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Polyglots required if we want a place in the global academy

English cannot be the only acceptable language of scholarship, says Toby Miller. It’s arrogant, impractical and anti-intellectual

Marcus Butt THE opinion illustration 7 March 2013

Source: Marcus Butt

We might engage in partnerships with Korean or Chinese universities, but our discourse, our theories and our points of departure will continue

The signs are all there: the future domination of English as the major language of international diplomacy, business and education seems assured. Safely positioned in the top three internet languages and the top two Twitter languages, it is the preferred mode of communication for international airline pilots, corporate engineers, university physicists and medical researchers, inter alia.

In academia, English has long been the sine qua non for publishing in the sciences and medicine. The social sciences and humanities remain partial holdouts, perhaps because of the spread of the two other principal imperial languages, French and Spanish, the wealth of their sponsoring nations and the localism of their discourse. But even these areas are changing - for example, Latin American universities clearly favour work published in English over the languages of their own countries.

All this looks just fine and dandy for Anglos, doesn’t it? We can remain in our English shell, confident that anything worth translating will duly be brought before us. And confident, too, that we understand, for example, globalisation, because we are agents of it. We remain respectful, of course, of other cultures, but are clear that their knowledge must be communicated in English for it to affect how we think.

As an academic, I often see this tendency in, say, lists of journals drawn up by professional associations, libraries and governments as legitimate publishing venues.

And I see it when reviewing manuscripts for publishers. Even scholars undertaking fieldwork outside their comfort zone, and presumably learning the relevant languages, rarely cite scholarship other than in English. So while primary sources, such as newspapers or interviews, perhaps even school history textbooks, are mentioned, theoretical and analytical work done by “the other” is not. This sends a clear message: “You are worth studying; you are an object of knowledge; but you are not a subject of knowledge, creating scholarship that I need to understand alongside work signed by a vast array of angloparlantes”.

At the same time, English-language countries are now engaged in an unseemly rush for East Asian money in the social sciences and humanities. (We have great universities! You have great finance! We welcome you!)

And the curriculum? It will largely remain as it was, of course. (We built it that way, it’s about us, you want it.)

We might engage in partnerships with Korean or Chinese universities to add Asia and stir, but our discourse, our theories and our points of departure will continue. This means we can go on teaching our own country’s students as before, with the costs to them kept somewhat under control by income from “the other”. It all sounds very neat. But it’s flawed and stupid.

First, the Asian wave may be changing direction towards local education with the rapid rise of its own universities. Second, many forecasters think that the rise of the Bric countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) as economic powerhouses may be coming to an end, as a result of factors from rising wage expectations and class struggle, to state corruption, inefficiency and shifts in patterns of consumption.

The Financial Times recently ran a “Beyond the Brics” series highlighting the potential of countries such as Indonesia and Mexico, while The Economist has just published a 10-page special on Mexico pointing to, among other achievements, the country’s return to its status as the world’s leading television-set manufacturer because its skills, wages and transport costs are undermining China’s brief hegemony.

There have been false dawns for these countries before. But betting against them now would be ill-advised, given their strategic position in the international political economy and their blend of natural resources and human capital.

Second, the current hegemony of Chinese money in particular is far more than a financial gift. It presents a unique opportunity to change how we do what we do, for the better. The same would apply for Mexico or Indonesia. But the opportunity is not being taken.

The research excellence framework necessarily influences how we undertake, categorise and value scholarship. But one day we shall look back on four- stars and “impacts” as arbitrary and whimsical classifications. We must remake ourselves in ways that transcend the limits of managerial and bureaucratic imaginations.

This would mean an immediate revolution in how we hire faculty, train graduate students and undertake research. We should conceive of our teaching and research on a collaborative basis. That means, depending on the topic, working in teams. Those teams should involve people who are fluent in all the major world languages (Putonghua, English, French and Spanish); who mix academic backgrounds across the human sciences; and who are prepared to rewrite the rules of what counts as knowledge and where they should publish it.

