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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 19:119–130.


International Languages and National Survival


The accession of East-Central European countries to political and military alliances of Western states lends utmost urgency to the problem of learning languages. Our economic efficiency, living standards, and general welfare depend upon whether or not we can understand the surrounding international environment without having to rely on mediators: translators or interpreters, and make ourselves understood directly by our foreign partners.

Communication as the token of survival

Language learning plays a crucial economic and political role in an integrating Europe and in a world of globalization. An active knowledge of some of the world’s main languages is more and more considered a key to the survival of smaller, isolated language communities. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that, for example, Hungary’s existence over a millennium can be partially attributed to the ability of direct communication with Latin- as well as German-speaking cultures throughout history, with the better part of our aristocratic class having acted as mediators of the French and, to some extent, even the English culture. In addition, our attachment to the Western world has been efficiently complemented by the knowledge of the languages of the neighbouring ethnic groups, the emergence of a distinctive bi- and multi- lingualism along the borders through which Hungarian economy, society, and culture were able to mingle with the Croatian, Czech, German, Romanian, Rusyn, Serbian, Slovakian, Slovenian, even the Polish and Italian cultures for hundreds of years.

Hungarian society, in line with its geographical, geopolitical, and cultural positions, was therefore able to emerge from its linguistic isolation quite early, and, from the Middle Ages on, it was able to take advantage of the opportunities arising from the communication possibilities between the interacting of the bordering ethnic groups and language blocks. In Hungary, there have also been significant Latin and German cultures evolving, and for hundreds of years the country played a creative role in the literature of those languages. Paradoxically, many cultures that now belong to independent nations have developed precisely where Hungarian was the dominant language. To some extent, the Hungarian university press at Buda also contributed to such development. It would not be an overstatement to claim that the survival of some of the small East-Central European nations was, among other things, the consequence of communication skills and abilities that originated from the knowledge of foreign languages. I consider it a relevant point that the national survival is partly, perhaps even to a great extent, the result of the intention, ability, and success to communicate internationally.

Over the past 100-150 years the status of the region’s language policies and the demands and opportunities for learning languages have been changing at an accelerating speed. Latin as the official language of Hungary was discontinued after 1844.1 The major political changes after World War I, the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy abolished, or at least raised the question of the role of, the German language as a “lingua franca.” The new borders drawn by the Paris Peace Treaties chopped up compact Hungarian ethnic blocks thereby relocating the former language boundaries and frontiers between the neighbouring language communities to the areas of the adjacent countries. The geographical map of language areas that had remained intact for hundreds of years was redrawn almost overnight. The use of German has also declined due to Germany’s defeat in both world wars and the partial isolation that followed. After World War II, the artificially created hegemony of the Russian language, and the pursuit thereof, was the creation of politically unpopular, unprecedented, and aggressive measures instead of the result of an organic development. All of this left its mark on what was to follow: only the select few were in a position to learn the languages of the West, while the standards and the value of Russian proficiency remained on a low level. At the same time, driven either by misinterpreted political vengeance or snobbish disdain, it has not been fashionable to speak the languages of the neighbouring countries and ethnic groups. Therefore, the role of the ethnic languages has been diminished and marginalized.



Hungarian experience supports what other nations have also encountered: that the necessity for learning languages grows organically, depending on the geographical location, geopolitical position, and actual demands for communication of the particular ethnic and language groups involved. Only those nations that are in regular, typically commercial, contact with other ethnic, social, and language groups tend to develop cultures boasting of great linguistic skills. If they are large, they can spread their own languages, if small, they will eventually successfully acquire the languages of other nations.

The language situation of East-Central Europe during the second half of the past century proved to be an accurate reflection of the political and economic situation of the countries of the region: the compulsory affiliation with the East and the previously forbidden but later slowly developing relationship with the West. In view of past experiences and the achievements of the last fifteen years it is clear that, with the multiple integration of their national economies and societies into the rest of the world, there will be a growing appetite for learning languages with special emphasis on the efficiency and the continuity of the learning process. Today, this natural demand for learning English and German is gaining growing support from the public educational systems in East-Central Europe.

