Our CEO’s opinion piece at “Les Echos”
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.
If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
These words by Nelson Mandela appear to me to be especially relevant today. Speaking another person’s language is not a disavowal of one’s own; it is a mark of respect, and one which allows the listener to lend you their full attention rather than simply lending you an ear. The two sentences do not contradict but rather complete one another. And in just the same way, the use of English as the language of international communication should go hand in hand with the protection of local and regional languages, the crucibles of our culture.
The choice to go “full English” at Versailles, far from consigning French to the history books, put French culture, and by extension the French language, centre-stage. This piece of choreography at Versailles came as a surprise and as a result drew the world’s attention to what was happening there: the general expectation was that the President of France would be speaking French, and yet… He chose to speak in the language of the majority of those listening to him, even if it was clearly not the mother tongue of everyone present. This choice sent a strong signal on the importance of making ourselves understood: here language is a tool for communication, one that we must take time to master, but which pushes us towards collective action, bringing us ever closer together.
It is a culturally intelligent choice that demonstrates a will not towards uniformity but towards greater cultural pluralism. It is the same principle that we see at work within the francophone community (la Francophonie”) where French is used as a working language in countries with different regional or local languages.
Cultural intelligence spells open-mindedness, a receptivity to others, whose cultural identity may be different, whose codes of behaviour we might not necessarily understand, but who we want to be able to move, inspire, convince…
When communicating, the ONLY thing that matters is what the other person hears, and not what we ourselves say or mean. Words spoken but not understood are empty, no matter what their initial intention may have been. Which is why it is so important that we demand the highest possible standards both when we are expressing ourselves and when we engage the services of language professionals, whom we hire not only for their language skills but for their skills in communication. Having myself been an interpreter for 34 years, I am more than ever convinced that openness to other languages is above all a question of respect. Language is at the very heart of our identity; it is the foundation of the culture on which our worlds are built; it is a safe haven in the rising tide of globalisation.
I do not believe that English is a language somehow inherently suited to global use – as if English were a kind of ‘naturally’ dominant language, and especially not if we are talking about “globish”, which is a pale imitation of Esperanto and which no one any longer believes is the fabled language of Babel. French is far less threatened by English than English is by globish. Of course, it’s a useful tool for factual communication, just as computer translation tools are useful for translators in “clearing” a text before starting actually to write. But what we don’t explain clearly enough to our children is that the “foreign” language they are working so hard to learn – beyond its declensions, moods and tone markers – is not really “foreign” at all but is simply the language of others, which opens the door to an alternative appreciation of reality, just as fully formed and complete as our own. Learning languages is more than anything gaining an understanding of different perspectives, other ways of seeing the world that in actual fact complement one another. In Alan Lightman’s novel Einstein’s Dreams, the young Einstein dreams in 1905 of thirty variations on the theme of time and relativity, each one more plausible than the last, only to arrive at the one which is now familiar to us but which could just have easily been “other”.
French companies must continue to see English as necessary, whilst at the same time understanding that it is unlikely to be sufficient; that there may be other languages just as important for their market. From my experience at the head of a language services agency that sees more and more requests for “local” languages, from Catalan to Mooré, we must think back to the old saying, “think globally, act locally”. It is a message that has been greatly distorted over the years, but we must now reclaim its original meaning: we must finally adopt the notion that in order to BE global, we need to think, write and speak local.
Languages do not compete with one another, they complete one another: those that speak to the head and those that speak to the heart. They teach us to be open-minded, and to have respect for difference and diversity; values that we should all be promoting in France as in the rest of the world.
Click here to read the opinion piece in French on Les Echos Internet Magazine.