Globalization and Indigenous Culture
[Table of Contents]

The Plurlingual European Tradition As a Challenge to Globalizaition


1. Globalization of communication

On the eve of the third millennium, the impressive and rapid progress of computer technology and electronics has brought communication techniques to a high level of development. The creation of electronic mail, online services and the so-called information highways has enabled people all over the world to communicate with each other nearly without any delay, and to have immediate access to all kinds of information sources. Today the world, at least in its most developed parts, is taken in a dense net circulating unremittingly immaterial data, products and goods.

The present internationalization of nets and systems is characterized by a notion which has emerged in the eighties, namely "globalization." In fact, the term entered the vocabulary used to describe the world at the end of the sixties, after Marshall McLuhan had published his well-known War and Peace in the Global Village (1969) and Zbigniew Brzezinski, later counselor (for national security) to the American president Jimmy Carter, his Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technotronic Era1 (1969). In the eighties, the language of globalization, developed by Theodor Levitt, Director of the influential Harvard Business Review, has essentially been that of the international market, management and world finance.2

Today, it cannot be denied that language of globalization has pervaded our societies and cultures, that it is going to transform our daily life --- especially if that daily life includes research activities --- and that it will be of lasting influence on the ways societies conceive their relations to the world. The globalization of information is an empirical fact: our societies are narrowly interconnected by nets and products whose logic is that of universalization. Communication networks stand as a major paradigm of the new global society. A global exchange and information network, like Internet for instance, carries a steady flow of data, documentation, ideas, pictures and even sounds of music. It offers an easy access to knowledge, an almost infinite source of documentation, and multiplies contact facilities throughout the world. The ideal of an egalitarian and free access to information may seem less utopian than in the past when the material constraints were heavy enough to impede the overall circulation of information. In the global net, each individual in the world will ideally be able --- if he has access to a personal computer or if he lives in a country with a sufficiently developed telecommunication network --- to dialogue with another on an equal basis and in complete freedom.

But there may be different logics than that of globalization. On that behalf I remind you that Internet was originally developed from Arpanet, which was itself sponsored by the American Defense Department, and aimed at connecting all those involved in military research. Only later it was adapted for university research and firms. Thus special interests may pervert the claim of universality, shared by scientists and networkers as well.

So if we are willing to develop and adopt global information technology, it is important and even necessary to think over the consequences we will have to face. In France, the town planner and philosopher Paul Virilio has, among others, put the focus on the implications that the so-called information highways will have on our perception of space and time. In his recent La vitesse de libération (1995), he is concerned with instantaneous communication and the reduction of space it implies. Time will be the same in the whole world, it will be a unique world time, and we will have to live in real time --- i.e., without the alternation of night and day, without being bound by the timebelt --- in the linear, axial time of physics, which is a rather new situation in the history of mankind (if we put astronomy aside). Thusfar, history took place in local times. For Virilio, speed is the key-word for the ongoing development. In the history of mankind, he follows the efforts made in order to progressively increase speed. Thus man was riding horses before he invented the train, the car or the airplane. At present a limit is attained: the speed of light, which cannot be exceeded. As a consequence, the world will be smaller and smaller, distances will be abolished, and we will be prisoners of a narrow world, a "small planet."

Information being instantaneous and ubiquitous in the new cyberspace, the perception of the real will be strongly altered. This drastic change will urge us to build a completely new relation to the world. Virilio compares the invention of cyberspace with the invention of linear perspective in the Renaissance. Just as perspective made it possible to represent an infinite space on a plane, an infinite speed, or instantaneous communication, has a representation in the cyberspace. For Virilio, then, there is no globalization, but a virtualization. He describes the emergence of a virtual city, of an urban hypercenter, to which the real towns will be suburbs. In the virtual hypercenter, an clite will live in real time, and have overall access to a nearly infinite amount of information, while the periphery, i.e. our real world, will besieged by a potential social disintegration. The result of this doubling of reality, between a real and a virtual universe, will be a deep and fundamental disorientation.

