Author: Sofia Pagliarin
The cultural hegemony of the English language: the lock-in
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 , 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.
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.