Friday, 30 September 2011

Back to School

The modern development of international auxiliary languages, which began with Volapük back in 1879, has gone through various stages, with the fashion for constructed languages moving away from highly inflected case-heavy varieties towards simpler ones such as Esperanto (1887), and then to more naturalistic creations such as Giuseppe Peano's Latino Sine Flexione (1903) and Edgar de Wahl's Occidental (1922). Arguably the end-point in the process was reached in 1951 with the publication by the International Auxiliary Language Association of Interlingua, which might almost have been termed "Common Romance". Of course, Interlingua is best suited to the needs of Western Europe and its former colonies. Speakers of Asian languages, or even Finno-Ugric ones, may still find Esperanto easier.

That said, Interlingua has certain advantages that Esperanto cannot offer. One is that many people can read it without any prior study — anyone who is a native speaker of a modern Romance language, and any English-speaker who has a modest smattering of such a language, or of Latin. One of the original uses for which Interlingua was promoted was as a language of abstracts at medical conferences (doctors, with their firm grounding in Latinate technical terms, already having a large enough Romance vocabulary to understand it).

But what use could Interlingua ever be to us? Well, one possible context is bilingual tourism websites. Such sites cannot be translated into the language of every possible visitor to these shores, but if they were in English (for northern Europeans) and Interlingua (for those to the south), they would be likely to find a wide readership.

Another possible use is in schools. Earlier this year the Blether Region discussed the inability of most school-leavers, after many hundreds of hours of language tuition, to hold a natural and unscripted conversation in any language in which they were not already native when they began (with the possible exception of Irish, which has considerable social support and accessible opportunities for immersion).

For controlled schools in Northern Ireland, a region which has retained its grammar schools and, regardless of what happens with the 11-plus, looks set to do so in future, a sensible step would be to teach compulsory Interlingua in secondaries (along with one or two relatively easy elective languages such as Spanish and Dutch), with the grammars concentrating on German, Latin, Greek, Chinese and, if we are to be brutally honest, French. This would enable those at the grammars, if they wished, to go on to study those subjects at a tertiary level, while those learning Interlingua would be able to order a beer on holiday. If the latter group went on to do A-levels, they would not be excluded from reading other Romance languages at university either. All that would be necessary for that would be for third-level institutions to introduce a conversion course; on a less positive note, QUB has already adapted to schools' wishes by dumping German, after the schools failed to produce enough candidates. Of course, those proficient in Interlingua would also be in an enviable position if they wanted to do a crash GCSE in a Latinate tongue in their final year at school.

You may find the above a utopian and obscure suggestion, but at least it keeps the learning of languages compulsory. It is also likely to produce far better results.

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