Interactivity in the cyberspace --- what will it then be like? The elite of the networkers, or of the "wired"(branchés in French), the "cybercitizens" will introduce and spread their values into society. According to a recent survey,34 these are the values of young white American males, living alone, with proportionally high incomes. Things, however, are most quickly changing in this domain. Whoever the netters are, their values will have great facility to penetrate a large territory. How do our societies react to the cultural homogeneity that may ensue? And first of all to the linguistic uniformity? The language of the cybercitizens is overwhelmingly American English, even if things do slowly change in this domain.

Should the global communicating society adopt the unique language of that tiny but dense centre? Knowing that the cultural richness of Europe rests on the multiplicity of its idioms, should Europe as a region drop this wealth and communicate in the language of what Brzezinski called the first global society in history, namely the U.S.A., the only society to propose, according to him, a global model of modernity, incorporating universal behavioral patterns spread via its cultural industries, but also via its techniques, methods and new organizational practices?

2. Language and Communication (especially in Europe)

Human beings have an obstinate aptitude for dialogue, and languages are the natural tools of their socialization. "If man is homo sapiens, he is it in the first place as homo loquens, man of word" says Claude Hagège5 in his Homme de paroles (1985). With the development of information techniques, men should even be able to increase this aptitude. The possibilities to use words --- in oral, written or in digital form --- should tend to infinity. Multiplying his linguistic contacts, man will normally have more and more to face different languages. Especially, if he is European, he should have to cope with a plurality of languages.

The plurilingual tradition in Europe is old. It is best exemplified by generations of Jewish scholars and writers born in Central or Eastern Europe, practicing, besides Yiddish, the language of their native country, German, Russian, and often Latin too. Think of German writer Franz Kafka, a Jew from Prague. Or think of Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto, a Polish Jew living in the ghetto of Bialystok, under tsarist administration, mastering a large number of languages, and publishing in Russian in 1887 his textbook of an international auxiliary language. This old tradition is still alive, particularly in small European countries, depending culturally and even more so economically on their larger neighbours, as do Luxemburg, Belgium, Switzerland, and to a lesser extent Denmark and the Netherlands. A strong link exists, in Europe, between language and nation. Minorities struggled against empires in demonstrating their attachment to their respective languages (in the Habsburg monarchy, for instance). The more they came under attack, the more these languages were strongly defended (in Luxemburg during World War II, for instance, when the newly shaped national identity came to rest on a linguistic foundation).

The European Union is, of course, strongly defending the rich plurilingual tradition in Europe, but so far, nothing has been done in the different countries, to inscribe plurilinguism in our daily realities, except, as already said, in some small countries like mine, Luxemburg, which would suffocate without the wide use of foreign languages. An old tradition of plurilinguism, kept alive in order to ensure political and cultural independence, strengthened by a plurilinguistic environment, but also by a successful training system, in which two national languages --- German and French --- are taught to children of 6-7 years. Together with the mother tongue "Letzebuergesch,Ï which is used in the courses even if it is not taught, all inhabitants are thus able to understand and speak at least three languages. In fact, being exposed very young to different languages, they often develop amazing linguistic capacities.

Claude Hagège6 took the opportunity of the French Chairmanship of the European Union, in the first half of 1995, to propose an ambitious educational program in order to favor the development of a real plurilinguism in Europe: In elementary school, children should learn two languages, their native tongue and a second European language to be chosen among the following five: French, German, Italian, Portuguese or Spanish. In secondary school, English would be taught as a third language --- the motivation to learn English being in any case strong --- and optional training in Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, etc., should be made available.

It is a pity that in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, with a strong plurilingual past, English is more and more considered the only key to the world and that consequently the other languages are neglected. They should understand that in this respect, the United States of Europe are not the United States of America, where the learning of a new language sealed the newly acquired national identity. The European construction goes quite different ways.

What then will happen to the linguistic richness of Europe when global communication networks are covering the planet? As said above, the language of the elite of future global communication society is beyond contest American English. Eight percent of the European population are native English speakers, and will experience no linguistic difficulty in joining the net and communicating by and large. And what about the other ninety-two percent? In which language will they dialogue with other Europeans and with the rest of the world?

