Friday, February 24, 2012

Software idealists and language idealists - do they promote a similar kind of freedom at the end?

The Free Software movement, since its foundation in 1983 by Richard Stallman, has courageously been defending people's digital freedoms, stressing the value of helping communities and making a very hard software development work to provide us with a completely free operating system. "Free" not necessarily in the sense of free of charge, gratis, but rather, free as in the Italian word "libero" or French "libre". That is packed with universal ethical values that are worth much more than mere technology.

So when it comes to software we have a choice, GNU/Linux, a universal operating system and a lot of software applications that are ours and not controlled by a single company or imposed by commercial lobbies.
We cannot say the same for the universal, international language. Yep, we have English as the dominant lingua franca, which is dictated, so that you can compare it to Windows but, what's even worse, we are currently left with no viable alternative for global communication.

Language rights should be a fundamental part of basic human rights and this domination of English has become an unsettling ethical problem.

Everybody should object the choice of English as bridge language, since better alternatives could be developed or already exist. No natural language should prevail against others and be adopted for such a very specific role of "vehicular language". Even Esperanto, a "constructed language", seems to me to be too old, not so simple as we'd want and above all, too biased in favour of Europeans. E.g. Asians find it quite difficult and Chinese too, unless they already know English or French. By comparison, Lojban, is much more neutral, easier to learn for everybody in the world, including Asians and even apt to computer processing.

It seems there is a sort of English imperialism that is demoting both constructed and other natural languages. I believe the reason why the US has been pushing English is because of a will to dominate. One may agree or not with my view, but it is a fact that there's a big
business behind English teaching and certification, managed by the UK and the US only, and the choice of English as a bridge language clearly gives an unfair advantage to all English native speakers. As a result, most people whose language is very different from English, have to make a huge effort to learn it well, since it is required to access international higher education or to get a better job, even in their home countries where English is just a second language! And because of that they cannot find time to study any other language.

E.g. I can tell you about the situation here in Italy. Tuition of English is imposed starting from primary school and has completely replaced Latin both in compulsory junior high school and all technical secondary schools. The usual justification for this is: "Latin is a dead language and no more important, unless you want to become a bookworm". But this is untrue because Latin is deeply linked to our history, art and culture. It also helps to develop strong logical skills, especially in young pupils and enables a better understand and use of our national language - Italian - and all other Romance languages too. I'm not saying that Latin should be studied by everybody in the world, or become again the lingua franca in lieu of English (as it was until the 17th century in Western Europe). But certainly it should be studied by almost all Italians, since our language has been distilled from Latin by the genius of Dante Alighieri.

But here's another example: German, which is the most spoken language in Europe, is completely neglected in our schools, despite its commercial importance and immense cultural heritage.

I'm probably one of the many language idealists, dreaming a free - free as in freedom - universal language. One that could be defined and developed collaboratively by linguists and enthusiasts, in a process open to peer reviews and with no influence of any political and economic factor. It should enable people to communicate easily and effectively, powering the semantic web of the future.

Unfortunately this dream looks quite hopeless, even though we would have all means to make it come true, the most important one being the Internet. Governments are certainly not going to promote anything like that on their own initiative. Most of them are going in the opposite direction of promoting only English for reasons that are neither clear nor clean. A few states, like Hungary, have assumed nationalistic positions against English, but without proposing a constructive alternative, showing they aren't any better and do not really understand the problem.

Moreover, it is very difficult to educate masses to recognize the importance of a neutral and easy language and to not be content with learning a bit of English. It's no use knowing a second language badly as most people know English here in Europe, without ever achieving full command of it. But it's not their fault because English is really too complicated for them.

I believe that freedom in languages is required as much as in software to achieve the best "technical" results, to make people happy and to not enslave them. Software is certainly more subject to modification than languages, but languages are never static in time too. An auxiliary language that is used for such crucial evolving areas as science, technology, education and the Internet needs to be continually developed and refined too, just like a successful computer program.

