Logo de l'OEP


The time of plurilingualism

Last Updated: 19 Oct 2019

The Roman Empire was not monolingual, but bilingual, because the Roman elites discovered the full value of the Greek culture and language from which they drew their inspiration. Everyone knows Gargantua's letter to Pantagruel in Chapter 8 of Rabelais’ Pantagruel in which Gargantua, before even listing the long list of fundamental knowledge to be acquired in the sciences, arts, law, history and religions, wrote to his son in these terms: "I intend and want you to learn languages perfectly: first Greek, as Quintilian wants it, then Latin, and then Hebrew for the Holy Letters, and Shaldaic and Arabic similarly; and you to shape your style in the imitation of Plato, as far as the Greek language is concerned and in the imitation of Cicero, as regards Latin, ".

We probably know less about Diderot's recommendations to Empress Catherine II in his Memoirs for Catherine II, Diderot who, in the Encyclopedia, condemned the curriculae of the French university of his time which, remaining true to a medieval and "Gothic" tradition, was based on Latin, Greek, rhetoric and Aristotelian logic1. He had planned three levels in education. Simply "the capacity to read well and to write well for the first level and a little arithmetic; the second level will allow a better knwledge of science and logic; the third "leads to the state of a scientist". One will learn: « the Russian language by principle, the Latin language, the Greek language, the Italian, English and German languages" (p. 662). This is the linguistic space of the Europe of Enlightenment".2

A revolutionary opening, in his Project for a university, Diderot considers that "A university is a school whose door is open indiscriminately to all the children of a nation, and where masters stipulated by the State initiate them to the elementary knowledge of all sciences" (p. 749)... Is it worth recalling that Diderot wrote at a time when Educationwas reserved for the privileged and was essentially provided by members of a religious order? »

Have things changed today, when English seems to dominate everywhere? In reality, some fundamentals are unchanged. When it comes to languages, the elite is always plurilingual In the ancient times we have just mentioned, the educational ideal was first aimed at the upper classes, and the new idea that emerged from the end of the 17th century, taken up by Diderot and Condorcet a few years before the French Revolution, was that education could reach all the social classes. But the idea is then more to democratize an elite or aristocratic model than to provide second-rate education.

The unifying thread of this, plurilingualism from ancient times to the present day, is the appetite for knowledge linked to the ability to gain access to the original works in various languages, which is very far removed from the very modest ambitions of modern education. For modern education learning foreign languages has no objective of knowledge at all, it is simply to give oneself the means to get by almost anywhere in the world with a minimal linguistic knowledge. This is what the concept of "English of International Communication" means, that is, if we want to free ourselves from hackneyed a language that sounds like English but is not English.

In fact, it reduces language teaching, in this case English, to very little.
This reduction of language to a communication tool is a constant feature of educational programs to this day and has been widely used for decades by many linguists. Unfortunately, it is based on a misconception.

Chomsky3, who is not especially expected in this field, sets the record straight in What kind of creatures are we4, stating that "languages are not tools designed by human beings, but biological objects in the same way as the visual or digestive systems. "and to follow on to the "concept of communication" which "is largely devoid of substantial meaning and serves as a generic term for various forms of social interaction". It therefore plays "a role - albeit a minor one - in the concrete use of language", but the essential thing is that this dogma of language having a communication function "has no basis in itself, and there is now sufficient evidence to think that it is simply false. Language is certainly sometimes used for communication, as are clothing styles, facial expression, posture and many other things. However, the fundamental properties of linguistic architecture confirm the teachings of a rich philosophical tradition for which language is essentially an instrument of thought5". Chomsky thus follows in the footsteps of Vico, Leibniz, Humboldt and many others6. To go even further in the formulation, Chomsky considers that "there is no reason to doubt the fundamental Cartesian idea that the use of language has a creative dimension". In fact, Descartes had not invented anything and was only making available to his contemporaries the idea enclosed entirely in the word "poetry" derived from the ancient Greek ποίησις (poiesis), the verb ποιεῖν (poiein) meaning "to do, to create".

This purely instrumental conception of languages, which predominates both in education and in the whole general culture, where the linguistic fact is dramatically absent, is likely to shake all motivation among children and young people as well as among their teachers.

We remember a major national debate on Education that took place between September 2003 and March 2004. It is symptomatic to note that in the 550-page report published under the title "Les Français et leur École", modern languages did not appear in the fundamental learning and that only 3 lines devoid of interest on page 380 were devoted to modern languages.

It is therefore not surprising that in 15 years no serious progress has been made in language learning, neither in France nor in most European countries.

If we take the programme of modern languages for the second year of high school, under the stamp of the Conseil supérieur des programmes, we discover a surprising preamble:

"The globalization of exchanges, the strengthening of the cultural and linguistic diversity of societies and the development of electronic communication make the role of modern languages even more fundamental today. To participate fully in these economic, social and cultural developments and to integrate into today's world with confidence and without apprehension, it is essential that French pupils achieve sufficient fluency in modern languages, particularly in the field of oral communication. »

You can deduct that languages, whether it be the mother tongue or foreign languages, play a role in the formation of the mind, in the discovery and construction of a true culture.