How is this demand met today? To what extent will English as the new universal language penetrate into our society, and how can German remain a distinguished foreign language in Hungary?

As elsewhere, English has quickly become popular among language learners in East-Central Europe. This may not be attributed solely to labour market needs or to current trends of entertainment. The universal and predictably long-lasting success of the English language stems from the features of its internationalized version as well as the uniqueness of this language, which developed fairly simple forms and an easy mode of communication. With its small active vocabulary and simplest possible grammar, as well as its pronunciation unrestricted to any geographical area or social sphere, the English language may easily be used anywhere. However, as Professor Bernard Vincent of the University of Orléans, France, argued, this “diluted” English may lose its substance and “is increasingly threatened with extinction even though most people still believe it is gaining strength.”2 This bare form of the original language that is divested practically of all cultural contents is no longer the language of Shakespeare or G. B. Shaw, not even that of Eugene O’Neill. Perhaps it is the easiest language to acquire among all foreign languages. This is one of the secrets of its unparalleled success because it fits a general pattern: communication style and technology are in a constant progress of minimalization and simplification all around the world. The messages of commercials, billboards, labels on merchandise, e-mails, SMS and MMS messages, pop music lyrics, movie scripts, teletext, and television dictate new methods of expression. This new type of communication is based on short sentences, acronyms, abbreviations, often pictograms, or other brief elements, with the aim of delivering mainly commercial-minded messages in the shortest, most economical way.

The role of the words, expressions, and sentences is beginning to be replaced by a differently encoded system of semiotics where the adequate language conveyor is to be found in the internationally simplified version of the English language.3 Thus, while this tendency naturally affects all spoken languages, the greatest impact was made nevertheless on that version of the English language that is dominant in world trade. A new, ‘airport’ version of this culture-deprived form of interaction has been developed that is

– 1) no longer attached to any national culture or intellectual legacy,

– 2) used in a wider geographical area and social sphere than ever before,

– 3) easily adapted by almost anyone, meaning that not only could anyone learn it but he or she could also develop it further.

As international English breaks down the previously strong barriers of national languages and inundates them with its own expressions, distinct grammar, and logic of communication, it is no wonder that the English language is now considered the official language of such universally popular forms of entertainment as sports, pop music, movies, and travel; even access of information on the Internet is mostly provided in English. Let French science, Hungarian trade, or the German language protectionist fight as they may, the international expansion of the English language nevertheless continues at the expense of the integrity of national languages. Germans are already using certain English words such as ‘clever’ as if the addition of such words to the mother tongue bore some extra benefit. Perhaps, however, it is nothing more than their snobbery and nostalgic longing for the bright, delusive world of America.


Imperialism or organic development

It would be a mistake to try to find an international conspiracy, or deliberate linguistic imperialism behind all this, even if there is evidence that the British (and recently the Americans) have made large, worldwide investments into exporting their language over the last decade. Other countries that speak “big” languages further support the process. Thus, in addition to The British Council, organizations such as the Goethe Institut, the Istituto Italiano, or the Institut Français spend large sums of money on teaching languages and popularizing their cultures. They see such expenditures as a remunerative means of international influence in commerce, politics, and culture, as well as the only viable way to compensate for the influence of the English language. It is a fact, however, that international English is being promoted without any significant institutional assistance, and neither the old, nor any recent anti-American sentiment can prevent it from spreading further.

