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

Author: Sofia Pagliarin

The cultural hegemony of the English language: a way out!

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 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.

 

Slow Science interview #2 – an interview with Javier Ruiz-Tagle (3/4)

Author: Sofia Pagliarin

The cultural hegemony of the English language: the lock-in

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 our previous post , Javier and I talked about the asymmetry in academic production, which is dominated by (generally native) English speakers, even when topics are about other cultures and contexts.

In this post, we focus more on how we got to this point – that English has become the language we have to use in academic production and communication.
Sofia: Javier, ok, that’s a fact: the English language is culturally hegemonic.

Javier: Yes.

Sofia: But in the past, in Europe, we had Latin, then French, then German as a ‘common language code’ or ‘passpartout language’ across countries, for commerce, trade, science and literature, and historically there have always been hierarchical ‘power centres’. Now there is English and London, as you said… so why is this necessarily a problem?

Javier: The use of English as a hegemonic language is not a problem per sé, but its consequences are a problem. If we restrict our discussion to scientific production, and within it to the social sciences and specifically to urban studies, which is my field of expertise, it is undeniable that academic production is asymmetrical. It is a North-South relationship, not South-North. I mean, if English would be such a lingua franca, as you say, the Global South would contribute equally or similarly to scientific production. But this is not the case.

Sofia: Can you tell me more about this asymmetry?

Javier: Sure. Let’s start from acknowledging that in the world the most spoken language is Mandarin Chinese. Then we have Spanish, and at the third place we find English. It is clear that the role of English as a lingua franca – as you call it – isn’t neutral, but that it is related to specific path-dependent processes and lock-ins whose persistence is inevitably linked to questions of power and history.

The hegemony of the English language does not stem from its numerical hierarchy – as it is the third most spoken language – but of the specific historical process that made the English language gain a certain status that is now difficult to change. Basically the supremacy of English is a consequence of the influence of the British Empire from the 18th century, and US neo-colonialism since the mid‐20th century.

The use of language is not neutral – the consideration of the English language as a so-called lingua franca is a false universalism. For instance, when in a book the author refers to ‘the city’, it is clear that the author has in mind the US or the European city model.

Therefore, the use of the English language is an aspect of a cultural hegemony that has consolidated over time. It didn’t get to that hegemonic position by accident.

Sofia: Are you saying that all academic production is linguistically biased?

Javier: Yes. Hegemony has a hierarchical structure, which in this case is organised not only around the use of a certain language, but also through ‘centres of knowledge’, for instance in London, and then of course through journals, catalogues, impact factors, and so on. Again, the US fought its ideological battle after World War II also through science and scientific practices. The scientific dominance of the US was grounded on a positive feedback loop: first, the larger the involvement of scholars (directly or indirectly) in Anglo‐Saxon academia, the more consolidated its reputation and hence, second, the higher the attraction for scholars to study, research and publish in English. Third, as a consequence, Anglo‐Saxon academia becomes more important, as well as the use of the English language. Of course, the larger the predominance of English, the more the academic audience gets involved in Anglo-Saxon academia, so the loop begins again.

Sofia: And in what other ways is the cultural hegemony of the English language played out in your own experience?

Javier: For instance, the fact that scholars from the Global South have to make an extra effort. This goes of course also for those scholars in the Global North whose native language is not English. They also have to make an extra effort.

But what I often tell to my students is that, as critical scholars in urban studies, we have to do four-times the effort of a native English speaker. This is because I try not to give translated texts to my students. They should learn to access books and article written in English on their own. This is because I once took the 300 keywords in the leading journal for urban studies in Latin America – and translated those words into English. I searched for those keywords in academic catalogues and the result was that those keywords in English appeared 11 times more on average than they did in their Spanish version. So if I would show my students only academic literature in Spanish, I would basically be hiding from them 90% of the knowledge in urban studies.

So we in the Global South have to make four different efforts: we have to be acquainted with mainstream theories and also critical theories of the North – so that’s already two efforts – and also with mainstream and critical theories of the Global South – so that’s the other two efforts. But despite that – we aren’t even recognised for it. The hegemony of the English language is so powerful that they treat you differently if you cannot properly speak in English. This is discrimination based on language.

Sofia: So how shall we change this system? Is there a way out?

Javier: Yes, I think there is. The first step is to recognise that there is not only one lingua franca, but many. And conferences and events can and should be organised differently, and knowledge communicated differently as well.

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.

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.

Slow Science interview #2 – an interview with Javier Ruiz-Tagle (1/4)

Author: Sofia Pagliarin

Why is research about Latin America mostly in English?

foto web

 

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.

