Cultural differences and linguistic justice

Franz de Waal just wrote an interesting post at 3 Quarks Daily. He is currently in Japan to promote his latest book The Age of Empathy and he writes about cultural differences among scientists: Although Japanese scientists were, he says, far ahead in the '60s, their research was not taken seriously by their Western colleagues:

"Kinji Imanishi was the first to insist that observers give their animals names and follow them for years so that they understand their kinship relations. His concepts are now all around us: every self-respecting field worker conducts long-term studies based on individual identification, and the idea of cultural transmission in animals is one of the hottest topics of today. But that is now: at the time, all Imanishi got was ridicule.

In 1958, he and his students toured American universities to report their findings. They encountered a great deal of skepticism about the ability of mere humans to distinguish between all those monkeys, which all look alike. Weren't the Japanese grossly overestimating the social lives of their monkeys, and who said that monkeys could tell each other apart even if human observers said they could? Also, what about the humanizing inherent in giving names to animals: hadn't they heard that scientists need to keep their distance?"

De Waal points out the role of linguistic factors:

"The lack of credit for the Japanese approach (most treatments of animal culture either forget to mention Imanishi or, worse, claim that the studies of potato-washing were naive and ill-conceived) can be partly attributed to the language barrier. It is just hard for non-English speakers to make themselves heard in an English-speaking world.

Since English is not my native tongue, I am familiar with the effort involved in writing and speaking another language — even though my native Dutch is probably the closest another language can come to English. Scientists from other places have to make ten times the effort. English itself is of course not the problem: It is not better or worse than any other language. The problem is the attitude of native English speakers.

Naturally, you speak your own language faster and better than any other. This can make it impossible for those who are not native English speakers to keep up at international meetings. It is worse on those occasions when an English speaker doesn't pull any punches while debating with a scientist whose English is poor.

I have seen it happen often. The English speaker rises from the audience, articulates a penetrating question, sometimes with a joke mixed in, and barely takes the time to listen to the clumsily phrased reply of his opponent. Since English speakers dominate every discussion, they form a class of great minds strutting around in the secure knowledge that no one will challenge them."

When I read de Waal's post, I could not help but agree with him. It is tough being a non native speaker in the scientific world. Science is about competition: You compete for people's attention, for grants, for publications, etc. and you always find yourself at a disadvantage with English speakers (of course, I should add that since my own native language gave to English half of its vocabulary – and the most abstract part – I am not the most disadvantaged). And of course, the bigger is the role of language, and the bigger is the handicap. As a matter of fact, the majority of French psychologists and almost the totality of French anthropologists still publish in French. But the phenomenon also exists in "harder" science. I was told recently by a friend of mine, that French biologists publish fewer reviews, stick more to their models or their statistical analysis and rarely make use of any rhetoric trick.

As a non native English speaker, I have always felt that this situation was unfair. Of course, I know, it's not the fault of English-speaking people if their language plays this pivot role. There are similar situation in other domains such as sex, race or any kind of handicap: Advantaged people are not responsible for their advantage and therefore they do not have to compensate. However, there is another argument developed by Louvain philosopher Philippe van Parijs:

"Al and Bo grew up learning different mother tongues. At some later stage, Bo learns Al's, while Al does not learn Bo's. They can now communicate with one another. Not quite on an equal footing, of course-Al tends to have the upper hand in any argument they might have with one another and in any competition in which they might have to take part using the shared language-but nonetheless with significant benefits, both material and non-material, accruing to both. So far, therefore, so good enough-except perhaps that the cost of producing this benefit, though enjoyed by Al with greater comfort and with the bonus of some pleasing by-products, is borne entirely by Bo. Is this nothing to worry about, as Bo freely chose to learn Al's language? Or is it fair, on the contrary, that Al should make a substantial contribution towards this cost and, if so, at what level?"

What about science? There are probably twice as many non native English speakers in science as native speaker. This means the minority of native speakers enjoys the benefits of working in a much bigger scientific community without paying the costs of building this community (except may be when they struggle to understand their foreign colleagues….). Of course, one may replies that no one force non-English speaker to learn English. But is that simple? Van Parijs take the following example (which I really like, having lived for a while in shared houses).

