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Novial version of this chapter
Ignorance of Foreign Languages
Need for an Interlanguage[edit source]
An American may travel from Boston to San Francisco without hearing more than one language. But if he were to traverse the same distance on this side of the Atlantic, he would have a totally different story to tell. Suppose he started from Oslo and journeyed to the South or South-East: he would then hear perhaps Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, German, Chekoslovak, Hungarian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Greek, and then in Egypt Arabic and a little English - twelve different languages, of which the majority would be utterly unintelligible to him. And yet he would not have heard half of the languages spoken in Europe. The curse of Babel is still with us. How many people have been in situations where they have felt the barriers of language a serious drawback, where they have been desirous to communicate freely with someone, ask questions, obtain or impart information, etc., which has been rendered impossible by their own and the other party's want of sufficient linguistic knowledge! It is not very pleasant to be engaged in a discussion that interests you, if you feel that while you have the best arguments the other man has the whip hand of you, because the conversation is in his native language, in which you are able to express only what you can, while he can say everything he wants to. In scientific congresses, as Professor Pfaundler says, "only very few can take part in the discussions, and many must be well content if they are able to understand the usually rapidly delivered papers. Many an important criticism is not made because one does not possess the ability to discuss a question in a foreign language, and does not wish to expose oneself to the chance of a rebuff, caused not so much by ignorance of the matter in hand as by want of facility in expression. Every member of a congress has noticed that whenever the language employed in the papers changes, a considerable number of the audience leave with more or less noise, in order to avoid being compelled to listen to a paper which they do not understand."
Sometimes in international discussions the three chief languages are allowed, and each separate speech has to be translated into the two others. I was present at such a congress in Copenhagen in 1910 and saw how intolerable this dragging repetition must necessarily be, not least to those who like myself understood English, French and German with perfect ease: anything like a real vivid discussion was excluded by the inevitable delays - not to mention the inadequacy of many of the extempore translations.
With regard to printed works matters are somewhat better, but not quite satisfactory. Most scientific men are nowadays able to read books and papers on their own special subject in the three chief languages, English, German and French; but that is no longer sufficient. One of the most important features of the last hundred years is the nationality-movement, in politics, in literature, in art, in everything. Even small nations want to assert themselves and fly their own colours on every occasion, by way of showing their independence of their mightier neighbours. The growing improvement in higher education everywhere has fortunately made it possible to print books on scientific matters even in languages spoken by comparatively small nations. But what is a benefit to these countries themselves, may in some cases be detrimental to the world at large, and even to authors, in so far as thoughts that deserved diffusion all over the globe are now made accessible only to a small fraction of those that should be interested in them. In my own field, I have had occasion to see the way in which excellent work written in Danish which might have exerted a deep influence on contemporary linguistic thought has remained practically unknown outside of Scandinavia. (See my book Language under Rask and Bredsdorff; I might have mentioned Westergaard and Thomsen as well.) The late secretary of the Berlin Academy, the eminent classical scholar H. Diels, says: "Incalculable are the intellectual losses incurred every year in consequence of the national hobby of small, but highly gifted scientifically active peoples who insist that scientific works (which cannot all of them be translated) should appear in their own, narrowly circumscribed languages." For my own part, though I have spent most of my life studying different languages, I have sometimes been obliged to lay aside as unread books and papers which I should have liked very much to study, but which happened to be written in a tongue with which I was not sufficiently familiar.