In fact, more and more, "local villages" coexist inside the "global village" (Internet). Local operators give access to the Net, propose navigation help, permitting a specific community of users to find on the net information relevant to them, to create local newsgroups, and to add other services better suited to a group of local users. It is in this sense that the adjective "glocal,", a contraction of global and local and created by Japanese managers and marketing specialists, links the local with the global. The global is necessarily local, and vice-versa the local global. The traditional local, regional and international levels are integrated. The new users communities which emerge are virtual communities, sharing a common interest, but not necessarily a national culture or a language.

European online services have chosen the strategy described above, in developing local services in addition to those existing already on the mostly Anglo-American (even if global) Internet. It is on this intermediary level that the language question may be efficiently asked and find specific European answers. A solution of retirement into chauvinism and isolation being unthinkable for Europe, even if the temptation is huge for some, Europeans will indeed have to use English to participate in the net. But on their more local level, Europeans have a bit more freedom to give their communication an appropriate shape. Do they prefer a pseudo-identity in English fed by American folk-culture, or do they want to build a more complex identity based on the diversity of their cultures and languages?

Technically it is possible to use any language on the net.7 It is true that the World Wide Web (or simply Web, which built the success of Internet), even if it was conceived (in 1992) in Europe at the CERN (Consul European pour la Recherche Nucléaire, whose center is in Geneva), has used a code, American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), which does include only a limited range of characters, those of English. But since then, a Multilingual Internet Mail Extension was developed which allows the interchange of information written in any language. Thus, as far as computer techniques are concerned, there is no barrier to using French or other languages on the net. And in fact, the Agence francophone pour l'enseignement supérieur et la recherche (AUPELF-UREF) undertook to develop a French-speaking subspace8 on Internet.

Note that the new communication techniques, integrating a large range of tools and favoring interactivity, may play a role of paramount importance in the acquirement of languages.

3. Language in the scientific community

We don't yet have an accurate description of the changing relations between sciences and languages in European history. Latin was the language of the Respublica litteraria until very roughly the end of the 17th century. It was the main language of a European wide communication network, founded in the first half of the 17th century, and centered around Father Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), a Parisian scholar and monk, whose correspondence9 with all important scientists of his time fills sixteen volumes and concerns all scientific debates of the time; a second network, created a bit later, has the native German Henry Oldenburg (between 1617 and 1620-1677), secretary of the Royal Society in London and editor of its Philosophical Transactions, as its midpoint. Oldenburg had connections with most European scholars and he was the uncircumventable contact person of the British scholars with the rest of the world. He, for instance, forwarded Newton's letters to Leibniz, and vice versa, when these two philosopher mathematicians were fighting each other. Latin, which was the main language of this European net, was very slowly and progressively replaced by the vernacular, perhaps under the influence of newly founded national scientific institutions like the English Royal Society and the French Académie des sciences, which promoted the publication of memoirs in their respective national languages. A large number of more precise questions on the slow replacement of Latin, as the language of academic scientific institutions and that of international communication, are still open: what are the reasons for the strong presence of Latin until the midst of the 18th century? Why did scientific books in vernacular not sell well in the 16th and 17th centuries? Who was making the Latin translations of books written in the vernacular, scientists or humanist scholars? And so on.

In the transitional period, scholars were often polyglots, like the German born philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) , for instance. Leibniz of course used Latin, the then --- still usual scientific language, and German, but he had a third language at his disposal, namely French, widely used in his scientific contacts (40% of his correspondence is written in French). In letters to German correspondents, he wrote German (in a bit more than 20% of the whole), but it is interesting to note that when he is turning to scientific matters he immediately slides into Latin, as if it were a technical language. The Swiss mathematicians, Jacob and Johann Bernoulli, too were able to correspond in Latin, French and German.

