Saturday, February 9, 2013

English for all?

When I was in Prague last week, my former supervisor at Czech University of Life Sciences, Vlastimil Černý, gave me a couple of books, one of them being Konrad Paul Liessmann, The theory of uneducation: errors of the knowledge society.

Liessman's book is a Jeremiad. He's trying to call us back to a nobler past in European education, a past that may not have existed, or not quite in the way Liessman presents it.

But he makes some very trenchant points along the way about the role of assessment and the dominance of market thinking in our decisions about education, learning, and knowledge. The passage I've translated below particularly struck me, given my interest in the Czech language.

As I wrote about here, by the end of the 18th century, Czech had essentially died as a language of anything more than peasants and servants (there wasn't yet really a working class). No university used Czech as a language, not even any high school. There were Czechs making important contributions in science and the arts and humanities, but they communicated about these subjects in German. Even into the later 19th centruy, the composer Bedřich Smetana was said to be more comfortable in German than in Czech—and Smetana is the father of Czech nationalism in music!

But in the early 19th century, there was a conscious—and ultimately successful—effort to revive Czech as a language that was functional "on all levels," as Liessmann would phrase it. Revivalists in other languages put in similar efforts in the 19th century, to ensure that the languages they grew up speaking in their homes could also be languages of public life in every dimension. And they succeeded.

Liessmann raises the prospect that this accomplishment is in danger of being lost. What would this mean for people from everywhere except the English-speaking world? What does it mean for those of us in the English-speaking world learning other languages?

From Konrad Paul Liessmann, The theory of uneducation: errors of the knowledge society, pp. 91-92:

The concept of elite education has very quickly weakened the exoteric character of science which had been held up as a goal since the beginning of the modern age; it has weakened the openness and public character of the sciences, their ambition to cooperate in an enlightened manner and to be a carrier of enlightenment. Elites mark themselves off, most of all by means of the language that they use. There’s no need to immediately use the label of raw imperialism for the tremendous speed with which English has become established as the only language of science[1]. Despite the undeniable competitive edge of all “native speakers” vis-à-vis those who have a different native language and must first learn English, it is impossible not to notice how communication has been eased. But we cannot close our eyes to the reality that in direct proportion to how national languages cease to be scientific languages as well, there’s also a loss of validity of exactly that motive which, during the time of Enlightenment and thanks to enlightenment views, led to Latin, as the former universal language of scholarship, being replaced by national languages.

At the end of the 17th century Christian Thomasius demanded that learning be directed at everyone, not only at an elite circle of savants, [2] and for Immanuel Kant learning was inseparably linked with what he called the public use of reason. [3] Today in non-English-speaking countries they are opening up ever more study programs using English as their language of instruction; this situation perhaps supports a desired internationalization, but at the same time it contains the danger that for the decisive areas of science, technology, economics, and to an ever-greater degree politics and law, terminology will be missing in people’s native languages. If you’ve ever witnessed some expert desperately seeking in his native language the term for a concept that is only common for him in English, you sense how we can expect things can be expected. First people forget about the relevant terminology, then they no longer know that such a phrase exists in their native language, and finally the word in question disappears entirely.

Besides the undeniable advantages which this development brings for the “scientific community,” it also means that the other European languages will gradually lose their competence to adequately denote the central areas of modern society—science, technology, economics, and law—even if only terminologically, and not merely because such words wouldn’t exist in their language, but because they are systematically repressed, or they simply no longer develop. Linguistics calls this phenomenon the “loss of domain” of a language, which it defines as “the loss of the ability to communicate in one’s own language on all levels of knowledge, because the necessary means of technical language don’t evolve.” [4]

To exclude misunderstanding, let us emphasize that we’re not talking about some limited language purism, but about the fact that in the decisive fields of modern life many European languages are losing their competence. This applies to the smaller Scandinavian languages, but also, to an increasing degree, to German and some Romance languages. If belles-lettres remains the only possible area for the use of national languages, such languages will cease to be an integral component of the culture. The time may not be far off when beginning writers will be advised to write their works directly in English if they want to play in the big leagues. As a result, the old European languages would be accorded the status of merely regional dialects in which it would be enough to be able to name the objects of daily use, but as soon as people began to speak on a higher level, professionally, or even in scientific language, words would be lacking and they would move to English.

Such a development is nothing new. For a long time, Latin was the language of the church and of science, then French held the status of the elite language, and in central-eastern Europe it was German. Up to now, the dominance of languages of communication with higher standing has always been linked with the dominance of social groups which used the language as a tool of power and as a sign of their social standing. In our time of course it’s true that more people have command of English than did of Latin or French in their day. But so long as English is not a so-called first language for everybody—which is a very questionable ideal—the dominance of English means the entrenchment of a preference for one language and the integrally connected culture of thought over other traditions of ethnolinguistic cultures.

[1] Nietzche, KSA 6, p. 226.

[2] Gilbert Probst, Stefan Raub, Kai Romhardt: Wissen managen. Wie Unternehmen ihre wertollste Ressource optimal nutzen. Wiesbaden 2003, p. 251.

[3] One example for many: Helmut Willke: Einführung in das systemische Wissensmanagement. Heidelberg 2004, p. 28.

[4] Herman Kocyba: Wissen. In Bröckling, Glossar der Gegenwart, p. 303.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post, Karl, and welcome back. I'm currently traveling (and not sure how I will return with all the snow that has fallen after the recent Nor'easter) but I have a few remarks to offer at the moment. I am most familiar with the situation in the French-speaking world, which has responded to the dominance of English with a number of initiatives:

    1. In the 17th century France created the Académie Française to promote the French language. It writes the official dictionary of French. Today most people think it is a rather stodgy institution, but it has exercised an important role in creating words for sciences and technology. For instance, instead of the word "computer" or "Komputer", the Academy coined the term "ordinateur" that everyone uses today.

    2. The Francophonie movement was begun in the 1970s by former French colonies as a way to find common purpose in promoting their cultural interests (France is also a member). One of its biggest initiatives is promoting the French language on the Internet (and refusing to cede cyberspace to English). It has been very successful, although in 2007 a group of Francophone writers signed a manifesto calling for an end to Francophonie as a literary effort (see

    3. Young people in France often demonstrate rebellion by using words in either English or Verlan, the latter a kind of Pig Latin based on the reversal of syllables or letters in French. Despite this anti-establishment preciosity, they do not completely abandon their mother tongue. If you listen to the radio in France today, it is a constant mix of French, English and Verlan.