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Cutting Edge of Imperialism
Traveling throughout eastern Europe and the former "Red Empire" was a paradise of sorts. If you were able to overcome the fear instilled by western propaganda toward communist countries, then you found a world quite different and, in its own unique way, attractive. Added to this, if you were a native speaker of English, then you instantly found yourself among a privileged caste of society.
It has to be acknowledged that the word around the world is English, more or less. During the Cold War era, people were desperate to learn English as a means to broaden their horizons - politically, socially, culturally, and economically. English language teachers were scarce; a backpacker with no university or teaching experience could easily find a job at a university anywhere in eastern Europe, Russia, or China. Although this still may be the case in some areas, by and large most universities have become more selective since access to professionals has greatly improved.
Today, the main reason for learning English is social mobility. Commerce is the driving force; hand in hand with it goes technology (especially computer technology) - most of which originates from the US. While language is the way by which capitalism and technology have been spread in the latter half of this century, language has also been used as a means by which western governments have been able to undertake covert political and economic activities aimed at ensuring that globaloney (i.e. the global economy and "New World Order") takes firm root on former enemy soil.
English (represented by Britain and the U.S.) has been, by far, the main perpetrator of this neo-imperialism, with German and French following on a much lower scale. The British Council and the United States Information Service (USIS) are the vehicles whereby the British and American governments respectively exert pressure on foreign governments in eastern Europe on issues such as copyright while at the same time providing a convenient front for MI5/CIA activities.
This revelation should come as no surprise, for both the British Council and USIS were originally set up for such purposes. The British Council, for example, was established in the 1930s when the U.K. realized that they were losing a propaganda war to the Germans. Thus, the British Council's main objective was to counter fascist propaganda. Unfortunately, no one has bothered to tell the British that the war has long been over.
The political and economic objectives of the UK and US are achieved in either of two ways. The first is through English language libraries where locals, for a nominal fee, are able to borrow books, watch videos, or read British/American newspapers. While it may seem harmless enough, the propaganda needs of the west are nevertheless well served. Very little alternative or feminist literature is available; subject matter is clearly in support of the status quo.
The other - and more direct - method employed is through language-learning activities. Both the British Council and USIS have their ELT (English Language Teaching) divisions, with the U.S. relying upon the services of the Peace Corps as well. Language teaching does more than just teach language. Apart from making it easier to bring in spies and maintain a reliable network, ELT courses are valued for their socio-cultural influence on eastern Europeans. Both indirectly in language schools and directly in universities and colleges (through "civilization" courses), this "cultural" element consists of reiterating what is "good" and advantageous about a democratic and consumerist society in Britain and the U.S.. Very little attempt is made, if any, to look at other cultures or civilizations from a global perspective. Nor are crimes that are committed by democracies, such as the tragedy of North America's First Nations and Inuit peoples, ever mentioned. Thus, western ideas based on an Anglo-American ethnocentrism is taught as a universal axiom to be, if not followed directly, at least adapted to the local area.
As the Berlin Wall came tumbling down at the turn of the decade, the activities of the British Council and USIS increased drastically. While pre-1989 involvement in the region was concerned mainly with establishing a presence and making contacts with (as well as influencing) the intellectuals of the region, the first few years within post-Cold War eastern Europe was spent on consolidating political and economic change - that is, making sure the Berlin Wall stayed down.
With the period of "transition" to a market-based democracy nearly over, at least from a western perspective, the financial and structural support for the British Council and USIS are now being withdrawn. Feeling that their "job is done", the British and US governments are moving their operations from the central part of eastern Europe (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary) further eastward (Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Central Asia).
Thus, the British Council is now in the process of winding down its various ELT projects in the area, with no prospects for reinforcement. USIS has already closed down its library in Budapest, transferring ownership to private "entrepreneurial" individuals. The Peace Corps, meanwhile, is closing many of its operations in the region early due to "budget cuts". As a skeptical former Peace Corps volunteer put it: "we got in, made our promises, did what we wanted to do, and got out."
On the one hand, the departure of the British Council and USIS is a cause for relief. On the other, they have raised expectations and subsequently left many people in the lurch. After spending more than five years expanding the learning of foreign languages, ministries of education are now suddenly forced to cut back foreign languages from their national curriculums.
Meanwhile, the national languages of the area are having to deal with the threat pertaining to the second phase of the Anglo-American linguistic invasion. Having successfully been taught by the British Council and USIS the basics of how to order a hamburger in English and understand the gimmicks of capitalist advertising (the basis of globaloney), the people of eastern Europe and Russia are realizing that their languages have been corrupted and "pidginized".