With the internationalization of the scientific communities towards the end of the 19th century, scientists were offered larger possibilities of direct contact in international congresses. The large diversity of national languages was seen as an obstacle to a wide and open debate of the scientific results. The situation symbolized by the Babel tower was considered as scandalous. The question of finding an appropriate language for scientific communication10 was explicitly debated in the international scientific societies that appeared at the same time. Some wanted to use a simplified form of Latin, like Latin sine flexione created by the famous Italian mathematician, Giuseppe Peano, some others were in favour of the institution of one of the national languages (English for instance) as auxiliary language, still others wanted to adopt an artificial language, like Volapuk, Esperanto, Ido, and so on, 116 language systems were developed and published between 1880 and 191411. Scientists, for instance the French engineer and historian of mathematics Paul Tannery, who played a big role in the constitution of the international scientific community, were also active in the creation and spread of these languages. The philosopher and Leibniz-expert Louis Couturat was essential in building, with a small number of scientists, Ido, a simplified version of Esperanto, as a language of scientific communication. But none of all these systems had enough success to be become the language of the scientific community.

4. Plurilinguism and scientific communication

Today, scientists are zealous and more or less enthusiastic users of the new information techniques. What are the reactions of this specific group to the ongoing globalization of communication? How does it adapt itself? Does it succumb? Or does it resist? Is there a unified reaction? Or, is the scientific community divided about the advantages and the disadvantages of the new technology? Does the fact to be connected, or not, to the global networks induce new disparities, inequalities and exclusions?

Insofar as the quality of scientific research depends on accurate information, there can be no doubt that most scientists are convinced by the greater efficiency of global networks and the wide possibilities of documentation and cooperation they offer. To have quick access to the newest available results is certainly considered as an advantage by most researchers. Although most would also agree in finding that there is too much noise on the net. In mathematics, for instance, conjectures (without any idea of a possible demonstration) are flourishing. And it may be quite difficult to evaluate whether such conjectures have some chance of being true, whether they are worthwhile to engage in some research, or whether a student is not wasting his time in trying to find a demonstration, which may possibly not exist. Thus normal science (in the Kuhnian sense) can no longer be considered as problem-solving, the problems to be solved being chosen in such a way that results are guaranteed in a reasonable time span. This description is no longer accurate when conjectures are too fanciful and results have little chance of being true. Thus, for the scientific products circulating in the information networks, the usual legitimation procedures of the scientific community --- submission of written papers to at least two expert referees --- are no longer valid. The widening of the possibilities and the difficult selection process in the steady flow of probable results require new validation procedures.

The new techniques may even be at the origin of scientific change, just as the invention of the printing press12 was. Scientific texts consisting of text in natural languages, numerals, formulae (i.e. spatial arrangements of symbols representing objects and operations), and figures, all these elements may change their mutual relationships if they are no longer arranged on a material page. Mathematics could in the future, with the flourishing of anonymous conjectures, no longer be the science of certainty, but offer more space to probable results, each conjecture being accompanied by an evaluation of the probability that it is true.

With respect to the use of English as lingua franca, we find, among the scientists, two radically differing positions. A first one, adopted mostly, but not only, by researchers from European countries without a strong research tradition, accept the domination of English as an unavoidable fact and struggle to conform their national research training to this situation. This is the case of Spain, Greece, but also of Denmark, the Netherlands, who, as I said before, have an old and strong research tradition based on plurilinguism, etc. And indeed the new communication techniques (in English or whatever language) may in the long run open unexpected possibilities to small countries, lacking such strong intellectual traditions, lacking also libraries, research journals, etc. The necessary documantation that is not available, in its material printed book form may easily be provided by electronic means.

The second position, mostly defended by French researchers --- and which is also mine --- is based on the strong will to promote at least what is called "passive plurilinguism" (even if I don't agree with that characterization), i.e., the ability to read and understand several foreign languages. Here attention is called to the complexity of the linguistic "market." The domination of English is not equally overwhelming at all stages of scientific research. It is almost complete at the international communication level (congresses, international journals), when new analytic knowledge is presented, discussed and collectively elaborated. In a more informal phase of the elaboration of scientific knowledge, in laboratories, national languages are still important,13 as they are also on the synthetic level of university training and popularization activities.

