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Grupo de Cooperativas de las Indias

Linguistic imperialism and alternative movements

Linguistic imperialism is, pure and simple, a question of power, and if you ask me, of class.

I started learning English at nine years of age. Every day, I read hundreds of pages in English. Some of my school years were made possible by a scholarship to a famous, and stupendous, English university, where even the milkman’s voice reverberated with the accent. And I’ve spent years going to all kinds of congresses — academic, political, social, etc. — where English is the working language. You don’t need exceptional hearing to realize that the same thing always happens: the native speakers, together with part of the “Euroclass” that had a British education, end up forming a clique that takes control of the narrative of what the congress is about. Could I be among them? Sure, I could — but I’m not playing that game.

Recently, we were asked to help organize a meeting of groups for the commons in Madrid. Our proposal is to create a simultaneous interpretation system using volunteer Esperanto-speakers so that everyone can speak his/her language and be interpreted to the others with a minimum number of steps.

But, no. Our partners at the P2P Foundation didn’t like it. The idea is English would be the only language, “and if someone doesn’t understand, special help can be provided.” In other words, those who own up to not understanding and speaking English perfectly (and we know that in Madrid, as in Prague, or Bonn, or Rome, or Athens, the large majority don’t) would be treated like they were handicapped… and so, of course, the committees and writing groups would be reserved for those who are “bilingual with English,” which is to say, the same people as always.

To me, and to the rest of the Indianos, this would be a disaster. That’s because, in practice, it means relegating most people to the background on the basis of an artificially-imposed language. On the other hand, it also means forcing each group to be “represented” by whoever is closest to bilingual… at the expense of those who were happy to make protest signs in English recently, because that was the cool thing to do, but never learned enough in their endless English classes to read a dime-store novel. So, yes, linguistic imperialism is, pure and simple, a question of power, and if you ask me, of class.

I’ve been studying Esperanto for two months. All it took was downloading two books from the Internet, and my Esperanto is at the same level as my English. I’ve already read two novels written in Esperanto, and I only had to use the dictionary for the first. In less than a year, I hope it’ll be at the same level as my Spanish. Does that mean that I think that everyone should learn Esperanto? No, it means that it’s a much better technology than confused interpretations or the hegemonic use of English to allow interactions between peers. Using English means most groups need to hire a professional interpreter (which is rather expensive). It would be enough if one person from each group studied Esperanto for six months for the whole group’s communication to take place in the realm of real equality, independent of each person’s comfort language, because they’d have an interpreter who could interpret all nuances.

The idea is perfectly doable by us: translate all the materials into Esperanto and provide an interpreter to each linguistic group, so everyone can speak in whatever language they want.

And yet, to my dear Michel, this would “impose an artificial language that no one is going to understand.” The obvious paradox is that he must not have understood the proposal, even though I explained it to him twice… in English.

But that’s not the cruelest paradox in all this. To me, it seems basic, in building P2P spaces, and even more so, in building spaces of true reflection, that we not reproduce the mechanisms of exclusion and power that we repudiate in the old world. What’s cruelly paradoxical is how hard it is to explain this to people who have adapted to them… even in the world of alternatives…

Translated from the original (in Spanish) by Steve Herrick of

«Linguistic imperialism and alternative movements» recibió 3 desde que se publicó el martes 4 de septiembre de 2012 . Si te ha gustado este post quizá te gusten otros posts escritos por David de Ugarte.

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