"Some years ago, I spent a number of months, together with my family, living with my father-in-law. After a while, one feature of our common life started bothering me: as soon as any amount of dust or crumbs became visible, my father-in-law got the vacuum-cleaner out of the cupboard to get rid of them. As a result, all the cleaning was done long before we reached the threshold which would have triggered me into doing the cleaning myself, and my standards of cleanliness were more than met without my ever doing any work for it. No power relationship or altruism was involved, or at least needed to be. Yet the structure of the situation was such that I systematically benefited from my father in-law's toil without contributing myself in any way to the public good he produced. Even on the generous assumption that I was not responsible for any of the crumbs, this seemed unfair to me, and to restore my peace of mind (and enhance the probability of remaining welcome?) we soon struck an explicit deal involving some compensatory performance-toilet cleaning, if I can trust my memory."

I do not know if linguistic justice could be applied in science and whether it would be a good thing to do. But I am curious to know what readers, both English native and non native speakers, think about this.

(Thanks to Jean-Baptiste André for drawing my attention to de Waal's post.)


  • Olivier Morin
    Olivier Morin 15 March 2010 (18:13)

    I fully agree with you, Nicolas! It makes me think, Gandhi made more or less the same point in his famous speech at Banaras University in 1916: “Just consider for one moment what an equal race our lads have to run with every English lad. (…) Every Indian youth, because he reached his knowledge through the English language, lost at least six precious years of life. Multiply that by the numbers of students turned out by our schools and colleges, and find out for yourselves how many thousand years have been lost to the nation. The charge against us is that we have no initiative. How can we have any, if we are to devote the precious years of our life to the mastery of a foreign tongue? We fail in this attempt also. Was it possible for any speaker yesterday and today to impress his audience as was possible for Mr. Higginbotham? It was not the fault of the previous speakers that they could not engage the audience. They had more than substance enough for us in their addresses. But their addresses could not go home to us. (…) The only education we receive is English education. Surely we must show something for it. But suppose that we had been receiving during the past fifty years education through our vernaculars, what should we have today? We should have today a free India, we should have our educated men, not as if they were foreigners in their own land but speaking to the heart of the nation; they would be working amongst the poorest of the poor, and whatever they would have gained during these fifty years would be a heritage for the nation. Today even our wives are not the sharers in our best thought. I find the last line particularly touching. See the full speech [url=]here[/url].

  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 16 March 2010 (10:48)

    Yes, all this is true, but on the other hand, poor native English speakers! Unlike the rest of us, they don’t have to learn another language and most of them, including academics, never become fluent in another language. A good argument can be made that being bilingual or nearly so tends to make you intellectually and psychologically smarter and a morally better person. So, yes, native English speakers have an unfair advantage in scientific and, I imagine also business competition, but would you rather be a probably monolingual and monocultural English speaker of somebody at ease in at least two languages and two cultural communities?

  • Emma Cohen
    Emma Cohen 16 March 2010 (10:54)

    Thanks, Nicolas – this is a very interesting and humbling post. As a native-English, non-German speaking researcher working in a German, English-speaking institute, I am fortunate to have patient colleagues who, even in their own country, speak in English for my benefit. Daily, I’m as impressed as I am ashamed. One thing I hear recurrently, though, both here and back in the UK, is that my colleagues would rather ‘talk shop’ in English. Indeed, it is only when they attempt to do so in their first language that they realize how many set phrases and items of jargon they have incorporated into their everyday ‘work language’. I don’t know, however, how widely this resonates with others reading the blog, or whether it’s even specific to certain fields and/or narrow communicative contexts within the work environment. There are potentially more radical solutions to the fundamental injustice Nicolas has described, but perhaps some small steps could be taken by individuals, universities, and funding bodies to help right the balance; such as, for example, the free availability of professional language-checking services for manuscripts and applications (which, if restricted to English-as-second-language speakers would no doubt give an edge over native English speakers in many cases!). In my experience, this sort of proof-reading happens informally between colleagues – for every booming voice out there, there is perhaps one native English speaker who is happy to proof-read the work of a colleague whose first language is not English. Not all battles are fought in print, of course. The meeting room/ Q&A discussion is potentially a tougher problem to solve. The recognizable dynamic described so vividly by de Waal of the dominant English speaker strutting around captures, for me, a very particular kind of English speaker – I find myself spontaneously inferring from his description that this person is also likely male, senior, and perhaps has a particular fondness for the sound of his own voice, and probably asked the question primarily to posture than to hear the answer (regardless of language or expertise of respondent). I don’t mean to downplay the importance of a command of the language here (or to dismiss the problem on the grounds that such individuals are rare – I don’t think they are), but to perhaps simply offer the more general observation that a native English speaker, who is junior and/or female and not particularly accomplished in the art of strutting around securely, may also have great difficulty capturing the attention of such an audience. Accent is potentially an even subtler way in which injustice is played out, even among native English speakers – we know from sociolinguistic research that having the ‘right accent’ is important across many different walks of life, with even reports of individuals being sacked for having ‘the wrong accent’. Studies by Howard Giles, etc. from the 1970s onwards report the power of accent to influence a surprisingly broad range of social evaluations (see [url=]here[/url]). One experiment investigated the assessments of a group of Welsh students hearing different accented versions of the same (recorded) lecture – the quality of the lecturer’s argument was rated highest when presented in Received Pronunciation (a la standard BBC, military officer-class) compared with other regional accents (including the participants’ accents). Interestingly, the written version trumped all others. These studies control for comprehensibility of content, but perhaps for all non-native, non-standard/RP, non-senior, non-male academics, they suggest that the written word perhaps holds most promise for linguistic justice.

  • Konrad Talmont-Kaminski 17 March 2010 (10:48)

    Having been born in Poland, grown up in Australia and now working back in Poland, I have seen this from both sides of the fence. While I basically agree with everything that has been said, particularly with Dan’s point about the benefit of having more than one language, I would like to consider another aspect of this issue. Just looking at Polish philosophers I can say that the language barrier sets up an entry cost that is not neutral to quality of the academics who can pay it. In other words, it is most often the best of the philosophers that grew up in Poland who are the ones who succeed in transitioning to English in their work. This has both positive and negative effects. The positive effect is obvious – the quality of non-native speakers who work in English is higher than it would be without the language barrier. The negative effects are more complex. The first is that many of the academics who do not transition to working in a second language would have made a useful contribution if there was no language barrier. As it is, they are stuck, at least in the case of Polish philosophy, in what is something of a stagnant pool. The second is that even the more motivated and capable (or just plain lucky, in my case) Polish philosophers are still having to work within an institutional reality which is for the most part constructed by (and for) academics with a much more parochial outlook.

  • Justin Kraus 20 March 2010 (00:24)

    As a native English speaker who has learned to the point of competency and forgotten a couple of languages (it sucks) I can’t say I feel too sorry for non-native English speakers or much of an obligation to redress some percieved unfairness. But maybe I am just an a-hole. I am also currently in a similiar situation to Mr. Parijs’, my partner’s mother shovels food down me faster than my stomach can take it and doesn’t allow me to cook. I don’t feel bad about this however or try to compensate for it because I know that she is doing those things for me, but also because doing so makes her happy, it is the role that she has given herself. In the same way that Mr. Parijs’ roomate took on the role of being a sczhiod neat-freak. Why should anyone feel obligated to compensate for such behavior? More seriously, instead of looking at language acquistion as drudgery, akin to sweeping up crumbs, I personally enjoy the process of learning foreign languages (I’m on my 3rd lets hope I don’t forget it too) on so many levels that the idea that someone should feel sorry for me for doing it (though I’ll take any excuse I can to get paid) just doesn’t compute. Imagine someone feeling sorry for you while you eat a big tasty chocolate bar. Obviously not everyone is such a fan of learning foreign languages, but that is their problem, not mine. On the other hand I completely agree with you that non-English speaking academics have not enjoyed enough attention and think it is a travesty that mono-lingual academics exist at all, whether or not one of those languages is English.

  • Nicolas Baumard 28 January 2011 (21:35)

    in Trends in Ecology and Evolution [url=]“Awkward wording. Rephrase”: linguistic injustice in ecological journals[/url] by Miguel Clavero, Centre Tecnològic Forestal de Catalunya and a response [url=]’Linguistic injustice’ is not black and white [/url]