Recent studies in the history of science --- which focus these last years, perhaps as a local reaction to globalization, on comparisons between national styles or schools, and put forward the differences between sciences embedded in different national cultures --- consider scientific knowledge not as a pure technical concern, but as embedded in a constituent cultural environment. Thus, as far as mathematics is concerned, Herbert Mehrtens,14 in his brilliant Moderne, Sprache, Mathematik (1990), makes a distinction between mathematics as language (Sprache Mathematik), the language of mathematical texts, a system of words and symbols combined following exact formal rules, and the language of mathematicians (Sprechen der Mathematiker), a mixture of mathematical language, of formal elements and of pieces of natural languages. This distinction allows one to speak of the autonomy of mathematics (as work on a language speaking exclusively of itself) without discarding the discourse on the mathematical discipline, the political and structural choices made by the profession. If the technicality of the formal mathematical language makes the choice of the language indifferent, discourse of the mathematicians which is the reverse of the same coin embodies aims, values, social choices and scientific policies. Thus, mathematics is deeply embedded in a wide national, social and cultural context. And even here linguistic aspects cannot be neglected.

Linguistic uniformity is seen by the tenants of the second position as a clear obstacle to a democratic control of the choices made by a handful of scientists. It discards the public national spheres from any participation in the scientific enterprise, and in particular from defining precise politics in the field of science and its technological applications like nuclear weapons. Here the picture drawn by Virilio of a decision-making virtual hypercenter applies perfectly, while the periphery, i.e. nearly the whole world, falls outside the realm of democratic participation.

5. Conclusion

In my concluding remarks, I would like to plead for a radical plurilinguism in Europe as a challenge to globalization. A plurilinguism based on our common history and on the willed process of building and promoting a rich and complex European identity.

In order to enhance linguistic knowledge among European researchers, and to facilitate a plurilingual scientific interchange, the European Union should take measures aiming at a greater mobility of European researchers, and first increase the available means of its mobility programs.

Mediations could also be invented and multiplied. I think of translations, graphical devices, abstracts, collective work, and soon. We have several examples of such fertile mediations in history. The collective translations in medieval Spain, for instance, where a Jew translated from Arabic into Hebrew, and another from Hebrew into Latin.

The famous German Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer, whom I have worked on in recent years,15 has written a manual, a kind of geometrical encyclopedia incorporating a great amount of mathematics from Greek classical treatises (Euclid, Vitruvius, Archimedes) without knowing either Greek nor Latin. He has achieved this partly in collective work sessions with his learned friends Pirckheimer, Tschertte or Werner. The originality of his book owes a lot to this work-style, which enabled Dürer not only to understand parcels of ancient Greek mathematics, but to go further and to create on this ground new results and even, to some extent, a new approach to mathematics.

Linguistic transnational communities, like the French-speaking countries --- la francophonie --- could support research activities in their different languages. Thus the debate could transcend the European borders. As far as France is concerned, it is not tomorrow that courses in French universities will be taught in English, but universities in French-speaking countries could, when faced with the domination of Anglo-American, submit to the temptation to substitute courses in English to those traditionally held in French. And in fact, they have already. In January 1994, a first English-speaking university opened in Morocco (Ifrane). If French no longer gives access to scientific culture and research, learning French will no longer be attractive in countries like Morocco, Algeria, etc. Thus the possibilities of international scientific cooperations between France and other countries will diminish rapidly.

Instead of watching the use of foreign expressions in French and of codifying their punishable banishment in terms of a law, called loi Toubon (from the name of the Ministre de la Culture), France should, in my view, more efficiently strengthen the institutions responsible for the spread of French abroad, like Alliance française or the international organizations of Francophonie. In my eyes, the best way to keep French alive as a scientific language is to promote plurilinguism16 in and outside France.


1 This was how he called the global communication networks made possible by the sophistication of computer techniques, television and telecommunications.

2 For further details, cf. Armand and Michèle Mattelart, Histoire des théories de la communication, La Découverte, Paris 1995.

