Author: Sofia Pagliarin
The cultural hegemony of the English language: a way out!
Javier 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 our previous post, we left our discussion suggesting that there might be ways to overcome the cultural hegemony of the English language in academia.
In this post, I summarise Javier’s point of view on how academic production could become ‘multi-lingual’, and how conferences and events could be organised differently to represent and reflect non-Anglo-Saxon cultures and contexts of scientific production.
Sofia: Javier, do you have practical suggestions in mind to overcome the hegemonic ‘mono-linguism’ of the English language in the future?
Javier: Yes, well, the key factor here would be technology. A conference should not only be multi-lingual, but language barriers should ideally be overcome. So that’s why I don’t believe there can be a lingua franca – not even Esperanto – but that there should be many at the same time.
For instance, at a conference, everybody should be able to speak in whatever language they want (at least the 7 most spoken in the Global South: Mandarin Chinese, Indi, Arabic, Spanish, French, Portuguese and English). In an exercise of imagination, for my ideal conference, the name tag should also include the native spoken language of the person, and everybody would go around with his/her smartphone and set the language of that person to communicate with each other. We could talk to our smartphones and then let the app translate to the language of the person we are talking with – that’s even already possible today. Or when speakers are presenting their papers or talking at a plenary, the content of their speech would be translated simultaneously in several languages on the screen, so that people can read it in their own languages. Another thing would be to make conferences more virtual – the ones who can make it to conferences in the Global North from the Global South are just the privileged – because of the cost of the travel, but also because they are the ones who can actually communicate in English.
Sofia: So a sort of not multi-lingual, but ‘post-linguistic’ conference?
Javier: In a way, yes. Technology can really help us overcome linguistic barriers – maybe even in the next few years, and I think for instance that Google could be interested in showing off its products during a conference – that’s why I say we should transition to a type of communication that does not necessarily flow into and through the English language.
Sofia: …A transition?
Javier: Yes. So we could in the future have a conference in the Global South where people can talk in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Indi, Chinese, Arabic, English, but without feeling ‘less than’ the English-native speakers just because they don’t know or command English as it is expected nowadays, for instance, because they could not access to a certain type of (elite) education. Of course it’s another thing when it comes to the translation of a paper – but for spoken English I think we already have the technology to overcome its use in the near future.
Sofia: But don’t you think that we would then give technology a huge amount of power? We would let technology translate our words without us having any control on this process of translation.
Javier: Yes, that’s also true, but what we would gain from the possibility to speak in our own language would be much larger than what we would lose. It’s a trade-off.
Sofia: What else could be done to overcome the hegemony of the English language?
Javier: Well, another thing I am working at the moment is to build a network of scholars from the Global South regarding urban topics – for instance from other countries in Latin America, but also from South Africa, Lebanon, India and China. The establishment and expansion of this network over time would be extremely important to overcome the Anglo-Saxon-based networks where our knowledge about the Global South is conveyed (which means, not passing through London to have exchanges with other places in the Global South).
An additional thing is – although it’s not my favourite – to publish both in English and in Spanish (or Portuguese), for instance. Then you increase the citations, and hence the journal’s impact factor , by increasing the audience the journal reaches to. But of course there are also resistances – many would just like to keep writing only in Spanish or Portuguese, or are against translations, because they argue that even the best translations are never like the original texts. I think the same happens in France.
In my point of view, I would be more than happy to loose something in the translation of a book or an article if that knowledge can be disseminated more broadly to other audiences. It’s a trade-off, like the one about technology we were discussing previously.
Sofia: But some journals for instance are already translating into French, Spanish or Chinese the abstracts of articles written in English.
Javier: Yes, but this does not mean that they cite it, and make their impact factor increase. For instance, many English-speaking scholars in urban studies writing about Latin America do not cite literature written in Spanish or Portuguese . They cite other scholars who are like them, and who write about Latin America. As a consequence, we from Latin America cannot share our knowledge beyond the ‘language barrier’ set through the English language, nor get recognised for the knowledge we produce.
Therefore, it is not contemplated that there might be a knowledge about Latin America that is different from the view that the Global North has about this area of the Global South. For me it’s clear that any study about Latin American should at least be in three languages – Spanish, Portuguese and English.
Sofia: Thanks a lot Javier for sharing all this with us!
Javier: Thanks to you.
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.