Of course, many people in Hungary and elsewhere in East-Central Europe fear this seemingly unstoppable expansion of the English language, considered by many as the “battering ram” of (American) globalization. The penetration of the English language into Hungarian evoked the same feelings of fear and aversion in Hungary as it did in France, French-Canada, or other cultures decades ago. As Americanization gains ground in Europe and in the entire world, the Anglophobia of certain cultures and the struggle to preserve their national cultural heritage, particularly their national language, is becoming more intense. Language protection laws from Quebec to Budapest are trying to subdue the invasion of American English with energetic patriotism, while, for fear of the possible deterioration of the vernacular, they are trying to cast out the intruding (yet in some cases warmly welcome) foreign expressions. It is to be feared that language purism, which is never completely free of nationalism, will go beyond its solely defensive intentions and turn into xenophobia accompanied by protests against foreign languages. This offensive approach toward “the other,” or foreign, languages is based on old customs of small nations re- evoking the ‘Language is our Fortress” principle as a narrow-minded, patriotic attitude. The Hungarian language, for example, has always had a positive, welcoming approach toward other languages, which is supported by the evidence of its rich vocabulary that contains many Slavic, Turkish, Latin, German, even English words and phrases. Thus, in language teaching and language learning there are vestiges and strongholds of atavistic attitudes toward languages that must be overcome. Experience shows that words of foreign origin tend to blend into another language if novel phenomena surface and the local dictionary offers no equivalent to them. Languages have a tendency of getting rid of any surplus import and integrating the necessary elements successfully without any help of legislative measures.

May it serve as a sign of caution that even such a bulwark of French science as the Institut Pasteur in Paris has made a compromise and is now publishing two of its major periodicals, including the prestigious Research in Microbiology, in English. The language of science has been changed to English. This means that even the East-Central European countries will have to follow suit sooner or later in order to lessen their linguistic and scientific isolation.

The existence of science and scholarship in small nations often depends on oral and written knowledge of the English language. Most achievements of scientists living east of the Elbe River never get published in any foreign languages; foreign scientists therefore hardly ever, or only by accident, come across the scientific accomplishments of the region. This is especially true in the case of the so-called “national” sciences where the situation in the national libraries or the chances of attaining scholarships have already marginalized our scholars in the world of international science. If, in addition, the publication and the public debates about such achievements continue to occur in the languages of small nations (and they do so in many instances), the circle will close. Hungarian publications rarely find their ways to international scholarship as the communication system that should deliver scholarly accomplishments to foreign countries is restrained by the shortage of funds, and no potential institutional patron is in sight. The number of qualified translators with excellent knowledge of languages as well as fields of specialization is minimal. And since these translators naturally try to benefit from their market advantages, the prices they charge are often unaffordable to the individual scientist or scholar. Translations are almost never revised by native speakers. Thus, because of the lack of good translations, the foreign competitiveness of domestic science and scholarship is often unrecognized. Most of the time even the translated materials are unable to promote national achievements on international levels due to their inadequate representation of the cultural frame of reference and the lack of linguistic precision. There are usually no state-supported, institutional tendering procedures for translation jobs, nor is there an institutional supervisory body for monitoring the standards of translations in the various fields of science and scholarship. Our university students and sometimes even our instructors are not capable of, or ready for, debating in foreign languages. Our language students are not in possession of the practical knowledge and the skills of carrying a discussion. Even our students at the foreign language departments are mostly unfamiliar with the methodology of debate in a particular foreign language. When Hungarians participate at conferences abroad they are hardly capable of more than reading out loud, often with a harsh accent, their paper that has been previously translated for them into a foreign language. When abroad, our conference presenters say what they can, not what they actually would like to say.

Translations strictly follow the original texts; their language is often alien to current usage of the given field internationally. Few scholarly/scientific fields have their own up-to-date bilingual dictionaries and the existing ones are outdated. When it comes to the academic field of history, nearly all foreign publications refer to the basic East-Central European historical concepts, events, and titles in completely different ways creating utter confusion at the international level.

Models of cultural influence

By focusing (perhaps too narrowly) on English as a second language and supporting local initiatives at the various levels of TEFL, The British Council represents one of several possible models of cultural influence: that of language as politics. The British Council was founded in 1934 explicitly for “the promotion of a wider knowledge of Britain and the English language abroad and the development of closer cultural relations between Britain and other countries.”4 The Council has learned from the success of American Studies as a popular discipline and has initiated similar British Studies programs at various universities with emphasis on multiculturalism, history, gender studies and the like. The British Council is also very clever in supporting a host of local incentives in schools, colleges, theaters, museums, galleries, reaching out for a wide variety of audiences instead of inviting the select few to semi-clandestine film-series and subsequent receptions as in the old days of the Cold War. Unfortunately, the old British Council library has also disappeared with the formal receptions: most of the carefully built up collection on British history, literature, culture, and the arts was brutally wiped out after 1989 and replaced mainly by practical language learning aids.

