Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World

January 19, 2012

Philippe van Parijs' book treats a subject that is largely neglected in the English-speaking world. Native speakers of English tend to accept the phenomenon of English as a global lingua franca (ELF) and the benefits they draw from it without a great deal of reflection. In contrast, non-native speakers, under pressure to acquire fluency in English, are forced to consider the issues. In the continental European academic circles from which van Parijs hails, many see the rise of ELF as a form of hegemony associated with the spread of market economics, while others are fighting fiercely to keep their own language in a lingua franca role. A decade ago, van Parijs cut into this debate with a series of articles in which he dismissed resistance to English as futile and the promotion of several lingua francas as contradictory and burdensome. These arguments have now been fleshed out and become this book.

Van Parijs believes that humanity - "the most destructive species the Earth ever carried" - urgently needs to find a common language in which it can "debate and mobilize in search of fair and efficient global institutions". ELF, he argues, is beginning to fulfil this role, but with the major disadvantage that the cost of this social good is unfairly distributed. English native speakers get for free the lingua franca that others spend time, energy and money acquiring. Van Parijs suggests some form of global tax to redress this inequality; no one should derive benefit without making some contribution. And before English native speakers laughingly dismiss this crazy idea, they should perhaps consider the immense spin-off that could come from the recalibration of one aspect of global inequality. And encouraging the evolution of a transnational demos can only bring benefits.

In tandem, van Parijs assembles evidence to demonstrate that government policies to limit acquisition or use of English ultimately work against the public interest; they prevent individual social mobility and democratisation of knowledge, and encourage continued brain drain. He thus directly challenges many in the European academic and political worlds, including those who strive to limit ELF in higher education and research. Aware of these views, and to counteract what he terms the problematic "neo-colonial" aspect of ELF, he supports strict adhesion to "parity of esteem". On its territory, each linguistic community should retain the right to impose its language as the medium of education and of communication in its public space. Incomers should respect this arrangement. This is where van Parijs' argument becomes less convincing. If, as he has demonstrated, old nation-state-style language planning is no longer effective, why should his measures to promote "parity of esteem" prove an exception? Where are the mechanisms that will compel newcomers to learn the language of a territory if the communication they need to have can happen in ELF?

There are other minor flaws in the book: some repetition, some out-of-date data, some aspects neglected (such as the legacies of the nation state and their continuing influence). Some readers will disagree with the author's rather arbitrary dismissal of the aspirations of smaller language groups. On the whole, however, van Parijs' book is a welcome addition to the literature. It brings to an anglophone readership a focus on a much-neglected subject, the issue of linguistic justice, and it explains the reactions of those who are in a disadvantaged position. It may contribute to puncturing the complacent egotism of English native speakers. It may help to convince anti-English lobbies that there are also positive spin-offs from linguistic globalisation. And, finally, it will provide those committed to promoting a transnational arena for deliberation and mobilisation with a fund of argument and evidence from which to draw as they develop their case.

Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World

By Philippe van Parijs. Oxford University Press. 320pp, £.50. ISBN 9780199208876. Published 29 September 2011

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