 

I met Javier last time during a conference in Leeds in September 2017. At the closing plenary session, focused on African cities, the usual round of questions & answers started. Javier stood up and asked provocatively why Global South issues have to be discussed in Global North venues (especially in the UK) and why, if we were at a conference of left-wing, critical social scientists, we were still only talking in English.

In July 2018, I got in touch with him to know more about that episode, not only to disentangle his motivations, but also to what extent the English language as the current lingua franca can uncontroversially be considered as such.

The following text is a synthetic re-elaboration of our Skype talk – during which, by the way, we could talk in Spanish (another hegemonic language?) – structured in four posts and reviewed together with Javier before its online publication on the Slow Science blog.
Sofia: Javier, can you tell me about how you came to stand up during the plenary and ask why we were talking in English?

Javier: Yes, of course. But I don’t think at all that I was saying that we should not talk in English, nor I was complaining about it. My aim was not to criticise, but rather to put under discussion the asymmetry of academic production among the ‘Global South’ and the ‘North’. I was calling for a joint and serious discussion about this topic.

I was making the point that the Global South is a place where we study and conduct a lot of research, but that at the end of the day our research never makes it to the North – it is the North that comes to us.
Sofia: Can you give an example?

Javier: Sure. For instance, in urban studies, we often have Western scholars from Europe or the US that come to the Global South, for instance India, Africa or Latin America, and do their targeted fieldwork in our cities, go back to their offices in the North and then write books and articles about us in English. Books and articles that are not even translated for instance to Spanish or Portuguese, but that we have to cite anyways, because they become part of the academic and official knowledge about our cities.

Most of the time these scholars don’t even have contacts with local academics, just with a select few – certainly the ones that can speak English -, and then publish stuff about us. This is what happens for academic production about Latin American cities. The research and the fieldwork are neither communicated nor shared with local scholars – it stays within the limits of the English language, as in a bubble formed by language barriers – so how can they claim to have understood something about our cities? Which kinds of theories are made out of this process? That’s asymmetry.

Looking at it broadly, you can see that academic production and knowledge about cities in the Global South is mediated by London, as the capital of the largest empire in human history, and all this comes with that legacy. It has to go to London first and then it is recognised, and comes back to us.
Sofia: But there have been scholars that have been critical about this…

Javier: Yes. This isn’t new of course, and scholars have raised these issues in the past decade or so. However, if you look at what happened to the ‘Global South’ scholars that actually raised these questions, they are now all in the North (i.e. Jennifer Robinson, Ananya Roy, Susan Parnell).

First, these scholars come from the ‘North of the South’, so to say – so South Africa and India, where English is one of the official languages, and they have – at least partially – an Anglo-Saxon culture. This doesn’t happen with scholars that do publish a lot, but do so in a local language, such as Spanish or Portuguese. Knowledge and research that is not produced in English, in a way, does not exist. So this is the first aspect of the power asymmetry of academic production in English.

The second thing is that, once they are recognised, they flee to the Global North. These scholars are ‘co-opted’ by the centres of knowledge production in the North. From South Africa or India they go to London, Berkeley or Manchester. It is clear that there is a centralisation of academic production by means of the hegemonic role of the English language. This is the second aspect of power asymmetry.

These scholars are of course very progressive and all – but these scholars set the research agenda about what we, in the South, have to study about the South. This means that studies about the Global South are finally made ‘top-down’.
Sofia: …top-down?

Javier: Yes, for instance there is this association, the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), that includes scholars studying and researching Latin America in different fields, for instance literature studies, history, urban studies, geography and other stuff. But the members are mostly English-speaking, from Europe and from the US, and they do their annual conference in the Global North. What happens then is that these people set the agenda, define themes, write handbooks and ultimately decide what we Latin Americans have to study about Latin America (although this is starting to change in the last 5 years or so).

So in this sense there is an ‘occidentalism’ about the Global South – that is, that knowledge about the Global South is mediated by the North which is very much marked by the language we use to produce such knowledge.

And this is also partly our fault: it is difficult for us in the Global South to communicate, network and organise. We from Latin America are not connected to Africa or the Middle-East directly. This is also because we in Latin America first learn about European history, then about our country, and very little is left to indigenous cultures or to other continents. Everything goes through London, which in turn is connected to everybody.
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.

Waarom het debat over de universiteiten iedereen aanbelangt

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This piece was published on Knack

Het Slow Science Network bestudeert het academische milieu waarin we ons als jonge onderzoekers bevinden. Onze voornaamste bezorgdheid daarbij is de balans tussen de verschillende taken van de universiteit: onderwijs, onderzoek, en maatschappelijke dienstverlening. Met dit stuk willen we onze stem toevoegen aan de roep om het huidige financieringsmodel te herdenken. Tegelijkertijd willen we ook enkele kanttekeningen plaatsen bij de manier waarop het debat tot nu toe gevoerd is.