The French model of cultural influence is built on what may be labelled as shared, mainly contemporary, culture. In Hungary, the Institut Français preserved its earlier popularity and added significantly to it by hosting a variety of local cultural and artistic events, some with, others without specifically French relations. The Institut plays a unique and pioneering role among the foreign cultural centers by providing a chance for the host community to show their talent, even if there is very little or no French dimension involved: it is often at the Institut that a local author, artist, or scholar is first introduced or given a special opportunity to perform. The French are particularly good at, and appreciated for, fostering contemporary artistic and scholarly relations. In Budapest, they set out to address diverse audiences: a series on the makers and shapers of Franco-Hungarian scholarly relations over the last half-century attracted academic people. And they do remember fans of popular culture when it comes to musical programs or the visual arts.

The French have realized how strong the American competition has become: in a 1998 interview M. Jean-Luc Soulé, Director of the Institut Français in Budapest pointed not without apprehension to the visible presence of American mass culture in the realm of film, commerce, and food (“MacDonaldization”) and argued “how important it is for the Hungarians to preserve their special national cultural values and to try and express them and keep them alive.” He added that the Italians and the Portuguese achieved considerable success in this field.5

The Istituto Italiano di Cultura occasionally addresses the traditionally popular, “bi-national” agenda of Italo-Hungarian historical relations, such as Hungarian participation in the Risorgimento or the long exile in Italy of Hungarian revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth in the 19th century. But an able director, reputable Italian author Giorgio Pressburger of Hungarian origin and a double identity, was able to demonstrate the difference that proper leadership and individual incentive may make and how good ideas such as a writing course may rejuvenate an institute which has not been recognized as particularly effective until recently.

Most of these cultural representations have focused primarily on the capitol cities. In East-Central Europe where much of high culture has traditionally centered around the capitol cities this is partly understandable. But more intense efforts should be made to reach out to the populations in rural East-Central Europe.

The Goethe-Institut is currently among the most successful champions of cultural representation in East-Central Europe. It offers to the region (formerly the home of very mixed feelings about Germany) a peaceful and benevolent slogan as its rationale (Mit der Welt im Dialog–In Dialogue with the World). This occurs through an amazing variety of literary, photo, music, film, and theatric programs while it has also created a far-reaching network including movie theaters, museums, music halls, colleges and lecture venues, cafes, including even the city hall. While the core of its monthly program is offered in the rooms of the Institut itself (with simultaneous translation if necessary), the penetration of the Goethe-Institut into the cultural life of Budapest is truly amazing. The library of the Institut houses a considerable German database that includes the Bertelsmann, Brockhaus, and Fischer encyclopaedias, recent complete years of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Zeit, and a series of atlases, directories and other computerized data collections. Mercedes-Benz, Siemens Nixdorf, Lufthansa, Opel Di-Fer are among the key sponsors of some of the programs. The Goethe-Institut recognizes German language teaching as one of its primary goals in Central and South-Eastern Europe as well as in the former Soviet Union.6

The success of German and the Goethe-Institut in Hungary should not come as a surprise. The success of contemporary cultural presence depends upon the ability to build on the long tradition of intercultural cooperation. The Germans have had a very long period of time to understand that to “sell” their own country it is important to understand and enter into the culture of the host country.


Toward a unified Europe

One of the most essential requirements for the process of European integration is a coordinated command of languages. Europe, however, is not expected to be monolingual. Thus it seems as if English will not be the only language used in the Union. French politics, as well as the national languages that are strongly rooted in the national cultures move against this tendency, as they are afraid that any type of linguistic hegemony would be a threat to them. The notion of a “common” language brings up memories of past empires, including the Germanizing attempts of Habsburg Emperor Joseph II to the compulsory learning of Russian under the Soviet regime. In many instances there is a nationalistic feeling to protect the language of the homeland and a feeling of hatred towards linguistic forms of imperialist conquest and repression. These attitudes are hidden behind the concept of language purism that uses such linguistic tools as education in the mother tongue, preservation of a separate literary community, media and press in the nation’s vernacular, and a system of national communications across Europe.