I know the four basic freedoms of software cannot be applied literally to freedom in languages, but other kinds of freedoms, equally important to people can be easily found. For example "free" in the context of languages can mean "culture free", "neutral", "open" and even "free of complexity", that is to say "easy to learn and use".

With free software you are not held in hostage by a company, with a free language you are not subjected to a culture and can communicate as an equal. There would be no divide between rich and poor, between North and South of the world, and those who can afford English tuition and those who cannot, because the language can be made so easy that you can learn it by yourself. Because of this, I believe it would be a good idea to collaboratively develop a "free" language as it has been to develop a free operating system like GNU/Linux or a free encyclopaedia like Wikipedia.

I know there have already been some attempts to do that, but they all failed, for many complex reasons, both technical, sociological and organizational. I personally don't mind about business, but it's a really bitter pill to swallow that we can't have an easy universal language to facilitate education and information. I'm thinking about all poor children that do not speak English fluently, cannot afford the cost and effort to learn it well just and need a universal language to access the mare magnum of information found on the Internet, which could help them to snap out of their condition of poverty. What we are doing now with English is to put another big stumbling block to choke off any poor children's attempt of development from the very beginning.

I think the problem has never been addressed directly by the Internet community, relying on the non-solution of simply using English. This "language problem" still needs to be solved really, for the Internet to reach its full potential and be beneficial to everyone.

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Bill Chapman said...

You wrote 'Even Esperanto, a "constructed language", seems to me to be too old, not so simple as we'd want and above all, too biased in favour of Europeans.'

I must say that I don't see things that way at all. Esperanto is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, but it has a youthful dynamic speaker population. I see no bias at all in favour of Europeans. I have spokewn Esperanto in South America and Africa with no difficulties. It is true that some of the basic vocabulary is Euiropean - the words had to come from somewhere - but the way in which wordsd can be combined is very much non-European.

I'm lucky to be a native speaker of English, but on my travels over the years, I've found it not as widel;y used as people think.

With good wishes and congratulations on your fine English.

Farmboy said...

Hi Bill,
thanks for your comment. I didn't want to criticise Esperanto at all. Being both Italian and a firm language idealist, I just love it and would be happy if it replaced English as an international language.

My English is good only because I have studied it for many years and lived in Edinburgh for more than one year too, but I don't want to promote English in any way, just because I happen to know it. It wouldn't be fair.

Think I'm gonna study Physics in Germany, but since my German is not very good and there's not enough time to improve it, I'm forced to study in English, although I don't like it and will change ASAP.

It's really a pity that Esperanto is not as widely spoken as English. Of course, this has nothing to do with Esperanto itself, it is just the result of this shameful English imperialism that demoted Esperanto as well as any other simple conlang. That's the point. And it isn't easy to reverse the situation in favour of Esperanto now, with so few Esperanto speakers. Esperanto, like many other conlangs, is rarely taught to children. Only English is. We are overwhelmed by English.

I think the only way we can snap out of it is by collaboratively developing a new conlang. For the first time in history, we would be exploiting the power of the Internet to connect people and ease working on shared projects to create an artificial language. The same Internet that unexpectedly helped the widespread of English!

That is, if linguists and language enthusiasts from all over the world met up and worked together online, the most neutral and easy-for everybody constructed language could be devised. Certainly not perfect, no single language can be absolutely perfect even if it meets all its goals. There's always one way to do it. But at least it would be the result of a common effort that couldn't be ignored. Once people would began to use it to produce information on the Internet itself, its spread couldn't be stopped. Governments, universities, schools couldn't ignore it.

If Internet can produce its own technical standards collaboratively (e.g. think of the RFC, the Request For Comments), why can't we do the same for the Internet lingua franca? Aren't a million heads better than one when they work together? GNU/Linux and Wikipedia clearly show that's true.

We, language idealists, should stop any quarrel or discussion between us, whether to promote Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, etc., because none of them will ever have enough strength to replace English.

We should instead set out together to develop and promote a new single standard, which draws upon all features and experiences of pre-existent conalgs, but it is a real product of globalization, in the good sense of this term.

In my opinion this is the only way a conlang could really take in the world, if produced by the Internet, for the Internet itself.