The Problem

Copyright Notice

This material is copyright © 1995 by Donald J. Harlow. Hard copies may be made for personal use only. Any user may make one electronic copy for personal use only. All copies must contain this copyright notice, including the date given below. No electronic copy may be located elsewhere for public access. Links to this original copy on the World Wide Web are encouraged. Please respect the conditions of this copyright notice; I simply don't want to have various unofficial (and perhaps not up-to-date) copies floating around elsewhere. Date: 2003.02.07.

                "Whenever you want to talk to someone, you have to call 
                a translator. It's very frustrating."

                                      --Rock Promoter Bill Graham, 
                                        Moscow, summer of 1987. Quoted 
                                        by Rob Morse, The San Francisco 
                                        Examiner, July 3, 1987

What was probably the most significant event of my life occurred on a warm spring afternoon in Mexicali, back in the middle nineteen-fifties.

Because of some strange genetic fluke in her family background, my mother preferred hot, dry desert weather to the more delightful grey skies and cool, soothing, healthful drizzle of our native Oregon. So every spring she and my father would bundle our family into our prewar blue Plymouth and set off from our home in Lake Grove for California's Imperial Valley and its surrounding wastelands, the Salton Sea and Anza-Borrego State Parks. We would then spend the better part of two weeks lounging on the inland seashore or hiking up the long desert trail to the Washingtonia Palm Canyon. I wasn't terribly appreciative of all this; my own chromosomes were better attuned to my cooler native clime. But the rest of my family always enjoyed these little jaunts.

And then one day my parents decided to take us on a real adventure: we would cross the border into Mexico.

In my early teens Mexico was largely a white space on the map, characterized only by a number of strange-sounding names. In this it resembled much of the rest of the world outside of Oregon and California. What a revelation it was to me to discover, as we crossed that border marked by its tall chain-link fence, that there were people on the other side! Sure, their clothes weren't quite normal, and they seemed to tend to gibber at each other, but other than that they weren't very different from my fellow Oregonians.

We left the car with misgivings -- my parents had been warned by a friend that if you didn't pay off the gangs of juvenile extortionists swarming through the streets, you might return to find your hubcaps gone, along with everything attached to them -- and proceeded to wander through the town. After a while my father, not wanting to look like the tourist he was, gave me his camera to carry so that I would look like the tourist he was and dropped back to walk an inconspicuous half block behind me.

There may be as much to see in Mexicali as there is in Tijuana or Matamoros, other border towns that I visited in other years. But, like many casual American tourists, we didn't know where to look. Everything seemed much the same as in Calexico, north of the border. Finally, disappointed at the lack of exotica, we decided to return to the car and to the Salton Sea. But before we did, my father bought us some ice cream from a sidewalk vendor, and my life changed forever.

You see, the time came to pay, and instead of "Fifty cents, please," the vendor cruelly said: "Cincuenta centavos, por favor."

At various times my mother, who had delusions of becoming a fluent Hispanophone, had dragged my father off to various Spanish evening classes back in Oregon, and he had acquired a good theoretical idea of how the language worked. I suppose that he knew the difference between a masculine and a feminine noun, and he could probably distinguish a regular from a radical-changing verb. He had certainly been exposed to the number system in the first or second lesson. But he chose this particular moment to confuse cincuenta (fifty) and quince (fifteen).

The resulting discussion, in which neither side understood the other, became more than a bit heated. My father's small stock of evening-class Spanish completely deserted him, and the ice-cream vendor was unexpectedly innocent of English. A small but vociferous crowd gathered. I thought of abandoning camera and family and slinking back through hidden alleyways to the car. But everything came out all right in the end. The vendor brought out a pencil and pad and wrote the price down in Arabic numerals -- even if he didn't speak English, he turned out not to be completely illiterate. My father understood "50" and paid the requisite price. We went back to our car -- it was still amazingly intact! -- and returned to that patch of terrain that we proudly, and with some exaggeration, call "America." As a family we never returned to Mexico.(4)

But the experience had taught me something unexpected. There really are people out there who don't speak English!

