The immediate need: military and commercial
The Military Factor—Doing Business in a Foreign Country-Colonialism and Imperialism—Economic Penetration—A World Trade Language
One of the greatest revelations ever to strike the mass of the American people came during the Second World War. It was then, for the first time, that many of us realized that foreign languages have actual, objective reality, that there are large areas of the earth where, strange as it may seem, English is neither spoken nor understood.
To many of us, brought up with foreign languages taught by the old methodology, whereby a language was handled as an intellectual exercise, word game, and quiz topic, this was a distinct shock. Yes, we had been told that French was really spoken in France, German in Germany, Italian in Italy; but somehow we gave these propositions only passive belief, accepting them as articles of faith and little more. Considering the way they were handled in the classroom, these languages seemed more like museum pieces, cultural relics, things to be approached only through books, on a par with Greek and Latin.
To the many more of us who, in accordance with the New Education sponsored between the two wars by certain powerful pedagogical circles, had acquired no familiarity whatsoever with foreign languages, modern or antique, the revelation was even more shocking. Here we had built up for ourselves a neat little world in which everyone spoke English, possibly with a foreign accent if he was a new arrival, but English nevertheless; and suddenly these pesky foreigners rose up before us in their own lands, doggedly refusing to understand our tongue, no matter how slowly and loudly we spoke it. It was little short of outrageous.
It is to be hoped that the linguistic lessons of the war were not lost upon or forgotten by the millions of Americans who came in contact with French, Italian, German, Dutch, Polish, Czech, and Russian in one sector, with Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Malay, pidgin, and a hundred Melanesian and Polynesian languages in another. War conditions differ from peacetime tourist activities in that they do not at all points involve the services of trained interpreters, translators, and other paid foreign speakers of English. How many thousands of our men lost their lives by reason of the simple fact that they did not know a crucial foreign tongue, we will never know; we do know that millions of them were inconvenienced by the lack of a common tongue and rendered more uncomfortable than they normally would have been in that most uncomfortable of all experiences, war.
It was confidently predicted by many foreign-language experts that our war experience would lead to a tremendous upsurge of interest in languages and language study. In part these expectations were disappointed, but that is not too strange. After all, once peace is re-established and people go back to their normal occupations, it is as unreasonable to expect the continuation of wartime psychology in the matter of language as to count on an indefinite prolongation of demand for war materials.
Yet the Second World War brought in its train such widespread participation of the United States in world activities that a return to the old isolationist mentality and habits is unthinkable. The fruits of the war live on, in the far greater number of government people who are sent abroad, as well as in the expansion of foreign commercial and cultural activities of all kinds. The Hollywood director who moves to Rome to make a picture must have some contact with Italian speakers, and the oilman in Arabia cannot quite avoid Arabic.
Besides, there is the ever-present possibility (may Heaven forfend!) of a Third World War. It is all very well to say that atoms and push buttons will do the fighting, and that man's major role will be to act as a target. Mechanical means of warfare have never in the past quite done away with the need of human contingents for fighting and for occupation, and it is unlikely they will in the future.
This brings up the old question with a new twist: "As soldiers, what language or languages will best serve us for war purposes?" The records of the last war are replete with instances of people who spoke fluent French and German and were sent to the Pacific, as well as of men who took up Intensive Language courses in Japanese and were then shipped to North Africa. The blame for this is placed upon normal processes of military administrative snafu, but there is another possible explanation in man power or technical requirements. If replacements were desperately needed in the Pacific during a lull in the European fighting, and a few European-language specialists happened to be available, their qualifications as cannon fodder may have taken precedence over their linguistic attainments. Or a man skilled in both Japanese and radar may have been assigned to Europe by reason of a local shortage of radar experts.
All of which brings us down to the old proposition that it is extremely difficult to foretell precisely what language out of a possible hundred you are really going to need. Even on a single front for which you have been trained, you may come up against many languages of the enemy, of possible allies, and of possible neutrals. There is no such thing as perfect linguistic preparation for war.
Would an international language be of help to everybody concerned in a war? It undoubtedly would. The American and Spanish civil wars, in which no language differences, were concerned, register many bloody, dismal episodes, but none, perhaps, quite so grim as the story of the American general caught with his staff during the Battle of the Bulge by a superior force of Germans. The hopelessly outnumbered Americans threw up their hands in token of surrender. The Germans barked out an order to them in their own tongue. "What are they saying?" whispered the general to his aide; but the latter shook his head; he, too, had picked Spanish, not German, in high school. "I think they want us to hand over our revolvers," said the general, reaching for his belt. The Germans, misinterpreting his gesture, opened fire, and most of the Americans lost their lives.
This newspaper story may have been true or not, but it points to a definite lesson. Hundreds of similar episodes happened. Many Americans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, and Japanese would be alive today if one of three conditions had been met: 1. They had studied the enemy's language; 2. The enemy had studied theirs; 3. They had had a common language in which to communicate. It is paradoxical and even cruel to say it, but a common world language, if it did not avert wars, would at least make them somewhat safer and more comfortable for their participants.
Meanwhile, we have produced language programs, of a purely local nature, for our military forces, such as the one designed to impart a smattering of French and Dutch to our NATO air forces in return for the English imparted to the French, Dutch, and Belgians. Such programs bring to light interesting facts, like the discovery that 75 per cent of the French, Dutch, and Belgian officers already knew some English, but only 25 per cent of our officers were bilingual.
What happens, though, when portions of this Europe-trained force are moved away, say to our Spanish or North African bases, or to Formosa and the Philippines? Do we have more language courses in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, and Tagalog? And how many of these language smatterings can we expect our men to remember?
The role of language in international trade is so obvious that we can afford to treat it briefly. Great as is the use of translators and interpreters by diplomatic and governmental agencies, these agencies are far outstripped by business houses dealing with imports and exports. Government agencies prepare dictionaries and phrasebooks for the fields that concern them; but they cannot even begin to vie with the numerous technical, legal, financial, professional, and commercial lexicons that are produced each year for the exclusive use of firms engaged in private enterprise involving two or more countries. "Help Wanted" ads in the daily press indicate to what extent there is a call for people possessing one or more foreign languages in addition to a specific skill.
All this is far from new. It has been going on since the days of the ancient Egyptian and Phoenician traders. What is new is the volume of international exchange that goes on. As this volume grows (and it is bound to grow), the need for linguistic understanding becomes greater. With the increase in the number and variety of products, with the greater complexity of the machinery and equipment that is sent out from one country to another, the need for precision and accuracy increases. Haphazard translations of business letters and written instructions for the use of machinery, casual interpretations of arrangements between importer and exporter, are no longer sufficient; in fact, they may be extremely harmful.
Our systems of interpretation and translation improve as time goes on; more and better commercial and technical dictionaries become available. Yet it is a curious fact that they always lag behind the need. The specialized vocabulary of trade and technology changes rapidly in each language, innovations appear every day, and the dictionary that was adequate ten years ago is hopelessly behind the times today.
Add to this the local differences of terminology within what passes for one language; a term used by an Englishman in a certain meaning may have an entirely different meaning to an American; the Spanish of Spain and that of Argentina, though basically the same language, may use altogether different terms for an object, product, or mechanical part. The complexity of present-day business terminology on the international level thus becomes even more apparent.
A single international language, carefully governed by a single international language academy, would prove an inestimable boon to trade among the nations. It would eliminate uncertainties along with the multiplicity of language forms and translations. The importer in Rio de Janeiro would know at once, and precisely, what the exporter in New York has to offer. There would be untold economy of time, effort, money, and man power.
Complicated and expensive sales campaigns in many languages occur not merely on the international front, but even on the national. In countries where many languages are spoken, either by the native population, as in India and Switzerland, or by large immigrant groups, as in the United States, the commercial appeal has to be made in many languages. The sales effort has to be dispersed over many radio and television channels and spread over a multilingual press. Salesmen equipped with foreign languages have to be employed. All this would become quite unnecessary if all people were endowed with a common language. The functioning of commerce, both at home and abroad, could not fail to gain.
The military and the commercial aspects of language have a common denominator in colonialism. In this and earlier centuries, the language of the colonizers, spreading usually by force of arms, became the language of trade (call it ruthless exploitation if you like) between the colonizers and the colonized. This happened with English in India, Burma, Malaya, and vast regions of Africa and Oceania; with French in North Africa and Indochina; with Dutch in what is today Indonesia; with Russian in Siberia and Turkestan; with Italian in Eritrea, Somaliland, Libya, and Ethiopia; with Spanish, Portuguese, and German in other areas of the globe.
In each instance, it was natural and normal for the colonizer to set up his own language as official in the colonized area and to have it taught to the natives in such schools as he saw fit to establish. History indicates that in a few instances the conquerors adopted the language of the conquered, but in many more the colonizing language eventually was adopted by the conquered peoples and became their own national language, displacing tongues spoken at an earlier period. Ancient Latin, of course, is the best example of this. But the Spanish of Central and South America and the Portuguese of Brazil are there to show that it could take place even in relatively modern times, where there was a disposition on the part of the conquerors to intermingle with the conquered and merge into a single race.
In other instances, where there was no such merging, history shows two possible outcomes. One is the practical extinction of the original inhabitants and languages and their replacement by the colonizers and their tongue (America and Australia are good examples of this). The other is the eventual rejection of both the colonizers (numerically a minority) and their official languages by the more numerous natives. This is in the process of happening in countries like India, Indonesia, Indochina, Ethiopia, and is likely to happen in North Africa. It can happen even where the friendliest relations persist between the former colony and its old possessors, as is the case in Pakistan with the British and in the Philippines with the U.S.A.
