Slow Science interview #2 – an interview with Javier Ruiz-Tagle (2/4)

Author: Sofia Pagliarin

The cultural hegemony of the English language: the unequal competition with native speakers

Foto carnetJavier Ruiz-Tagle is an Assistant Professor specialised in housing segregation, housing policies and urban politics and working at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He completed his PhD in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In the previous post, I asked Javier to tell me about the episode at an international conference where he stood up and asked, provocatively, why we were talking in English about the Global South from the Global North (the conference was held in the UK).

In this post, we continue our discussion about the cultural hegemony of the English language.

Sofia: Javier, I understand that English nowadays is a hegemonic language for cultural and scientific production. But that’s our current lingua franca, so we in academia do not have so much other choice but learn it… that’s the game.

Javier: Well, remember that in the Global South many people do not have access to education so easily. So even in higher education, the access to academic literature written in English should not be taken for granted. This is partly why sometimes concepts that are already consolidated in the Global North, might not be so in the Global South, and vice versa. Because there is a language barrier cutting through scientific knowledge.

Furthermore, and you might also have had the same experience, non-native English speakers feel ‘less than’ native English speakers because they do not have the words to express themselves properly. For instance, it was only when I went to do my PhD in the US that I could improve my English proficiency. And at the beginning I could not express myself properly, for instance when it came to concepts – but that didn’t mean that I was wrong or that I was thinking poorly. What I thought was as valid and significant as much as what my native English speaking colleagues were saying. But my words had less power, because they were not communicated properly.

The consequence is that English native-speakers and non-native speakers are competing on an unequal level.
Sofia: But would it not also be useful then to ‘educate’ native English speakers to look beyond their own culturally hegemonic language and knowledge, and to realise that they have to communicate with people for whom English is the second or third language? Shouldn’t they make also the effort?

Javier: That would be great. But I know so far only a handful of people from the UK or the US that know a second language. I saw that effort from other Europeans, like Germans, French, or Dutch, where they might speak Spanish as a third language. But I did not see this effort from the British.

People from the US almost pretend when they travel that people should speak in English. It’s part of their ethnocentrism. And you can see this in academia as well.

Sofia: So the English language cannot be considered a lingua franca?

Javier: Well, no. An additional issue linked to the cultural hegemony of the English language is that it forces people to speak the same language and, consequently, our thinking is ‘narrowed’ to the same conventions and parameters. It narrows and limits our world, because concepts emerged from different cultures and contexts necessarily have to be translated into English – and this is not always easy, or even possible. This is a process of homogeneity, which tends to level out differences, as one of the aspects of the broader globalisation process.

But I myself am part of the problem. I went to the US for my PhD, I often travel to conferences to the Global North… I am also part of the system. I have to recognise that for instance in Chile, only 10% of the population speaks English, which is the elite, who can afford having their children study in the best universities and to study abroad. However, this type of self-reflexivity has to be present in critical social scientists. We can’t just pretend our privileged position doesn’t matter.
Sofia: In your opinion, how could we change this situation?

Javier: People should take more responsibility to work as ‘hinges’. I mean, not gatekeepers that control access, but people that would function like bridges across cultures and contexts. Knowledge is manifold and diverse. It cannot be homogenised and levelled out only because the use of the English language was gradually imposed to us.

Academic knowledge and scientific production should recognise, also in the diversity of languages that are employed, that there are different types of knowledge and different centres of knowledge production – and that many of these are located also in the Global South.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Slow Science.

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