10. The problem of the present generation

No Ease for the Adult Learner—His Two Alternatives—Phonetization of the International Language—Correcting Basic Errors—The New vs. the Old Generation

All that has been said in the previous chapter is fine for the children, for those who are being born as we write, or who are about to be born. Their problem of world communications will be easily and painlessly solved. But what of the present generation, of those who have achieved adulthood and are beyond the reach of formal education?

This is the true crux of the situation, the shoal on which all past attempts to achieve a world language have been wrecked. In each century, from the seventeenth to the present, the adults of each generation have behaved as if the problem concerned themselves, and themselves alone. They have utterly refused to view it in the light of future world history.

Each time the magic word "ease" has been mentioned, it has been invested with a highly emotional semantic charge. To each speaker who uttered it, to each listener who heard it, to each reader who read it, "ease" has meant "what is easy to me, and to me alone."

Not one, but two facets of subjectivity have been uppermost. On the narrower plane, each world-language planner has thought of the international language in terms of something that would be easy to learn, easy to assimilate, by himself, and at his existing, adult level. To a grownup raised in an English or Romance tradition, with an English or Romance language at his disposal, something based on Latin, Greek, English, and the Romance languages is relatively easy, since it falls in with his pre-established language concepts, with the language he speaks and those he is likely to have acquired in the course of his education. Anything else is correspondingly difficult.

But apart from that, the adult is accustomed, sad though it may be to have to confess it, to going about the business of learning languages in the hard way. From the time he entered high school and began to take up, as one of his school chores, the study of French, Spanish, Latin, German, or whatever else he might choose, he became accustomed to viewing language learning as an exercise in mastering grammatical rules, in memorizing a vocabulary, in translating from the language he already knew into the language he was trying to acquire. This, needless to say, colors all of his thinking about languages and the learning of languages. It is difficult for him to view the international language as anything but the same school chore, the same weary process of deliberate study and drill.

Yet the success of the international language demands that it be imparted, from earliest childhood, by perfectly natural methods, by hearing and speaking and repeating—in short, by precisely the same process by which one learns one's own native tongue. On the whole, this can be successfully done only by children.

The adult, who views the international language as something primarily designed for himself, shrinks from the simplicity of this solution which is designed to work with absolute certainty for the world's future generations, but threatens to leave him out in the cold. The old, familiar, petulant query "But what about me?" rings from every side whenever such a solution is mentioned. Selfishly, the adult seeks a solution which will work easily for himself, a language that will be easy to learn by the old traditional language-learning methods, and that will coincide as largely as possible with his own set language habits. He therefore seeks a simplified grammar, forgetting that all grammars are simple to those who acquire their functioning from childhood; and an international vocabulary, forgetting that in a world in which there are so many languages of so many different types, no vocabulary can be internationally familiar to all.

In this breathless quest for ease, simplicity, and interna-tionality, the generations succeed one another, and nothing is accomplished. The international language is always a mirage, just beyond arm's reach.

"That is easy which is familiar." But what is familiar to one is not necessarily familiar to another. It is amazing to what degree this type of utterly subjective thinking prevails, even in scholarly linguistic circles. A great name in the field of the development of the Romance languages, for instance, states that it is inconceivable that illiterate Roman soldiers and Gaulish peasants, in the days of the Roman Empire, could have spoken Latin, with its case-endings and verb-endings. My learned colleague thinks that because he had difficulty in learning the Latin declensions and conjugations when he first entered high school, the soldiers and peasants of the early Christian era encountered the same difficulties. He forgets that in the present-day world there are populations that were until recently largely illiterate, like those of Russia and Lithuania, yet which speak languages having case-endings and verb-endings just as complex (to us of the west) as those of Latin. The point is that the illiterate Romans and Gauls did not learn these inflectional forms as paradigms out of a grammar; they learned them in set contexts at their mothers' knees, and thereafter used them automatically in the same contexts. An illiterate Russian peasant (if any are left in these days of enlightenment) will correct the foreigner using a wrong case-form, though he will be utterly unable to tell him the grammatical reason why, or, for that matter, tell him the name of the case that should be used. But he will tell him "This is the way to say it, because this is the way we have always said it."

If the international language ever gets to be properly viewed as something primarily designed for the future generations, what will be the role of the existing adults?

Shorn of their selfish desire to have things in the way to which they are accustomed, they will be faced with a double choice. They can either learn the international language in the only way in which they, as adults, can learn it—the old, traditional way of grammar, vocabulary, and translation, aided, however, by the most modern methodology that we now have at our disposal, a methodology that stresses the spoken and conversational aspect of language; or they can live out their lives in blissful monolingual unconcern, since the existing languages will continue in full national use throughout the world for years, and even centuries, far beyond the normal life expectancy of any individual living today.

If they select the first alternative, they can attend up-to-date adult classes where the international language will be taught, in precisely the same fashion that adults attend classes in French, or German, or Russian, or any foreign language. They will not learn the new language as easily, or as painlessly, as their own children who will be acquiring it in kindergarten or elementary school, but they will learn it as well as they could learn any tongue at the adult stage.

If they choose to ignore the international tongue, no one need object. It will be some decades before the international language begins to make serious inroads upon the national tongues, and in the course of those decades many of the current generation will retire or die. But as the people unequipped with the world tongue gradually disappear from the world's scene, their place will be taken by their own children, who will speak, fluently, easily, and naturally, not only their own native tongue, but a tongue common to the entire world as well.

Does this mean that we are to be totally unconcerned with the problem of ease in connection with the international tongue?

As we have seen, while there is no intrinsic ease or difficulty in spoken languages, there is definite inherent ease in the correspondence of the written with the spoken tongue. This means that whatever tongue is chosen, natural or constructed, it must be phonetically spelled. Constructed tongues generally are. Natural, national tongues generally are not. This in turn means that if the choice falls upon a national language, like English or French, that language must be ruthlessly phonetized for international purposes.

In other respects, the question of ease does not exist. Rather, there is a question of general preference. If the representatives of the majority of the world's peoples betoken a preference for one language, or type of language, there is no reason why this preference should not dictate the ultimate choice. Perfection has never been a characteristic of language, and it is useless to seek it. Natural languages, such as English or Russian, are far from perfect, yet they serve their purpose.

The quest for perfection and ease is the foe, not the auxiliary, of the international language. It is the thing that has caused wide rifts in the ranks of those who have given serious attention to the problem, and has broken them up into conflicting schools, each working at cross-purposes with the rest. What the world needs is not a perfect, or an easy, world language. It is simply a world language.

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