In this context, the advancement of the English language may be viewed as a form of imperialism. Robert Phillipson’s excellent book, Linguistic Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), defines this advancement by claiming that “the dominance of English is asserted and maintained by the establishment and continuous reconstitution of structural and cultural inequalities between English and other languages.”7 Phillipson’s theory reveals his criticism of an “anglocentricity” that treats the English language in an exceptional way and makes an uneven preference between English and the languages of smaller nations when it comes to the distribution of material and intellectual resources or when linguistic expansion needs support.

English language teaching and learning take a leading position everywhere in the world that can be matched by neither smaller nor other large languages. Though not a linguistic approach, the process of Americanization, an effort to globalize the world the American way, further supports this. The economic and defence policies of such a process will nevertheless result in serious linguistic consequences. Today, the accelerated expansion of international English is essentially the result of a direct or indirect American presence, contact, partnership, and influence. The success of globalization is tied to the condition of eliminating the existing Babel-like confusion of languages or at least the feasible reduction of it. This fairly simple American English could therefore serve as a responsive and natural medium for integrating the entire world.

At the same time, such a process should not be so easily judged. Despite all due criticism, using the English language mediates modernization in the world’s underdeveloped regions, the same way the much-cursed Germanization played a modernizing role in the process of reducing underdevelopment in Central Europe. Doubtless the English language acts as the mediator of values and philosophical contents that sow the seeds of democracy, freedom, equality of opportunity, and competitive spirit on the soil of underdeveloped regions where the dependence on a feudal, hierarchical society, oppression of the individual, restricted personal liberty, and the problems of human rights prevent the unfolding of a livable human life. Even if the image of the United States has recently deteriorated worldwide and in Europe, and even if today many people tend to forget about the positive legacy that the Americans left us between and after the two world wars, still we shall not forget these positive values of Americanization, characteristic of the Puritan heritage of the Americans. Americans had a distinguished role in the process of getting rid of Nazism in post-World War II Germany, the stabilizing of French-German relations, and the raising of young, democratically thinking generations in Germany.

As internationalized American English is a language which is much simpler in grammar and vocabulary than most European languages, it makes therefore a much more effective means of communications.8 To boot, it is more democratic than most European languages that have preserved a great deal of the socially archaic, feudally coded norms of verbal interactions.9 A simple personal pronoun such as you can revolutionize relations between different social classes, age groups, and genders in countries where there has been an elaborate set of linguistic forms to express and underline social differences. The role of American English in unifying Continental Europe stems from the fact that it is not one of the many local languages but comes from outside. It can function as the language of the European Union very much in the making. Its success in East-Central Europe has had also to do with the anti-Soviet tinge it acquired over the decades of the Cold War.

Capable of dismissing ancient social hierarchies with a simple “you” that does not differentiate between the formal and informal ways of addressing others, the English language can also enhance the interaction of people, injecting a measure of democracy in a multiplicity of ways. Just when we think of how we greet, address, talk to, or interact with others in English, it is no surprise that in terms of its vocabulary and grammar the English language can spread with lightning speed to the detriment of German, French, or Russian – all of which lack not only the democratic “you,” but also the essential cultural approach that is free from all hierarchical ways of thinking.


American values, European Union

In a part of the world where the knowledge of various foreign languages such as German, French and/or Latin kept the Continent together and apart, teaching and learning English as a second language has become a significant minor industry. Every year four to six times more people apply for admission to the major state universities to enrol in English Studies and six to eight times more people want to enrol in American Studies than the number of available places allow.