I was already aware of the existence of foreign languages, but I knew of them in the same way that most Americans know of them -- as intellectual exercises, to be taught in high school and college as a means of satisfying some obscure academic requirement. To me, the world's linguistic map, like that of Mexico, was largely a blank. Only about African languages did I have some specialized knowledge, acquired from my vast reading in the available American literature about that continent, most of it the product of a single authority. Of Africa's five major tongues I could speak a few words of two: Swahili and Ape.(1) I was totally innocent of the other three: French, Waziri and Latin, which latter language I knew to be spoken in the lost cities of Castrum Mare and Castra Sanguinarius.(2)

Regrettably, Lake Oswego High School's limited curriculum offered none of Swahili, Waziri or Ape, and French seemed a bit prosaic to me (I knew that it was also spoken in a place called Europe, a land mass north of Africa). Latin, the language of lost cities, seemed considerably more attractive and exotic. And so I set out to learn Latin.

With all due respect to Dorothy West, a most excellent teacher with a genuine and contagious enthusiasm for her two subjects, Latin and English, I quickly found in Latin two major deficiencies: (1) it is an extremely complicated language; (2) it is an extremely dead language. Airline connections to Castrum Mare are few and far between; physicians' prescriptions, while they may occasionally be written in Latin, are no more legible in that language than in any other; and although a Roman Catholic might find an understanding of his liturgy useful, my family were at the time crypto-Unitarians.

But Latin has its uses. It is advertised as an aid to the improvement of English vocabulary, and for this it can be quite valuable, since about 60% of the vocabulary of English -- although perhaps not the most immediately useful 60% -- derives from Latin, usually via medieval French, which I was not taking. The student of Latin will quickly pick up such valuable terms as egregious and ubiquitous, which he can later use to impress the hoi polloi, which latter term is Greek, not Latin. Of course, he should wait to use such terms until he has graduated; otherwise his less learned teenage contemporaries, might respond unfavorably to his use of such sesquipedalian expressions. Cocktail parties and university lectures are good places to toss them around. Yuppies and undergraduates respond well to them. For this purpose, Latin is infinitely superior to 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary.

Latin is also advertised as an aid to learning English grammar. The two are really not very much alike; in many cases that of English more closely resembles that of Chinese. But English grammar has been described in terms of Latin for so many centuries now that the two now seem inextricably intertwined.

I studied Latin for three years, and regret not one moment of that time. Once I went so far as to write an entire two-page essay in Latin, there being nothing good on TV that evening. This feat astounded Mrs. West, although any 19th century Latin teacher would have expected no less, probably on a daily basis, and tears welled in her eyes as she read it -- although these may have been inspired not by my initiative but by the quality of my Latin. In my last year I was awarded a prize as the Best Latin Student in the State of Oregon. That I gained this prize largely by guessing at the content of a thoroughly banal piece of army-recruitment literature written by Caius Julius Caesar, rather than from any significant command of the language, has troubled my conscience for some thirty years now...

But in all those high-school years, nobody came up to me, in Oswego or Lake Grove or nearby Portland, and asked me, in Latin or any other non-English language, for the address of a second-rate flophouse, or how to find the nearest public urinal. In fact, the only linguistic contretemps I noted during that entire period was during a class field-trip to a Buddhist temple, when one of my classmates tried to speak to the the monk in Cantonese and he replied, in apologetic broken English: "I Japanee!" I began to feel that my Mexicali experience was a fluke, an unfortunate encounter with that most unlikely of creatures, someone who was, through some physical or mental disability, unable to speak an English that was the natural birthright of the entire world.(3)

Then, in the summer of 1959 I was chosen to spend a semester in Denmark as an American Field Service student (school program). The appointment came late; I had to gather myself, my clothing, and my brand-new copy of Kofoed's Teach Yourself Danish within the space of about three days. From Portland I flew to New York, where I cowered for three long days in a YMCA, terrified of muggers; and then I flew on to Montréal, where I was to have my U.S. passport delivered and take ship across the Atlantic. (Yes, in those days people sometimes crossed the sea in ships. S.S. Rotterdam was not the Love Boat, either, although ...)

In Montréal I passed through Canadian customs with no problems, although I was genuinely surprised to discover that Canada is indeed a foreign country, a fact we "Americans" often seem to overlook. I caught a limousine from the airport into the city. And here I had my second traumatic interlingual experience. I was one of five passengers in that limo -- and the other four, and the driver, spent the whole trip gabbling away in some nasal foreign tongue to which, having spent years studying Latin, I was not privy. I didn't know whether to be furiously angry at their lack of respect to the English language, insufferably arrogant because of their inability to converse in Latin, or terribly embarassed by my own linguistic impotence. In any case, a discreet silence seemed indicated.

