Gesellschaft | 09.03.2016

Should we all just speak English?

Multilingualism is often said to be one of the pillars of  Swiss democracy. Is it a fragile pillar, and if so, should we reconsider its importance? An Italian speaking student of English at the University of Zürich shares his thoughts.
Could English be a better Esperanto?
Immagine: Eric Andresen (Flickr)

Multilingualism is a big part of my life. As an Italian speaking Swiss person, I was taught three foreign languages by the time I was 15. I later moved to Zurich, where I met and spoke to people – Swiss and not – in Italian, German, Swiss German and English; and I now find myself constantly switching between different languages to communicate with my coworkers, my friends, my family, and my partner. I have developed an idea – one that I would like to share with you, writing in English. This is my point of view, and I am eager to hear yours.

The Swiss multilingualism is a utopia

Let’s start with a blunt statement: multilingualism, in Switzerland, does not exist. It does not exist, that is, in its ideal form, the one we would all like to see: most Swiss people are not able to fluently speak, nor often to understand, more than one of the three most spoken languages (sorry, Rumantsch), let alone all three of them. Now, this does not mean that people from different parts of Switzerland do not understand each other, not at all. At least in my experience, me and my fellow Swiss understand each other perfectly, but we do so either in German, or in English. My point here is that if non-German speaking people all have to learn German, while the German part of Switzerland does not reciprocate, Swiss multilingualism becomes, while perfectly functional, not very democratic. Ideally, of course, this should not happen: every person should acquire at least a passive competence of the two main languages they do not speak; conversations and political debates could then be a truly multilingual exercise, with all participants speaking their mother tongue, and being understood by everyone else. This is, however, a utopia (and, again, I am eager to be told I am wrong).

Can English save us all?

In today’s Western world, the only way one can be almost certain to be understood is to speak English. Sloppy, scarcely grammatical and heavy-accent English is fine too, as long as one is ready to repeat a sentence once or twice. Already today, and increasingly so, most people, at least in Europe, speak and understand basic English, particularly among young generations (if you made it this far into my article, by the way, you are proving my point). The reasons why this happens to be the case are several: the Imperial spread of British English first, and the American cultural and economic hegemony over Western Europe after WWII, but also more recently the spread of the internet and of the almost exclusively English-speaking media that it hosts. History, however, is not the only reason English is so widespread, linguistics helped as well (don’t be fooled by my degree in linguistics: this is still only my opinion). At a basic level, English is grammatically very simple: it has no gender, no case, barely any complexity in its verbal morphology (verb forms are often the same, that is). Moreover, the troubled history of England made the English vocabulary one of the most rich ones, as it borrowed many words from French and Latin that are now easily recognizable for a speaker of French or Italian. In other words, I like to think English is a sort of naturally born Esperanto.

Let’s have a conversation!

All in all, what I am suggesting is that maybe English could be a better way to preserve our identity as Swiss than obsessively defending multilingualism. If we all learned English as the first foreign language, we would be able to have meaningful and complex conversations across linguistic borders. English takes us all out of the comfort zone and forces the majorities to meet the minorities on neutral ground, where everyone can express their ideas with equal clarity. In parliaments, websites and bars alike, English would allow us all to present and defend the cultural specificity of what we say, not of how we say it. I look forward to reading your comments, if there will be any, whatever language they will be in.