3 Cf. Le Monde, 30. 9. 1995, Suppl. Multimédias. In 1994, only 5% of the American population had access to information networks. This is the highest percentage in the world. In January 1996, they were circa 8%. Cf. Dan Schiller, "Les marchands du cyberespace", Le Monde diplomatique, mai 1996, p.15.

4 A study published on December 29, 1995, by GVU Center, Atlanta (cf. Le Cahier Multimédia de Libération du vendredi 5 janvier 1996, p.v), indicates that 29.3% of Internet users in the world are women, and that the proportion is rapidly increasing, especially in the U.S.A. These women are very young (less than 20), mostly students or teachers and reseachers.

5 "S'il [l'homme] est homo sapiens, c'est d'abord en tant qu'homo loquens, homme de paroles": Claude Hagège, L'homme de paroles, p .9.

6 Professor in Linguistic theory at the Collège de France. Cf. Claude Hagège, "L'exigence du plurilinguisme", Le Monde, dated 11 February 1995.

7 Cf. Bernard Cassen, "Le tout-anglais n'est pas une fatalité,"Le Monde diplomatique, mai 1996, p.18.

8 L'inforoute francophone, document de travail no3 soumis à la deuxième session de la conférence des ministres francophones de l'enseignement supérieur et de la recherche (Cotonou, 11-12 novembre 1995). Ce document a été préparé sous la responsabilité de I'AUPELF-UREF.

9 Correspondance de Mersenne, 16 vols, CNRS-Editions, Paris 1932-1988. Cf. also, by last editor of the correspondence, Armand Beaulieu, Mersenne, Le grand minime, Les Belles Lettres, Paris 1996.

10 For a more detailed account, see Anne Rasmussen, "A la recherche d'une langue internationale de la science 1880-1914," Roger Chartier and Pietro Corsi, eds., Sciences et langues en Europe, 1996, pp.139-155.

11 Anne Rasmussen, op. cit., p.148.

12 Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1983, abridged version of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, 2 vol. 1979. A reproduction process, printing, transcending the ancient limits and reproducing identical data in the same form, opened the possibility of a new approach in science characterized by an increasing trust in the exactness of mathematical formulae, numerals and diagrams.

13 Cf. Jean-Marc Lévy-Leblond, "La langue tire la science," Roger Chartier and Pietro Corsi, eds., Sciences et langues en Europe, 1996, pp. 235-245.

14 Herbert Mehrtens, Moderne, Sprache, Mathematik, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a. M. 1990.

15 Albrecht Dürer, Géométrie, traduction et présentation de Jeanne Peiffer, collection 'Sources du savoir', Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1995.

16 This is in fact the position very recently taken by the Haut Conseil de la Francophonie. Cf. HCF, XIIe session (Paris, les 30 avril, 2 et 3 mai 1996), Dossier de presse : "La Francophonie face aux défis des nouvelles technologies."


Chartier, Roger et Corsi, Pietro, sous la direction de, Sciences et langues en Europe, Commission européenne-Forum européen de la science et de la technologie, Paris 1996.

Chaudiron, Stéphane, "Les autoroutes de l'information: une chance ou une menace pour le pluralisme linguistique et culturel?" M, no82, mars-avril 1996.

Eco, Umberto, La recherche de la langue parfaite dans la culture européenne, Seuil, Paris 1994.

Hagège, Claude, Homme de paroles, Libr. A. Fayard, Paris 1985.

Hagège, Claude, L'enfant aux deux langues, Odile Jacob, Paris 1996.

Haut Conseil de la Francophonie, XIIe session (Paris, les 30 avril, 2 et 3 mai 1996), Dossier de presse: "La Francophonie face aux défis des nouvelles technologies."

Mattelart, Armand, La communication-monde, La Découverte, Paris, 1992.

Mattelart, Armand, L'invention de la communication, La Découverte, Paris, 1994.

Mattelart, Armand et Michèle, Histoire des théories de la communication, La Découverte, Paris, 1995.

Mattelart, Armand, "Les nouveax scénarios de la communication mondiale," Le Monde diplomatique, août 1995 ,pp. 24-25.

Virilio, Paul, La vitesse de libération, Galilée, Paris, 1995.

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