That was my second personal interlinguistic experience, but -- alas! -- hardly my last. The next six months were an embarassement de richesse of linguistic anecdotes. There was the cute blonde shopgirl in Rotterdam who couldn't show me any English-language science-fiction because she couldn't understand my English-language request for it, although I had long supposed that everybody in the Netherlands spoke fluent English. There was the proud moment when I managed to make myself understood in very bad German to a customs official on a German train, converting this closet Nazi's officious frown to the friendly smile of an ordinary human being. There was the day in Copenhagen when two of my fellow AFS students ventured out into the Town Hall Square to practice their rudimentary Danish and were coldly informed by the first person they accosted that he "did not speak Norwegian." And there were my classmates in the second-year English class at Randers Stadtsskole who fondly believed that the highest level of good American English was to be found in that clear, elegant and typical American sentence: "Someone has pissed on my wheat bread." What this may mean, I have yet to determine.

Now I don't wish to suggest to the casual reader that English is not used at all in the part of Europe that I visited. Quite the contrary, it is probably more common along that stretch of maritime terrain running north from Oostende to Trondheim than anywhere else in the non-English-speaking world. Almost everybody in Holland, West Germany and the Scandinavian countries studies English in school, and, because of the need to use it in daily life, has at least some command of the spoken language. In his 1990 Maxwell Prize-winning essay, Mark Fettes writes:

Around 99% of Dutch high-school graduates have studied English as their main foreign language ... The visitor to The Netherlands soon recognizes the pressure of English on daily life: television, radio and the press carry it into every home and the schoolyard conversations of children; advertisers use it to spice up their message, journalists take refuge in it when they don't find the words in their native language. At times you can hear the extreme opinion that Dutch will yield the role of national language to English within two generations.(5)

In 1989, in fact, the Dutch Minister of Education and Science, J. Ritzen, introduced a plan to use English as the language of instruction in all Dutch universities.(6)

Almost everybody has some command of the spoken language... The operative expressions in this sentence, however, must be recognized to be almost and some. Almost everybody speaks some English is not at all the same as the simpler, and therefore more commonly used, phrase Everybody speaks English. The dominance of English in, for instance, Scandinavia is by no means absolute. In Randers, Denmark's fifth largest city, a meeting of the local chapter of the English-speaking Union in 1959 pulled about fifteen attendees -- fifteen English-speaking Danes out of a population of some tens of thousands, to listen to a young American civil servant pooh-pooh the presidential aspirations of an "empty-headed" young senator from Massachussetts named John F. Kennedy. Continuing his discussion of The Netherlands, Fettes, who has lived in cosmopolitan Rotterdam for five years, writes:

But to an English-speaker observing from the outside, all this seems superficial. The Dutch command of English is much more passive than it is active, so that they can understand films and texts, not produce them. ... The Dutch rock groups often sing in English, but Dutch actors do so only rarely and Dutch authors (of course!) never. The sales of Dutch translations from English-language originals far surpass those of the originals themselves.(7)

And an inquiry to the Dutch embassy in Great Britain about the plan mentioned above to introduce English as the language of instruction in Dutch universities brought the following response from the embassy's Press and Cultural Affairs Department: "I have the pleasure to inform you that such a plan will not be realized. Lessons will occur, as previously, in Dutch."(8)

This from the most Anglophone non-English-speaking country in the world!

Since my return from Denmark in 1960 I have had occasion to travel abroad several times -- four trips to continental Europe while I was stationed in the United Kingdom from 1968 to 1973, and a three-week trip to East China in 1986. I have had numerous contacts with citizens of countries around the world. Nowhere have I had reason to doubt the validity of the conclusions I drew from my experiences in Mexicali, Montréal and Northwestern Europe.

There is a whole, big, wide world out there. And for the most part it is not an English-speaking world.

If it isn't an English-speaking world, why do we automatically assume that it is?

