A post about language and language learning as it’s something that interests me.
Happened to be perusing Le Monde Diplomatique and came across this article (you can tell I’m a cheapskate as it’s one of the freebies) on building mutual comprehension between speakers of Romance languages (ie French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan and Romanian). I have to say this is an idea that really appeals to me. The idea seems to break through the old orthodoxy of ‘learning a language’; that is, slogging away at a single language (the boundaries of languages are of course somewhat undefined anyway) and ‘mastering’ it. Instead, suggest the advocates of the mutual comprehension approach, we can attempt to master a whole group of related languages at the same time, at least to the level of reading and listening with comprehension.
As the author points out, this approach has long been in place in the Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark) and I’ve witnessed this myself, when Swedes and Norwegians speak to each other in their own languages without a hint of difficulty in understanding each other. Of course the apparent greater differences between the Romance languages might make it a bit more tricky in this case, but it seems that research shows it is possible. Actually, the depressing side of this is that it appears to leave us English speakers doomed to rely on the fact that most of the world either speaks English or would like to. If circumstances were different, I suppose it might be conceivable to propose a German-English-Dutch mutual comprehension community.
But there’s also something that disturbs me about this article (and I suspect would disturb me even more about Bernard Cassen’s piece on the same subject in this issue, if only I could be bothered to pay for it). This is the fluffy post-modern cultural nationalism and essentialism that lurks in the background of this article, which is published in a magazine of supposedly leftwing commentary.
First we have the comment that these are:
…countries that belong to a language family and have interests and cultural features in common.
A fairly inocuous comment, but one that probably needs to be questioned. Do Romanians and Portuguese really have more in common culturally than Parisians and Londoners? What about the huge cultural divides inside some of these countries, that between northern and southern Italy being perhaps the most obvious example?
OK, maybe I’m reading too much into a simple article here, but I worry that there is a tendency among some parts of the European left to see the world in terms of a mirror image of that favourite of the US (and sometimes British) right: ‘Anglo-Saxon culture and values’. So, instead we have ‘Romance culture’, reflecting everything desirible and non-American about Europe. A sort of new post-nationalist nationalism for the era of the EU.
Things get worse when we get to the last sentence of the article:
In European and international politics, this new way of learning might encourage multi-polarity and linguistic diversity in a stand against the domination of a single hyperpower and a single language.
I was actually having a conversation the other day with a Korean friend about the possibility of a multipolar world and the current fascination in Europe, particularly in France, with this idea. I commented that two or three or four hegemonic imperialisms didn’t strike me as particularly better than one. And an adjunct of this argument is the idea that the US really is a rogue hyperpower that can only be brought under control by another, no doubt more civilised, superpower. In reality, recent events have shown that the US is a lot weaker than it may appear at first glance.
What is disturbing about all this is the fact that the left as well as the right are buying into it. Calling for linguistic diversity is one thing, but allying this call with one for multi-polarity is quite misguided to my mind. We should be fighting not for a world with multi-poles but for one without poles (except the Slavic kind) at all.