A minor reservation however, in the third paragraph: "Just as a matter of priority, while consolidating his or her linguistic and communication skills, the student deepens his or her knowledge of the geographical and cultural areas of the languages he or she is learning in high school, and opens up to new worlds and spaces through a presentation free of stereotypes and prejudices. »

But we can see that this is indeed a false priority and lifeless knowledge, because it is a matter of adapting to a world on which none of us have the power to act. The question is never raised to ask whether language is a freedom and a power.

Clearly, issuing a certification in language is little more than the equivalent of a driving licence, both essential and derisory at the same time. Too bad it can't be bought, because if it were possible, we could dispense with the expenses of a training course.

The devaluation of languages obviously goes hand in hand with a fascination for English and a neglect of other languages. Even if the extreme polarization on English contributes to reducing more than broadening the field of vision on the world and reinforcing a supremacy that is only too prevalent.

Indeed, if a certification in English is equivalent to a driving licence, it is quite normal for families to swear only by English.

The attractiveness of English is the application of an anthropological law problematized by Pierre Frath7, in the line of Jean Calvet's gravitational model of languages8. It is a law that has always worked and is working particularly well today all over the world in all linguistic contexts9. The challenge is to ensure a better future for oneself and one's children and to raise oneself socially. This is the real driving force behind the language preference for English, as it is behind the disappearance of so many languages in the world.

This idea is also based on a postulate which is wrong.

In countries where, in the middle of the last century, the level of secondary schooling was still quite low and language learning still concerned only relatively well-off groups, it is understandable that English has attracted attention and that as education became more democratic, other languages have seen their position decline rapidly, particularly in France where many languages were available.

It is surprising that this unadulterated preference for English continues to this day. Because the world has changed.

From the last European Conference on Plurilingualism held in Bucharest in May 2019, we learned from the testimony of several companies that public opinion is far behind the companies themselves. For them, the question of English is outdated. Of course, it is important to have a good command of English, especially as you move up the hierarchy. But the linguistic need is not limited to English, it depends on the territories, customers and partners. Moreover, the question is not strictly a linguistic one. The desired competence is also cultural. It is necessary to understand the values involved, behaviours, hierarchical relationships, negotiation, etc. And knowledge of English from this point of view is not enough at all. The real "elites" know all this very well but do not brag about it.

It should also be noted that the language competence has an economic impact, both from the point of view of the company's performance and from the individual's point of view, as one cannot go without the other. The lack of knowledge of English is often a handicap for recruitment and career development, but plurilingualism is a much stronger asset than English alone. A good command of a second language immediately gives the advantage over the single one. English is not an asset, but its lack of knowledge is a handicap on the labour market. It is from this point of view that the analogy with a driving licence makes sense.

While learning English alone is similar to the school of the poor, many parents still see English as a lifeline for their children, a guarantee of social advancement when it is a way to avoid exclusion.

It is therefore necessary to combat the prejudice of the « all-English » language. But Einstein would have said that it is more difficult to disintegrate a prejudice than an atom.

So, hammering, hammering untiringly the right and simple ideas, giving them the best possible dressing, diverting simplistic marketing arguments towards more noble goals, this is perhaps the only thing we are able to do...

But above all, we must understand and make people understand: Plurilingualism is much better than the « all-English », because plurilingualism is a poetic conception, in the sense of the ancients, creative, we would say today, of politics, the economy and society.

1Article Collège de l’Encyclopédie (p. 752).

2Didier Béatrice. Quand Diderot faisait le plan d'une université. In: Recherches sur Diderot et sur l'Encyclopédie, n°18-19, 1995. pp. 81-91; doi : https://doi.org/10.3406/rde.1995.1292, https://www.persee.fr/doc/rde_0769-0886_1995_num_18_1_1292, p.88.

3Nous citons Chomsky en raison de sa célébrité, mais il n’est pas seul.

4Quelle sorte de créatures sommes-nous, Noam Chomsky, 2016, Lux, p. 27 à 29, édition originale What kind of creatures are we, Columbia university press.

5On peut regretter les termes « instrument de la pensée » ou « instrument of thought » dans la mesure où Chomsky met en cause la conception strictement insrumental du langage qui prédomine très largement de nos jours dans toutes les enceintes, depuis les sphères universiatires jusqu’à l’opinion publique. Sans doute est-ce le résultat d’une simple difficulté de formulation. Leibniz a eu l’idée que la langue est « un milieu », ce que ne peut renier Humboldt pour qui « le monde (extérieur et intérieur) nous est donné par le langage, il nous est toujours donné par une langue déterminée ». Point de vue que Chomsky reprend à son compte en citant Humboldt : « chose assez particulière, le langage fait face à un domaine dépourvu de la moindre limite, qui contitue l’essence même de ce qui peut être pensé. », d° p.16-17.

6 p. 27 à 29

7Le sujet anthropologique dans le choix des langues, http://www.res-per-nomen.org (à paraître)

8CALVET, Louis-Jean, 1999, Pour une écologie des langues du monde, Paris, Plon.

9Voir à cet égard La langue mondiale. Traduction et domination, Pascale Casanova, Paris, Editions du Seuil