Largely because we have been told that it is, over and over again. For instance, Robert MacNeil, the distinguished and respected PBS newscaster and commentator, assured us of this in the PBS series The Story of English. We were told so, in the title of the very first installment ("An English-Speaking World"). A quarter of the people in the world speak English, we were advised. Isn't this enough of a guarantee? If not, we have The Economist, telling us much the same thing in "The New English Empire." And columnist Neal Peirce, reviewing the MacNeil series in a column pushing California's 1986 English-only initiative -- which, no doubt by coincidence, was on the ballot during the period when the World English tide was at its peak -- warned us that, even as our society retreats from English, "the rest of the world is stampeding to it." Peirce, incidentally, upped the ante: he interpreted English's reputed one billion speakers as 40% of the world's five billion inhabitants. More recently, in a piece on English as the world language, the British magazine New Internationalist quoted a figure of 1.4 billion speakers of English.(9)

And while columnists and political commentators regale us with ten-digit figures for the number of speakers of English, genuine experts such as Prof. Sidney Culbert of the University of Washington, author for many years of the World Almanac and Book of Facts table of most-spoken languages, who throw cold water on our dreams of Richard Reeves' English Super-Empire with figures such as 437,000,000 speakers of English(10), are pointedly ignored by our opinion makers.

Yet even if we are to accept the figures given by MacNeil and other Anglophiles in their most optimistic form, we must then accept the corollary. If a quarter of the people of the world speak English, three-quarters do not. MacNeil and company must, in all honesty, admit that we still do not live in an English-speaking world.

The media sometimes convey the English-speaking nature of the world indirectly. An editorial in the New York Times several years ago referred, in another context, to the "fact" that "the average Russian has read many English-language books..." This is, of course, nonsense. Even the average Russian student of English has read not so much as one English-language book, just as his Russian-studying American counterpart has never read, and will never read, even one Russian-language book. He can't. But the implication is that every Russian speaks English, something many well-educated Americans take for granted.

This belief can be carried to the point of absurdity. When a Soviet soldier in Afghanistan attempted to defect to the American embassy in Kabul and was turned away because no one in the embassy was able to speak with him in Russian, one letter to the editor of the Oakland, California, Tribune attempted to cast doubt upon the veracity of the story on the grounds that no such communications gaffe could have occurred, since all Russians can speak English.

American government policy seems to be that this is, indeed, an English-speaking world, and let's not rock this comfortable boat. British government policy has been, at least in the past, more activist -- an understandable attitude when you realize that a non-negligible fraction of Britain's foreign trade is in English-language books published in that country and sold abroad. Britain is a leader in attempts to promote English throughout the world. After the Christmas insurrection in Romania, one of Britain's first offers of aid to the new government of that impoverished country was the sending of thousands of English-language books for the edification of the deprived citizenry (the books, I was assured by a Romanian native, would end up in the back stacks of local libraries, unread).(11) And British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd, during a 1990 visit to Poland, announced that the Thatcher government was launching a vigorous campaign to replace Russian with English as a common language for the Eastern European countries, as a step toward making English the global international language; the campaign would include sending English teachers to Polland and later to other East-European countries.(12) America's reaction to the language situation in Eastern Europe has been restrained, largely limited to the sending of a few Peace Corps members to Hungary to teach English; because of this, those Hungarians who want to have English taught have been reduced to sending teachers of other subjects abroad to learn a few months' worth of English and so qualify as teachers of English at home (13) -- the blind leading the blind, so to speak. In fact, about half of Hungary's former Russian teachers are switching not to English but to German, which many see as the coming language of Central Europe(14); the rest are divided between English and various Romance languages.

The following anecdote may illustrate the British government's attitude toward English and potential competitors. A good friend of mine, a Soviet emigré who for several years before his death in 1973 was a broadcaster for the BBC foreign service, once told me the following story of his own personal encounter with this official government attitude:

In the late 1960's he was responsible for a weekly half-hour newscast to Bulgaria. Somewhere along the line he conceived the idea of broadcasting in Esperanto as well as Russian. So for five minutes each week he would add news and/or commentary in Esperanto.

There was some response from Southeastern Europe, generally favorable. Letters to the BBC from Bulgaria indicated that those five minutes were well received. The technocrats at Bush House decided to leave well enough alone, and contented themselves with commending my friend on his initiative.

But -- a fact of which many Americans may not be aware -- the BBC is for all intents and purposes an arm of the British government, and when one congratulatory letter from Bulgaria wended its way to the then Foreign Secretary, he is reported to have hit the ceiling. "Esperanto the International Language?" he is said to have screamed. "English is the International Language!" And he phoned the BBC and ordered: "Cease and desist forthwith!" Which, of course, they did.(15)

Television is a major contributor to our impression that we live in an English-speaking world. Almost all interviews conducted outside the United States are in English. The suggestion, which may be unintentional, is that everybody speaks English. That we are looking at a "biased sample" is almost never apparent, given that most people are not even aware of what a biased sample is. I will have more to say on this point later.