Reeds tien jaar verschijnen er regelmatig verhalen in de media over problematische situaties aan de universiteit. Hierbij ging het bijvoorbeeld om problemen met het welbevinden op de werkvloer, de afschaffing van studierichtingen, wetenschapsfraude en andere bedenkelijke praktijken, en een publicatiedruk die het nemen van dergelijke risico’s zou aanmoedigen. Ook de afgelopen weken kwamen dergelijke thema’s weer aan bod.

De rode draad is steeds de rol van het financieringsmodel van onze universiteiten. Hierbij is niet alleen de hoeveelheid geld, maar ook (en vooral) de manier waarop dat geld verdeeld wordt de oorzaak van de huidige malaise. Deze verdeling verloopt via verschillende kanalen, die als gemeenschappelijk kenmerk hebben dat de middelen verdeeld worden op basis van hoe de universiteiten scoren op een aantal kwantitatieve indicatoren zoals het aantal publicaties of doctorandi. Dat heeft natuurlijk als voordeel dat de verdeling van het geld tussen de verschillende universiteiten op een snelle en objectieve manier berekend kan worden. Het nadeel is echter dat dit in de praktijk leidt tot een blind nastreven van die indicatoren.

Wat de zaak nog problematischer maakt, is dat die middelen verdeeld worden vanuit een vaste pot. Dat wil zeggen: het te verdelen geld ligt al vast nog voor men naar de indicatoren kijkt. In het geval dat alle universiteiten er op vooruit gegaan zijn, zal het globaal toegekende geld niet mee toenemen. Dit heeft tot gevolg dat een universiteit die erin slaagt beter te scoren op bepaalde indicatoren, toch achteruit gaat wat betreft haar financiering wanneer anderen het nog beter doen. Een doorgedreven concurrentieklimaat is het gevolg. Universiteiten willen het niet alleen zelf beter doen, maar hopen ook dat andere universiteiten het minder goed doen.

Die analyse is niet nieuw. De problemen zijn welbekend en niemand is gelukkig met de huidige situatie. Verandering blijft echter uit. Niemand wil immers bij de verliezers zijn als het gewicht van de ene of de andere indicator bij de verdeelsleutels aangepast wordt. Op die manier zijn we in een situatie beland waarin iedereen het erover eens is dat er iets grondig veranderd moet worden, maar niemand daar concrete stappen toe zet. Deze patstelling kan opgelost worden door wanneer een instantie die de belangen van de individuele partijen overstijgt, de zaak in handen neemt. In dit geval is dat de overheid. We zien echter dat zij de zaak terug doorspeelt naar de universiteiten. Die leggen op hun beurt de verantwoordelijkheid bij het niveau van het bestuur en het onvermogen daar om beslissingen te nemen. De zwartepiet wordt doorgeschoven, met tragische gevolgen voor zowel de kwaliteit van ons onderwijs, de relevantie van ons onderzoek en de levensvatbaarheid van wetenschappelijk dienstverlening die niet direct geld in het laatje brengt.

Die situatie is echter niet louter een probleem van academici. Uiteraard zijn het zij die als eerste en op dagelijkse basis geconfronteerd worden met de beperkingen van het huidige systeem en daar soms een zware tol voor betalen. Tegelijkertijd mag men niet uit het oog verliezen dat het huidige systeem ook negatieve effecten heeft op het vermogen van de universiteit om haar drie kerntaken te vervullen: onderzoek, onderwijs en maatschappelijke dienstverlening. Op die manier is het huidige debat er een dat iedereen aanbelangt, niet alleen een handvol academici.

Neem nu de focus op wetenschappelijke publicaties, waarschijnlijk de meest beruchte indicator in de verdeelsleutel. De eenzijdige nadruk op publiceren in internationale tijdschriften leidt, in combinatie met de louter kwantitatieve benadering en de vermelde concurrentie, in de praktijk vaak tot een vervlakking van het onderzoek. Niet wat er gepubliceerd wordt, maar dat er gepubliceerd wordt, telt (letterlijk).

