A few years ago, one of the countless meetings generated by Brexit was held in Paris. In this we participated an American, three British, three French and two Spanish. The matter to be dealt with then is irrelevant now, for what is desired to be proposed in what follows. At that time, I was greatly surprised by the previous proposal from the French representatives: they were going to bring professional English-French interpreters and they proposed to us Spaniards that we join them in that regard. I knew the three Frenchmen and I knew that they were fluent in English.
I spoke to my partner and, after moving from surprise to joke to serious discussion of the proposal, we agreed with the French. The advantage of using the mother tongue in a negotiation with interlocutors who are not native speakers is so enormous that it can be decisive. That meeting was initially a gibberish, due to the lack of custom (finally there were six interpreters), but little by little we continentals began to feel more secure and the islanders more restless.
Why is English somehow still, and seems to be for a long time, the European and almost global lingua franca? For many reasons, which we all intuit stem from the outcome of the Second World War. But the idea is not to debate this question, but to propose a world lingua franca generated in Europe (which is the most needed because in it, I think I remember, 67 languages are spoken). Esperanto? Latin maybe? Not all. But all of them, on exactly the same footing and, furthermore, gradually encompassing the more than seven thousand languages of the world. Let’s see the feasibility of such a huge purpose.
Let’s sit in a movie theater in Germany or Italy where they are showing a classic western. No one is surprised to see Clint Eastwood revolver in hand and hear him warning his opponent in German or Italian. In Spain, film dubbing is so developed that it is common for the same dubber to give voice, almost for life, to a specific American actor. What technical and even artistic phases must be covered to achieve such a miracle? The first, logically, is the translation; the second is the optimization of the synchrony between the movement of the lips of the main actor and that of dubbing; then come the dramatization elements and, finally, covering all of them, a certain variety of more or less sophisticated techniques, but all mastered for many decades.
The question is whether all those stages and games can be merged to make it possible for multiple people to communicate directly, regardless of the language of each one of them. We would only have to put on headphones, check that the microphone is not far from our mouths, choose the languages to be dubbed and activate the device (possibly a smartphone with many other applications). We might even keep our natural tone of voice and own inflections.
With the future development of artificial intelligence, perhaps quantum computing, some elements of virtual reality, and a good set of technical innovations, all foreseeably feasible, this can be achieved. In fact, the first stage is being covered by Meta (Facebook) with its NLLB-200 system (No Language Left Behind or No Language Will Be Forgotten, starting with the translation of 200 from around the world). Let’s say that the steam engine has already been developed and we are now faced with building not just a locomotive, but a great railway network. The scale of the dream must be national and specifically European, removing private hands from the leadership of the plan. This is not for ideological reasons (or yes), but because the amount of resources to allocate to the development of such a project, and the number of scientific and technical researchers from different institutions and companies can be impressive.
Why is English somehow still, and seems to be for a long time, the European and almost global lingua franca?
But let us make the following consideration. The disturbing Manhattan project, so fashionable these days because of the film about Oppenheimer, involved an investment equivalent to about 25,000 million current dollars, the number of participants was more than 100,000 and it was developed in 13 venues throughout the United States. It was completed in about two and a half years. The Apollo project made it possible to reach the Moon just six decades after learning to fly with a motor (flying just 100 meters at a height of a few dozen). Possibly the most devilish virus of all those discovered, HIV, was tamed against all odds; to the point of turning the new and evil AIDS into a chronic disease in just a few years. The human genome was deciphered in much less time than expected, which many assumed was infinite. Other great scientific and technological successes, such as the Higgs boson, the International Space Station and all orbiting telescopes, the GPS and Galileo satellite systems, and a splendid and amazing etcetera, had three common denominators: a perfectly defined objective, budgets chilling and an efficient organization of numerous human resources.
Europe has plenty of resources like the above and only lacks the political will, the exact formulation of the project and its detailed design. Is there a more ambitious and hopeful proposal than this by the Spanish presidency of the European Union, to include a stellar position in the next Research and Innovation Framework Program that will begin in 2027?
With determination and consultation with a wide range of experts, there may not even be a wait for that year to start the most humane, cultural and ambitious project that is truly European: Europa lingua franca.
Manuel Lozano Leyva is Emeritus Professor of Atomic and Nuclear Physics at the University of Seville. His latest book is The Sorceress, the Cat and the Demon, from Zenón de Elea to Stephen Hawking: The twelve imagined experiments that changed history (Debate, 2023)
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