Modern linguistics has done little to correct this impression of an English-speaking world. The older structural linguistics of the first half of the century was interested in languages; but since Chomsky's revolution of the late nineteen-fifties linguists seem more interested in Language the phenomenon than in Languages the phenomena. In this field I'm only a layperson, but I have the impression that modern linguists view Language as something which is, at base, identical for all humans, a biological function rather than a cultural accretion. So the linguist need study only one language to understand the functioning of all languages; and if it is necessary to study only one language, why not the one that is (a) most widespread, (b) most complex, and (c) for English-speaking linguists most accessible, namely, English? This attitude may be only a fashion in linguistics -- recent experiments by one Japanese linguist, which have not been well received by Western linguists of the new school, tend to indicate that the brains of speakers of languages with different structures may well function differently, à la the old Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- but it is a fashion with which we must contend.

But perhaps the most important contributing factor to this situation is the fact that we Americans live in what has historically been an exclusively English-speaking medium. That my first encounter with a non-English-speaker occurred as late as my early teens, and outside the United States, was no accident. There are, or were, few such people in Oregon -- or it may be that in my youth they were socially invisible. East and West of the United States lie vast oceans; to the north is another English-speaking power, as we prefer to perceive bilingual Canada, viewing the industrially advanced Québecois as an amusing cultural fossil irrationally attached to their own outdated language and culture; and to the south is a non-English-speaking nation with which we have historically interacted mainly in terms of bristling pseudo-hostility, occasionally sending in a few troops to "kick a little greaser ass."

The result of living in such a medium is that we take it for granted that everybody speaks English; in our limited environment, everybody does, at least until we happen to peruse any Southwestern edition of TV Guide.(16) Extrapolation from our local English-speaking neighborhood to the entire world is in line with the Principle of Uniformity, which has been the guiding light of Science since the end of the eighteenth century. This is usually a useful principle to follow, especially when information about the outside world is lacking. But applied to the world's linguistic situation it has led us, both as individuals and as a society, to a wrong conclusion.

The first question the reader may ask at this point is: So what? It would be nice of the entire world spoke English, but how am I affected if it doesn't? Let's take a look at the language problem and see how it affects you.

"The language problem" is a difficult term to define because it encompasses not just one single problem but an entire syndrome. The language problem of which we first become aware, the one we generally call the language problem, is the one that most commonly touches us personally and immediately. When you walk into a sidewalk shop in Vaduz, Lichtenstein, chances are that you are going to have a (very small, very temporary!) language problem. We all know the immediate solution to this problem: wave your arms and speak very loudly in English. It is a well-known fact that everybody will understand English if only you speak it loudly enough and gesticulate wildly enough.

Of course, if you travel with a tour group and have a competent tour guide to buffer you, such problems will be few and very far between. Many American tourists return stateside confirmed in their conviction that this is an English-speaking world; for them, it may well be -- an English-speaking world where you can use the language to buy an American hamburger in the Western-style coffee shop of every Hilton Hotel in every major city of that world.

Americans may be unaware that at least some others can see the world similarly in terms of their own languages. Japanese tourists who visit the United States in well-shepherded tour groups may well return to Japan believing that even in the United States you can always find someone who speaks Japanese. And I once met a Swiss tourist in Amsterdam who assured me (in French, which I sort of understood but to which I could only nod answers) that he would have no language problems during his upcoming visit to Boston, since everybody in New England speaks French!

A less obvious problem is one that most of us don't know about, even though it hits us right where we hurt -- in the pocketbook.

The United Nations uses six official languages, and must maintain a staff of translators and interpreters to handle all six of those languages -- in pairs. When enough interpreters are not available for a particular pair of languages -- e.g., Arabic and Chinese -- a relay system, via English or French (sometimes both!) is often used. This is not always a satisfactory situation. Ben Patterson, an English member of the European Parliament, quotes a case at the European Economic Community headquarters where such a system is also used, in which an Italian speaker told a joke and thirty seconds later, as he was discussing a recent death and funeral, the Danish contingent broke into uproarious laughter.(17) We may hope that Patterson's anecdote is apocryphal -- the context in which it is quoted suggests so -- but we can't count on it!