The success of English is to a large extent due to its effectiveness and ability to be used with straightforward simplicity. It is effective in spreading the philosophy and skills of American interpersonal communications outside the realm of language as well. This brings into the region a culture of much more democratic human relations that could replace the autocratic, feudally based traditions. Hence the double popularity of these “American” skills: there is a veritable movement to train people in the art of building and maintaining human relations, communication techniques, and effectiveness in everyday life. Effectiveness is a slogan of the day that is quickly spreading in traditionally ineffective East-Central European societies. Hence the emerging cult of the manager, one of the most cherished occupations in this part of the world today, with manager brief cases, manager calculators sold to prospective or self-styled managers in manager shops everywhere in an increasingly managerial minded metropolitan Eastern Europe. The effectiveness of the United States in terms of disseminating its politics, technology, science, and economy translates easily into the spread of its language and communication patterns.

The spread of positive and negative American values evokes fear and animosity in East-Central Europe where the United States is treated with mixed feelings of envy and suspicion. In these largely non-Protestant areas of Europe, money is always suspicious and associated with Jews rather than with work. Populist and nationalist would-be demagogues keep warning their nations of globalization, the imperialist power of the multinational companies, and the loss of national identities. But there is well-founded fear that foreign capital will buy up the land, the work place, and the culture. There is fear that joining NATO and the European Union is not doing good for the integrity of the small countries of East-Central Europe which might be relegated to becoming an outpost of a “Euro-Atlantic” civilization, meaning an imperialistic United States, the blessings of which fail to show up quickly enough. Tolerance, the respect of multiculturalism, the ready acceptance of “otherness” are still far away, as some of the traditionally national elements of culture are fading away and the vernacular is threatened by “international” English.

Notwithstanding fears of globalization and “American imperialism,” the many virtues of the English language might easily give it a leading position in the European Union. English is not only a medium for speaking and writing, but it also represents a modern and democratic mentality, a cultural approach and open-mindedness that, in a practical manner, may revolutionize the interrelationship of European nations, their mutual perception and understanding. Of course, we should refrain from allowing and making it possible that English as an international language supersede the national languages by simply replacing them. The European Union is not the United States of Europe. All European cultures and traditions, all national cultures and traditions, and all nations stay alive in their own languages in which they are rooted. But ever since the disappearance of Latin there has been no such international or “external” language that has been able to link the European nations as successfully as English. Should English be able to preserve its democratic content and refuse to give in to imperialistic impulses while protecting its inner freedom, it will prevail on the continent of Europe.10




Françoise Waquet, Latin or the empire of a sign. From the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. Translated by John Howe (London-New York: Verso, 2001), pp. 96-97.


Bernard Vincent, “From Dead Latin to Dead English: On the Lethal Effects of Linguistic Universalism,” in Cristina Giorcelli and Rob Kroes, eds., Living with America, 1946-1996 (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1997), p. 125.


Cf. Richard W. Bailey and Manfred Görlach, English as a World Language (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1982), Alastair Pennycook, The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language (London and New York: Longman, 1994).


Britain 1981. An official handbook (London: Central Office of Information, 1981), p. 71.


Interview with M. Jean-Luc Soulé, Director of the Institut Français in Hungary, July 8, 1998 as part of “The Image of Hungary” project of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, directed by Tibor Frank, Elemér Hankiss, and Attila Pók.


Goethe-Institut, Förderung der deutschen Sprache (München, 1997).


Robert Phillipson, op. cit., p. 47. Italics in the original.


David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 80-85.


Zoltán Kövecses, American English: An Introduction (Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2000), pp. 219-234.


Cf. two of my related articles: Tibor Frank, “The Politics of Culture: American Values in East Central Europe, ADE Bulletin [The Association of Departments of English], No. 123, Fall 1999, pp. 55-58, and Tibor Frank, “Impacting the Vernacular: Conflicting International Cultural Policies in East-Central Europe,” in: American and German Cultural Policies in Eastern Europe: Assessing Developments in the 1990s (Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, The Johns Hopkins University, 1999), pp. 17-25. I have used parts of these articles in the present text.


* Presented at a roundtable on the role of English in East-Central Europe in the Europe Institute, December 10, 2002. Tibor Frank is professor of History and American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest.