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A Proposal for Addressing Language Inequality in Academia

Written by Anri Asagumo

Oxford Uehiro/St Cross Scholar

Although more and more people see the importance of diversity in academia, language diversity is one type of diversity that seems to be diminishing: English is increasingly dominant in both areas. I would like to argue that people who are born and raised in an English-speaking country should be required to acquire a second language to the level they can write a rudimentary paper and give a presentation in that language in order to apply for international conferences and submit papers to international journals. The purpose of this requirement would be to address the significant inequality between native English-speakers and others. I focus on academia here, but ideally the same thing should be applied to the business world, too.

It is almost always the case that academics and graduate students who were born and grew up in a non-English-speaking country learn English as a second language, if they have not done so already, in order to advance their careers. In science, English is the standard language for almost all international journals and conferences. The need to learn English places non-native English speakers at a considerable disadvantage. Not only must they invest time in learning the language, but even then, they will often find it more difficult to participate in discussions, and they will often have to invest more time and effort in writing papers and preparing talks.

It might sound absurd, but my proposed requirement would mitigate the disadvantages that non-native English speakers currently endure. It would do this primarily by making native English-speakers more cognisant of the difficulties which non-native speakers face, but it might also, over time, encourage some conferences and journals to allow contributions in languages other than English. A positive side-effect would be that speakers of other languages could more easily find work as language teachers all around the world; this is an advantage currently enjoyed primarily by native English-speakers.

A more radical solution would be to artificially create the environment where other languages are as dominant as English, though Esperanto failed. My proposed solution would have fewer costs, since English could remain the dominant language, and native English speakers could choose which second language to Master. They could even choose a language which shares some words and grammatical rules with English. There are ten languages listed in category I of the Language Difficulty Rankings, as compiled by the Foreign Service Institute of the US, which are said to be the easiest languages for native English-speakers to learn.

There might be a concern that such a policy would slow down scientific progress because scientists are spending more time learning languages instead of doing science. It is, however, not a valid concern because that is exactly what people in non-English-speaking-countries are going through. One of the reasons I stipulated a level of language proficiency such that the individual could write or give a rudimentary paper or presentation is that this reflects the current situation for non-English speakers, who are required to have moderate competency in English, but not to the level of native English speakers to make a presentation in an international conference. One might object that my proposal could be taken as a case of levelling down, as a measure that aims to achieve greater equality only by making the currently better-off worse-off. However, it is worth noting that it might help English-speaking scientists to take the views of researchers with poor English more seriously and encourage communications between them, and eventually it could contribute to the faster development of new ideas and technologies.

One question is whether a similar policy should apply in other academic communities where there is a different dominant language. For example, French is the dominant language in academic philosophy in France; should French philosophers working in France therefore also have to learn another language? This is not within the scope of my argument because in the current society French-speaking people are also almost always the ones who have to work on their English before they go to an international conference.

Even if every single scholar in English-speaking-countries learn a second language well enough to make a presentation in that language, English would continue to be a platform as a world standard language. Yet the result of the implementation of the policy would bring about some fruitful benefits for everyone: for non-English speakers the alleviation of current inequality; for English speakers the well-known positive aspects of being a polyglot; the improved academic equality and the potential of faster development.

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2 Comment on this post

  1. Wouldn’t the issues that the OP raises regarding language inequality be most aptly addressed by bringing professional translators into academia?

    If I’m a monolingual English speaker and am going to a conference in an area where English is a second language, wouldn’t a good way to ensure efficient and clear communication be to have someone who knows the subtleties of the native language facilitate? Put another way, wouldn’t someone who knows when and where to convey emphasis, how to distinguish words and phrases in a way that doesn’t distract the audience, etc., be more effective than any particular speaker delivering a talk at a basic or even moderate level of linguistic proficiency? If every department at a university had a translator just as they have a secretary, I think many of the author’s concerns would be satisfied.

    With regard to journals, considering how much money they charge, it also seems reasonable to petition them to hire full time translators to make articles diversely accessible in a number of languages.

    Academics already have so many institutional requirements to meet — the GRE, service to the profession, technical writing and editing skills, clear verbal communication, publication demands, keeping up with literature, classes to teach, a PhD to earn, etc., and I worry that adding a language requirement would serve to ensure that English-speaking academia becomes populated predominantly by those who can afford language tutors or services.

  2. A comment… Esperanto has not failed.
    There are people who go around the world using Esperanto as an international language.
    Moreover, a lot of literature from all the countries has been translated in Esperanto. So much that it would not suffice a life to read them all.
    And the last thing I would like to point out is that the language is very, very simple to learn. Some month learning Esperanto correspond to years learning English or other unfamiliar languages.

    So, Esperanto has not failed.

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