Linguistically, the effect of this latter process is to cut down the power and influence of the few big world-wide tongues, and to increase the number of significant languages that must be taken into account. Where one could formerly dispense with tongues like Hindustani, Malay, Vietnamese, Amharic, Arabic, Urdu, and Tagalog, because they could to some extent be replaced by the languages of colonization (English, Dutch, French, Italian), this now becomes less and less possible, as the national languages of the former colonies come to the fore and the old languages of colonization are discarded. The linguistic picture becomes more complicated rather than simpler as self-determination moves on apace.
The Russians, who in some respects have a clearer propaganda sense than we, are realistically approaching the problem by engaging in the publication of a series of fifty-seven dictionaries in Asiatic and African tongues, including Vietnamese, Malay, Thai, Burmese, Tibetan, Swahili, Zulu, and Amharic. On a much more modest scale, we, too, are preparing for reality by getting ready at Cornell a dictionary of the Indonesian language that is now replacing the Dutch formerly current in those islands, but now excluded from the schools of the Indonesian Republic.
Would an international language help under the circumstances? It would certainly tend to re-establish the broken or about-to-be-broken linguistic communications between the Englishman and the native of India, Burma, or Pakistan, between the Hollander and the Indonesian, between the Italian and the Ethiopian, between the Frenchman and the native of Vietnam or Morocco, between the American and the Filipino, at the same time extending the blessings of communication to anyone else who might happen on the scene in countries that are throwing off colonial shackles.
Economic, financial, and commercial penetration, as apart from physical conquest and colonialism, is a well-known phenomenon of modern times. It is perhaps more peculiar to the United States and the American turn of mind than to most other nations, though other countries have recently tried to imitate our methodology, with varying degrees of success.
There are at least a round dozen small Latin-American nations over which we exercise no physical dominion, but whose policies we direct almost as surely as if the Stars and Stripes waved over them. Of late, we have taken under our economic-financial-commercial wing, through Marshall Plan aid, tariff arrangements, and other devices, such old, established countries as France, Italy, western Germany, and Japan, not to mention Sa'udi Arabia and Iran.
Linguistically, there are two major devices whereby this type of penetration is effected. Either the people with whom we establish such relations learn our language, or we learn theirs. Both are effective, and the first is, of course, in full swing, with millions of Latin-Americans, western Europeans, and Orientals now in the process of learning English willingly, not to say enthusiastically. The second device is even more effective, since it usually arouses the good will, friendship, and admiration of the people we do business with. But it has the now well-known drawback. Which language or languages shall it be? Spanish or Portuguese, French or Italian, German or Japanese, Arabic or Persian? The man who wants to be a Point Four administrator, or a U.S.I.A. official, or even an ordinary private businessman, cannot learn them all, so as to be prepared for any eventuality or transfer. He can only study one or two, and hope for the best.
Would it improve the situation, now or in any foreseeable future, if there were a common trade language throughout the world? From the standpoint of the foreign peoples with whom we trade, or whom we help, or even whom we are said to exploit, the learning and use of a world tongue instead of English (or of English if it were officially recognized as a world tongue) would remove whatever stigma of inferiority they may now feel in learning and using our language while we fail to return the compliment. From our point of view, there would be the advantage that a man thoroughly grounded in the universal language would not have to fear, linguistically at least, assignment or transfer to any country whatsoever. He would have the assurance that he could carry on his work, trade, or business at a moment's notice and without further preparation, all over the world.
The same advantages, of course, would accrue to citizens of all nations, even of those we now regard as potential enemies. It would undoubtedly expedite trade matters between Soviet Russians and Chinese Reds if they had a common language both could use without losing face. If, as and when trade relations on a full scale are resumed between East and West, it would be a source of satisfaction to know that both sides could go into action at once, untrammeled by language disabilities.
Of course, trade among the nations can and will go on, as it has gone on for countless centuries, without the benefit of a common language. Interpreters, translators, people who know the two or more languages that enter into any given transaction will always be available.
But as international trade grows, the language difficulties inherent in it multiply. The two or three linguistically trained people out of a hundred who sufficed in the nineteenth century are no longer sufficient today, when business must be carried on not merely in English, French, German, and two or three more western European languages, but in scores of Oriental and African tongues. It is either a question of far bigger and better language learning than we have ever had before, with at least one out of three people learning at least one foreign language well, and a huge body of specialists in what used to be little-known tongues, or of setting up a single language that will serve the world's vastly expanded trade needs. There is no third course, if the requirements of twentieth-century world trade are to be met.