers ?

The new language Gestapo that patrols the Internet to blast traces of
other than English, along with its counterparts in science, technology and
journalism, forms a sub-class of intellectuals, equivalent to lobotomized
subjects, mistaking their pitiful perception of reality for an objective world
that is a thousand time richer and more colorful than they dare imagine. The
imposition of English goes very much with the development of the simplistic,
manicheist and strongly biased anglo-american mind. It is an insult to
intelligence and good sense. It would result in a fantastic impoverishment of
the mind and knowledge. American-inspired netiquette is mostly aimed at making
comfortable a society that is opened only to itself. It attempts to turn the
word "international" into some sort of an extension of American mindset and
values over which Uncle Sam would have total control. It is an extension of a
purely anglo-american territory into which foreigners have to listen to
American masters who allow them to participate from time to time just to
enhance and highlight the status of their country as the new colonial power of
the twenty-first century. See ? These idiots are looking to us for guidance
even for a language to express themselves ! They have to be with us so that
they can testify to our strength and power, and power over their minds is even
better. If need be, they will fend for us. They will form the first line of
defense when we might come under attack. This time, colonization is not
out by troops and gunboat diplomacy. It is aimed at controlling people's
By definition, hegemony implies that injustice and inequality are accepted by
both the dominant and the dominated as if they were natural and legitimate.
Hegemony exists only because of the consent of the dominated. In the old
colonial times, the dominated used to kowtows to the dominant because of the
"higher level of civilization" he represented. Now, he kowtows to the dominant
in the name of the principle of "better communication". He confirms his
inferior status and willingfully accepts to project an image of himself which
is far below what he could potentially achieve.

International forums and discussion groups should welcome contributions in all
languages if their participants were really seeking the best and most
interesting contributions. Instead, the Internet shows today incredible
mediocrity. While the average citizen thinks the Internet brings him the
the serious intellectual has returned to his books, lecture halls, conferences
and head-to-head discussions and round tables that gather real
thought-challenging professionals and researchers. If people want the best
the Internet, they have to invite back the best by first realizing that
original thoughts automatically entail the use of original modes of


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