A 1976 report by the Joint Inspection Unit showed that at that time about ten percent of the U.N.'s entire budget goes for translation and interpretation facilities. This was, of course, an average over the entire U.N. family of organizations; some members spent far more. The International Civil Aviation Organization was the worst offender, spending 25% of its budget on language. This in a field which Anglophiles often advertise for its "exclusive use of English!" Jack Anderson and Joseph Spear once wrote that " the time it has been translated and printed, a single page of U.N. wisdom costs $558."(18) Because of the way in which the U.N. is financed, your taxes paid for about $140 of that wisdom.

But in this respect we are better off than the people of Western Europe. The European Economic Community spends about forty percent of its annual budget on language services for its ten official languages. Addition of one or two more languages to the community could lead to a major financial crisis. The question of language in Brussels is one of the major stumbling blocks on the way to the planned economic integration of the Community in 1992.

For a wealthy society such as our own, this particular language problem is, of course, more of a nuisance than a real problem. If the U.N. spends $100,000,000 per year on language services, our share works out to ten cents for every American man, woman and child. Still, it's a point worth considering. Consider, for instance, what that hundred million dollars a year could be used for if it were not going into interpretation and translation. If $100 per year of food supplement could make the difference between continual hunger and death by starvation for a small child, the costs of language at the United Nations in 1976 were killing some one million children every year. Today they may be killing twice that number.

If we could put a price tag on the language-determined portion of our annual trade deficit, we might find that the cost to us was considerably higher.

The Japanese, it is said, have several thousand trained English speakers functioning as business representatives in New York alone. We have about only a few hundred trained Japanese-speakers in Japan. How much of our inability to crack the Japanese marketplace is due to our inability to convince the people in that marketplace to buy our goods, simply because of our inability to speak to them? According to Michael Armacost, our Ambassador to Japan, in Tokyo "the linguistic barrier, in many respects, is the most formidable obstacle to a smoother economic relationship."(19)

The Chevy Caribe was a hot seller in Latin America. But for three years before it was renamed Caribe, it did not sell at all south of the border. It took that long for someone to figure out that Nova -- our word for an exploding star -- in Spanish sounds like no va -- "it doesn't go." How many sales were lost due to that simple failure of somebody to realize that not everybody out there speaks English?

When China was opened to Western trade, one of the first companies to dive into that huge potential market was Coca-Cola -- whose cans for some time went out carrying four glyphs that meant "Bite the wax tadpole!" Why did it take so long for someone to figure out that this was a linguistic blunder?

If we conservatively attribute only ten percent of our current trade deficit to the language problem, that comes to about $10 billion -- in our previous terms $40 for every man, woman and child in the United States -- in a good year.

How can we put a dollar price on ignorance?

I'm not talking about the ignorance that comes from dropping out of school at age fourteen, or the ignorance that accompanies a basic biological inability to learn. I'm talking about the ignorance that derives from the lack of an unbiased information flow between societies -- a form of ignorance that affects dropouts and college professors alike, the sort of ignorance that leads to mistrust, hate and war. I'm talking about the ignorance that comes from the inability of people from one part of the world to talk directly with people from another part. I'm talking about the ignorance that led to Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, Desert Storm. In short, I'm talking about what may be the most pernicious aspect of the language problem.

As an example of how this sort of ignorance can directly affect us, let me cite the Mariel Boat Lift of 1980. For a short time the government of Cuba permitted, even encouraged, its disaffected citizens to depart the country for the Promised Land 90 miles to the north. Thousands of Cuban citizens swarmed into Florida, turning much of that state into a Spanish-speaking enclave -- and incidentally encouraging the citizenry of Dade County, in reaction, to pass what may be the first English-only statute in the history of the United States.

On American television we saw and heard interviews with these fugitives and learned that they were, for the most part, participants in a mass middle-class exodus from Cuba: every doctor, lawyer and Indian chief in the entire nation was abandoning the evils of Communism and coming to America, the home of opportunity, freedom and two cars in every garage.

That was what we were shown. American television, of course, was selecting a biased sample -- those Cubans who spoke English, often upper-class individuals who had close ties to America before the current regime came down out of the Sierra Maestra. Those who didn't speak English were not shown -- a half-hour news show doesn't have time to waste on clips of interpreters at work, at least not when a few English speakers are available; it may make exceptions for the Mikhail Gorbachevs of the world, but not for every lower-class Tom, Dique y Jarri. This is normal procedure, and is not done deliberately to convince us that everybody speaks English. That is just a side effect.