Onderzoeksonderwerpen worden vaak bepaald door de trends in de vaktijdschriften. Die internationale trends komen echter niet noodzakelijk overeen met de noden en vragen van de maatschappij die voor het onderzoek betaalt. Bovendien staat de nadruk op publicaties in internationale, Engelstalige tijdschriften de maatschappelijke verspreiding van aan de universiteiten geproduceerde kennis in de weg. Zo zijn er voorbeelden van Nederlandstalige vaktijdschriften die de boeken hebben moeten neerleggen wegens een gebrek aan publicaties. Onderzoek heeft aangewezen dat die vaktijdschriften, die bijvoorbeeld ook gelezen werden door leerkrachten, een belangrijke rol speelden in de verspreiding van onderzoeksresultaten naar een niet-academisch publiek. Meer algemeen heeft de nadruk op het tellen van publicaties tot gevolg dat er minder aandacht gaat naar alles wat niet meegeteld wordt. Communicatie aan een breder publiek of deelname aan het publieke debat komt in het huidige systeem bijna neer op gevaarlijke tijdsverspilling. Op die manier wordt er weer minder ingezet op het terugvloeien van kennis uit de universiteit naar de bredere maatschappij.

Dat universiteiten en haar activiteiten geëvalueerd worden, is normaal. Aangezien zij draaien op belastinggeld, moeten zij ook rekenschap kunnen afleggen voor wat zij met dat geld doen. De ironie van de huidige situatie echter is dat het huidige evaluatiesysteem er net voor zorgt dat de maatschappij minder waar krijgt voor haar geld. Het is dus hoog tijd om terug naar de tekentafel te gaan en met een beter model op de proppen te komen. Het is tijd voor onze rectoren om de kaarten samen te leggen en voor de ministers van Onderwijs en Wetenschap om het nodige leiderschap te tonen. Niet alleen omdat het huidige systeem nadelig is voor de academici, maar ook omdat het de universiteit ervan weerhoudt haar maatschappelijke rol te vervullen.

[Dit opiniestuk werd gepubliceerd op Knack.be.]

 

25/2: Slow Science meetup & museum visit

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To reinforce the ties that bind as well an enjoy an educational Sunday morning, the Slow Science network would like to invite you to join us in visiting to the ‘200 years Ughent: City and University’ at het STAM in Gent.

 

Texts, moving images and antique pieces from the university archive combine to tell a story about the interwoven fates of university and city. Though dedicated to Ghent University, you may find that many themes resonate with the history and experience of universities around the globe. Ever more, issues you may think of as uniquely contemporary may turn out to have a much longer historical legacy than expected…

 

After the visit, we will meet up again at the neighbouring STAM café for drinks. Lunch, good conversation and pleasant company guaranteed. You are most definitely welcome, as are your family and friends! 

 

Practical details

Date: 25th of februari from 10u to 14u

Location: STAM Gent (Godshuizenlaan 2, 9000 Gent, Belgium )

Entrance: Max 8 euro’s, 2 euro for those under 25, free of charge to Gent citizens

 

 

“Walloons go home!” A little appetiser for our April debate

 

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These precognizant protesters knew how this language thing was gonna play out in the end

The expanding use of English, both in scientific communication and in the classroom,  has gone by almost unnoticed and seems to only be contested in the margins. However, this is not without consequences, both for the kind of research that is performed, as for the ease with which scientific knowledge flows back to the rest of society. Moreover, the use of English may disadvantage those students that for whatever reason are not as fluent.

Placed in a historical perspective, this is somewhat peculiar. The linguistic emancipatory goes back a hundred years, and it is not until the thirties that students were able to follow courses in the Dutch language at Belgian universities (bar a somewhat embarrassing period under German occupation during the World War I) . But even so, this was not the case at all universities, nor for all disciplines. Still, an important demand had been fulfilled.

However, up until the sixties there remained a bilingual university in Leuven, two different structures under the same heading, enforced by the Belgian bishops who governed the universities. This proved to be a thorn in the eye for Flemish nationalists, and when their demands were rejected by the clerical authorities, they found themselves supported by others who wished to do away with the old bourgeouis establishment. This culminated in massive street protests, riding on the general wave of student protests in the wake of May ’68. Science and education in the language of the people, would also bring it closer to the people, as it was assumed.

Though the University of Leuven was stricly speaking a private university, and not under governmental control, the contestation led to the fall of a government, and was eventually resolved by the expulsion of the Francophone part of the university. The cows and sheep of Ottignies lost their grazing fields as a new city and university was erected on rural Walloon soil; Louvain-la-Neuve, literally ‘New Leuven’.

For some, this had the air of ethnic cleansing. Others were put at ease by the thought that the Francophone wing of the Catholic University of Leuven would no longer serve as a beachhead for French incursions into Flemish territory, which had been officially and legally defined by the drawing of the linguistic border in 1962.

So now, almost fifty years later, Dutch is again losing footing to another language. Are the issues that lay at the base of this struggle still relevant in our globalized world today, or is this no more than a rearguard fight of some disgruntled banner waving nationalists? We can’t pretend to answer this question for you, but we can find an outlet for you to debate these and other issues; at deBuren in Brussels, on the 23rd of April.

Be there, or remain forever ignorant!