Saturday, August 5, 2017

English language and American solipsism

Several months ago Simon Kuper published what seemed to me a bizarre piece in the weekend edition of the Financial Times arguing that native English speakers are handicapped by the fact that the entire world (or to be more realistic, the global middle and ruling classes) are able to read or speak English. This gave to the latter the advantage of fully understanding English speakers, their opinions, prejudices and motivations, while taking away all incentive for the native English speakers to learn foreign languages (why bother, if everyone speaks your language) and thus to understand and influence other cultures that still conduct most of their bread-and-butter business using national languages.

What I found odd in Kuper’s piece was that it reversed the normal and long-standing view that having foreigners learn your language was always a mark of cultural or technological superiority, that it entrenched that superiority, and  was therefore a very desirable thing. Greece influenced Romans through their love and awe of the Greek language (what Gibbon called “the perfect idiom”), and thus transmitted its culture and way of thinking.  It is not for nothing that such diverse emperors as Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius and Julian were Hellenophiles, often more at ease in Greek than in the rather coarse Latin. (I am writing this some 200 meters from the Hadrian’s Gate in Athens.)

The advantage of having others speak your language was always taken as a fact: it helps your culture, religion or trade, as we see among the French-speaking elites in the Middle East, English-speaking elites in the Indian subcontinent, or most of Africa. World-wide expansions of Christianity and Islam are unthinkable without cosmopolitanism of, at first, Greek language, and then Latin, English and French; for Islam, Arabic. The US gains from foreigners speaking English are immense: domination in the popular culture, media and book worlds, easy propagation of American ideas in politics, philosophy, sciences or economics. Such advantages have led the philosopher Philippe van Parijs to argue that, as a matter of justice, native English speakers should compensate non-native English speakers for the “unearned” advantage they (the speakers) enjoy.

So, how can such obvious advantages become a handicap? While disagreeing with Kuper, there was, in my mind even then, a slight doubt, that perhaps in some cases he might be right. And I think that an argument can be made for it. “Cultural solipsism “ of  native English speakers is exacerbated by everybody’s speaking their language, tolerably well (as I do here). This then reinforces a very human tendency toward intellectual laziness where one communicates only with the people who speak English and learns everything about the country one travels to, or more seriously, on which she works or writes about from English-language sources or English-speaking natives. This is bound to give a very truncated view of reality.

I was struck by observing native English speakers', who actually do speak foreign languages, indifference to native-language media sources in the countries where they lived. Some of them might have spent a decade or more living in X, speaking even its language, without bothering much to read the news in local language or engaging in more demanding intellectual intercourse in that language.

It was brought to me again when a couple of days ago I watched, in my hotel room, a Russian political talk show where a clearly smart and somewhat insolent host discussed with a number of guests the current US-Russia relations.  The loquacious host dictated the structure of the show, and to represent the US point of view, he invited an American journalist working in Moscow. His Russian was passable and I even think that he could conduct a real conversation in Russian in a one-on-one setting. But in a fast-paced talk show where he did not control other speakers and people were interrupting each other, his attempts to make a point were nothing short of pathetic. (I vaguely thought that he might have been deliberately brought for that reason too.) Showing that he lived, even in Moscow, in an entirely Anglo world, he referred to Montenegro (in the context of NATO expansion) as “Montenegro”, not as “Cherna Gora” as it is called in Russian. That to me indicated that he was not reading or watching Russian media discussing NATO, but was probably learning about  Russia's reaction  from the reading of American papers and a few conversations with local English-speaking Russians. Exactly the thing that a foreign correspondent should not do.

I could go with such examples for a long time, since in my travels I have seen them aplenty. As for example, the discussion of the Russian revolution in Moscow where some of the most famous Western historians did not feel confident enough to speak in Russian in front of a 99% Russian audience (some of whom had to resort to listening to translation). I thought that it would be rather odd if a Frenchman who wrote a book on US Revolutionary War decided, at a conference on the topic held in the United States, to speak in…French. Or I remember a famous medieval Greek and Byzantine historian who asked for even ordinary information in Athens only in English. Or a Western ambassador who in the middle of the Bosnian civil war kept on pronouncing the name of a city where the battle then raged as it was (wrongly)  pronounced in Washington, not in Sarajevo. And I do not need to expand on people who know not a bit of the language of the country on which they write but nonetheless bravely pen compendia of common places which proceed to win prizes in the Anglo world.

Thus Kuper’s piece, while in some respects extreme, did contain some truth. The ubiquitousness of English language has stimulated intellectual laziness by making native English speakers less likely to make an effort to learn foreign languages. And even when they do learn them, to use them mostly to hire taxis and read restaurant menus, and not to engage with the language and culture of the country which they are supposed to know and to write about. It has led them to live, even in places thousands of miles far from the United States, and culturally entirely different, in a bubble of the ideas generated by the Anglo-American media, to believe only in such ideas, and to reinforce the solipsism which has always been strong in well integrated, big and geographically isolated nations like the United States.

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