The magic of ignorance - English a false prophet?

Roland Breton breton-roland at
Fri Jan 28 17:10:38 UTC 2005

le 26/01/05 16:25, R. A. Stegemann à moogoonghwa at a écrit :

> Fellow contributors,
> In response to Roland's brave comments about Europeans' national
> languages remaining the national languages of their respective
> citizenries "for ever", I have little to offer. Certainly this is the
> wish of many Europeans. I am more interested, however, in his comments
> with regard to the meso- and acrolectal aspects of the English language
> in Europe.
> If I have properly understood the notions of baso-, meso-, mesoacro-,
> and acro-lectal varieties of a second language, they refer to their
> level of comprehensibility across demographic boundaries. In all
> honesty, I find these notions a little contrived and only very useful
> in an abstract sense. This is because they have both a horizontal and
> vertical dimension to them. The horizontal dimension exists, because
> low-level competence in the English language becomes so mixed with
> competence in the local language or dialect that what results is only
> understandable -- not necessarily very useful -- to those speakers of
> the local dialect. Thus, in a large country there can be many
> basolectal varieties of the same second language. It is vertical in the
> sense that second language competence is used as a linguistic filter to
> rise through a nation's education system. Thus, only those with good
> passive and some active competence ever make it into a local
> university. In fact, it is this phenomenon that makes universal second
> language requirements nonsensical in nations with little or no need for
> a second language within their national borders -- such as Hong Kong
> and Japan.
> In this regard, Malaysia lies somewhere between Singapore and Hong
> Kong. Demographically it is more homogeneous than Singapore, but far
> more heterogeneous than Hong Kong. Moreover, if the Chinese population
> in Malaysia is anything like the Chinese population in Singapore, it is
> far more heterogeneous than the statistics provided by the Malaysian
> government would have the world believe.
> Returning now to the use of English in Europe and Malaysia and the Far
> East. It appear to me that Europe's approach toward language -- not
> necessarily the English language, is far healthier both from a cultural
> and linguistic point of view. One learns the languages of one's
> neighbors, not the languages of former, distant colonial powers. This
> reduces the formation of basolectal varieties, because their acquirers
> rid themselves of them automatically as soon as they realize that they
> are of little use. Moreover, there is no need for mesolectal varieties,
> because the national language of each country already serves this
> purpose. I believe this is the point that Roland was making. Thus, only
> the national languages, and the mesoacro- and acrolectal varieties are
> formed.
> In effect, Far East Asians are chasing after a pot of gold at the end
> of a rainbow that does not exist and are destroying the utility of
> English as a world language as a result. In contrast, Europeans are
> preserving cultural and linguistic traditions that in the end will
> contribute to the preservation of our world's ecosystem and help to
> keep rampant globalization in check.
> So, why are the Brits in favor of the whole world learning English, if
> not imperial vanity -- what a bane for humanity.
> Hamo
I agree with most of that and give some precisions.
In countries with real national language, wether having ninety millions
speakers, as German, or txo millions as Slovenian, whole citizen's life
needs it and only it. Beside that Hotel porters or the translators of
scientists' papers must have different level of competenbce in English as in
many other foreign languages. And that may, of course, affect their level of
financial retribution but not at all, in any other respect, their personal
condition or their mental activity or hability in their own language, which
are not deeply affected by contacts with other languages. Even when some
English words are borrowed, as up to now English have been borrowing words,
for instance to French.

Of course all that is also tied to the possibility to learn, or not, English
beside, or not, any other foreign language. But, in fact most of children
who are taught foreign languages in Europe are really unable, after years of
lessons to speak them, if they do not go in their countries, for holydys por
other reason. And most of them never require this use : many foreign
newspapers or magazines in English are available, but they have no reason to
buy them, as if many English speakers are walking in the street, they rarely
speak to local peo^ple, English TV or films are accessible but are mostly
seen doubled or subtitled.

The majority of Europeans gradually forget most of what they have learnt
because they never use it. Like most of Britishmen forget French if they
don't cross France as the rare Americans who have prefered to learn a
foreign language instead of choosing a certain sport at school

Except the inside the small elite where foreign language is kept in use. As
is now the case for Tony Blair, who is fluent in French, even spontaneously
at the tv, While most other chief of government, or of state, during last
decades have been unable to speak with their foreign colleagues without
interpreter. Even Chirac, who as student spent holydays in America, getting
little jobs there, is now unable to say some sentences in English at tv
without making the audience smiling.

The hope to make English the sole compulsory foreign language in Europe and
around the world may change that, but this globalization process is
fortunately out of question. The task of translators and interpretrs in
Bruxelles as in Frankfurt, London and New York is sufficient to meet the
challenge. Even if Scandinavian Airlines employees in Kobenhavn have to work
in English.

More worrying is the fact that, in most European countries, where film
industry is decaying because international agreements give most of the
market to Hollywood, the spectators realize that, through Hollywood films
they are facing some aspects of American life. While Americans nearly cannot
see foreign films outside Manhattan, and Hollywood is issuing remakes in
American background and fashion of the rare foreign film found as good
enough to be shown to Americans.

Europeans as Asians know English exists and could be learnt and used and
that Americans live differently, while most Americans have very few lights
on the languages and life of the rest of the world.
And if some Asians may consider a possible americanization as a promotion,
for most Europeans it's less attractive.
These are some unequal aspects of present globalization

Best regards

Roland Breton

Roland J.-L. Breton
Professor Emeritus of Geography
University of Paris 8
(Vincennes-St Denis)
<breton-roland at>

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