Mexican television suffered from no such restriction; the Mexicans share a common language with the Cubans. So Mexicans -- and Spanish-speaking Americans along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, with access to Mexican TV stations -- got a slightly different view of the Marielites. They knew that the boat lift consisted not only of middle-class political and economic refugees, but also of the sweepings of Cuba's prisons and mental institutions, that America was being invaded by a highly disorganized corps of criminals, murderers and sociopaths. But since this non-English-speaking element was part of the non-English-speaking majority of immigrants, and was -- for English speakers -- camouflaged by the small English-speaking middle-class minority, the average American never saw it at all -- not until it began to pop up across the country in America's cities, from Miami to Los Angeles.

This linguistic "filtering" of information plays the same role for our society that governmental restrictions and censorship do in many other countries. We pride ourselves on being an "open" society as opposed to nations such as (for example) Albania, whose governments put formal restrictions on the flow of information. But just how "open" are we? How often do you, the reader of these words, hear information from elsewhere that has not been filtered through the government, a news service, or a television network? Answer: if you are a monoglot speaker of English, you have virtually no direct access to news from the non-English-speaking world.(20)

This consideration is particularly important today, when there is so much discussion, after the events of 1989 and 1990 in Central and Eastern Europe, of a "new world order." One of the bases of a democratic society is the uninhibited lateral flow of information among the citizenry. On a global scale, language differences can only inhibit this flow of information. Under such conditions, any "new world order" cannot possibly be democratic in nature; the best we can hope for is a militarily enforced pax Americana. A global democratic society can function only with the help of a single global language. And today there is no such language.

We could address other aspects of the language problem. But perhaps it's time to take a look at some possible solutions. That will be the goal of our next chapter.


(1) Tarzan's Swahili-English Dictionary, Tarzan's Ape-English Dictionary, from Tarzan Jungle Annual, New York: Dell Comics, various dates.
(2) Burroughs, Edgar Rice: Tarzan and the Lost Empire.
(3) It is worth noting that in 1986, in Beijing, China, I was in a busload of Esperanto speakers that was misdirected to a Catholic church whose priest spoke only Chinese and Latin. Regrettably, no one on the bus, including me, could dredge up enough words of schoolboy Latin to explain our problem; we finally communicated with him via my friend Qian Minqi, who was on the bus.
(4) It would be a shame if the child could not go at least one step beyond the parents. I have learned enough Spanish from my (Mexican-born) wife that when three ladies, apparently Jehovah's Witnesses, appeared on my doorstoop thirty-six hours ago as I write this and asked for "la señora de la casa", I was able to reply, smoothly and with great sophistication: "No está aquí ... perdoname, por favor ... no hablo Español ..." (She's not here ... please excuse me ... I don't speak Spanish...)
(5) Fettes, Mark: Al unu lingvo por Eŭropo? La estonteco de la eŭropa Babelo ("Towards One Language for Europe? The Future of the European Babel"). Rotterdam: UEA, 1991 (Esperanto version, translated from English by the author). pp 6-7.
(6) Monato, Feb. 1990, p. 20.
(7) Op. cit., p. 7.
(8) Monato, Apr. 1990, p. 5, letter from Norman Ingle.
(9) Stalker, Peter: "Language Lives," in New Internationalist, Jan. 1989.
(10) Hoffman, Mark S. (ed.): The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1990. New York: Newspaper Enterprise Association, Inc., 1989. P. 806.
(11) Ionel Onet, personal communication.
(12) Monato, June 1990, p. 6.
(13) Prof. Gyöngyi Selyem, personal communication.
(14) Reported in Die Welt, Mar. 12, 1991.
(15) Cf. Large, Andrew: The Artificial Language Movement, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985, for a somewhat sanitized variant of the same anecdote.
(16) Cf. a recent letter from Paul McCracken complaining about the number (four) of foreign-language channels available on Viacom Cable in the northeast Bay Area: West County Times, May 15, 1995.
(17) Breckon, Bill: "The European Parliament -- a New Babel," in The Listener, Feb. 19, 1981; quoted in Auld, William: La Fenomeno Esperanto ("The Esperanto Phenomenon"), Rotterdam: Universala Esperanto-Asocio, 1988, p. 15.
(18) Washington Post, Oct. 7, 1986.
(19) Michael Armacost, commencement address at The College of Wooster, Ohio, May 13, 1991.
(20) For the provincialism of American news programs, see e.g. Ertl, István, "Malfunde de la fandujo granda" ("At the top of the great melting pot"), Esperanto U.S.A., 1991(1), p. 8.

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