In Hungary, where the language bears no semblance to either the Slav or Germanic language groups that surround the tiny country, the language has been able to assert its distinctiveness for centuries. And yet, at present, many look on with dismay at the English words and phrases that have recently crept into everyday usage. Indeed, after resisting for forty years Russian infiltration, in less than five years American capitalism has been able to do more linguistic damage than almost a generation of Soviet totalitarianism.
The use of language as a means for social and political control is nothing new; English still carries with it the legacy of the Norman conquest of almost a thousand years ago. However, it is only within the last hundred years or so that the issue of "language control" has become an important factor in policy decisions.
At the beginning of this century, Antoine Meillet, a professor at the College de France, noted that "the linguistic situation of contemporary Europe is absurd" and concluded that there should be only one language for Europe - naturally at the expense of all other minority languages. In a like manner, Stalinism regarded language as a class phenomenon related to a nation's cultural superstructure that was, in turn, derived from an economic base. Consequently, it was believed that with the help of socialism's leveling effects, communism would inevitably lead to the emergence of a universal language.
To counter these and other such attempts at linguistic homogeneity, some nations have gone to the other extreme and have resorted to linguistic nationalism and chauvinism. Late last year the president of France, Jacques Chirac, warned members at an African conference of how the influence of French was being eroded and that African nations have to help "safeguard" French as a world language.
France is well-known throughout Europe for being intolerant of the use of foreign languages - especially American English. AGULF, a Paris-based group formed to resist linguistic invasion, has been instrumental in the drafting of a law which forbids the use of foreign words when a proper French word already exists for the same purpose. Likewise, in Quebec, a similar fear of linguistic penetration exists. Not only is there legislation that prevents newcomers from sending their children to English schools (Quebec's infamous Bill 101), but the issue of "French only" signs has been the primary cause of friction between Anglophone and Francophone communities within the province. For example, while "stop" is recognized as an international word for a traffic sign the world over, it is only in French Canada where such signs are unilingually French.
"I dislike any form of nationalism", Italian novelist Alberto Moravia once stated, "least of all a nationalistic attitude towards language." Like Moravia, most linguistic experts strongly oppose artificial attempts to control language by decree. They argue that languages must keep changing as new problems arise and new information needs to be communicated. Others, meanwhile, point out that the portion of English words in any major language is not statistically large (generally less than 5%, according to some estimates) and that the process of adopting new words follows a sort of international balance of trade.
Language change is a natural phenomenon and, most of the time, a mutual process. To refuse to acknowledge such change - or prevent it altogether - is clearly a case of linguistic chauvinism. On the other hand, to force language change because of immediate economic gain is just as wrong. Since new words have not had the time to properly integrate themselves into a given language, such forced change creates a linguistic elite that translates itself into social segregation. In fact, within eastern Europe it reinforces societies already split between rural and urban elements, the latter becoming increasingly elitist and condescending toward the former.
What many underdeveloped countries are now facing as western globaloney continues its expansion eastward and southward is not merely the natural, evolutionary process of language change. Rather, it is a form of advertising that destroys any alternative to what is being thrust upon them.
Yet it is not only foreign languages that are being harmed in this way. While there are many foreign words in American English to support the "balance of trade" theory, many of these have adopted an "American accent." Anything "foreign" sounding has snob-appeal to many Americans. In television ads for for the Pontiac "Le Mans" (which is derived from the motor-racing circuit in France), the word's "cool" yet repugnant pronunciation rhymes it with that equally "cool" character from Happy Days, the Fonz.
Also, American English not only does a hatchet job on foreign words phonetically, but semantically as well. The primary meaning of foreign words is perverted and far removed from the original to the extent that it makes Americans sound more ignorant than they really are.
An example is a popular restaurant, or "French bistro," in New York called the Paris Commune. Little do diners realize that the Paris Commune was where people suffered terribly from constipation due to their poor diet.
Though British and Americans may cry "linguistic chauvinism" at any attempt to reverse present trends, the fact of the matter is that they are merely following the Golden Rule; that is, he who has the gold makes the rule. Among the worst in terms of second or foreign-language learning, British and American tourists have themselves become more and more linguistically chauvinist, as they expect and demand goods and services in their own language - no matter what country they happen to be in. This, in the end, is the true meaning of the global economy.
John Horvath is a writer, teacher and translator who lives in Budapest, Hungary.
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