The effortless extrapolation from literary criticism or social theorisation undertaken from stained and worn armchairs and breathlessly reinvigorated over youthful laptops will no longer do. To remain as we are, in our methodological nationalism and monolingualism, is impractical, given the new needs and orientations of our political economy, and anti- intellectual, given the new opportunities for knowledge that such a revision promises.

The future is not English.

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Readers' comments (7)

  • Collaborations already do take place across disciplines and cultures, particularly in the natural sciences and engineering. The fact that English is so widely used is what makes this kind of internationalism possible.

    I'm not sure about the idea of hiring people based on their language skills though. Most Research Groups will naturally have a range of languages covered, but the idea of deliberately hiring an otherwise inferior candidate just so he or she can publish in an obscure foreign-language journal is quite a strange one. If we accept the premise that almost all academics can read English, what exactly is the benefit of assembling some kind of in-house translation unit so as to be able to publish in a non-English journal with a tiny readership?

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  • The sad reality is that a) most UK university staff can't communicate to a high level in any foreign language and when language audits take place, it is found that the types of languages that are spoken are not necessarily those that are in need for particular projects or collaborations.

    Mr Hughes- your tone is patronising and dare I say typically British- terms such as "obscure" foreign languages, "inferior" candidates and "tiny readership" along with generalisations that almost all academics can read English nowadays betray a deep sense of ignorance of how the world works and how foreign language acquisition takes place not to mention the levels of proficiency that are required to think in a foreign language.
    The original article made a sensible suggestion to hire faculty teams from the world's major languages; this would give the UK a sharp competitive advantage. The alternative- rapid monolingual decline

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  • Actually, in some STEM fields around half of scholarly articles published are by authors in the English-speaking world and just about any journal anyone cites in the scholarly literature is published in English (for example, there are top-notch German journals - but they publish in English). Thus in these fields any scholars worth their salt can, at a minimum, read in English, but the same is not true of any other language. Take, for example, the mention of Latin American scholars being under pressure to publish in English - the number of scholarly articles published by authors based in the Spanish-speaking or Portuguese-speaking world is a small fraction of the total, even more so when it comes to high-impact (as measured either by the journal's impact factor or the articles' citations) and thus such pressures are not irrational. Science can only be an international endeavour if scientists can communicate in a common language, and at least when it comes to highly-cited venues, English is the only game in town.

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  • Toby Miller advocates a revolution in research and teaching so it becomes more collaborative. If this happens he suggests English-language speakers will escape their 'methodological nationalism and monolingualism'.

    Two users above suggest international collaboration already takes place in the sciences, and that English is the language of choice for practical reasons. It is hard to see in what way the charge of methodological nationalism applies to the sciences too.

    From an arts and humanities perspective, I find Miller's suggestions counter-factual, impractical or simplistic. I see world-class institutions in Britain like the School of Oriental and African Studies and UCL's School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies and wonder whether other countries have similar world-class institutions focusing on English-language culture? Likewise, it is hard to deny the long-term methodological influence of French, German, and Russian thinkers and writers on 'monolingual' subjects like English. From a practical point of view, Miller's suggestions exist in a vacuum. Does he think people interested in higher education choose to live in a monolingual world? Does he not realise that modern foreign languages are not a compulsory subject in secondary education? Does he not realise that when they are taught they are often taught badly and there is often very little choice (French and German at my school)? Does he realise there is very little support to study abroad, in terms of finance and information, even when you go through schemes like ERASMUS (British participation is much lower than other countries)? In terms of being over simplistic, it is quite ironic that Miller condemns English-language speakers' monolingualism but does not acknowledge the massive cultural differences between different English-language countries, which can be just as pronounced as those between English and other foreign languages.

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  • ßµ®Ñ+§¥Ñ@P$€

    The author's position may be correct, but his argument is unscientific.

    Science is the quest for knowledge. Whether the way that is performed is perceived as arrogant, impractical and/or anti-intellectual sits outside the realm of whether we are obtaining more and better knowledge.

    If it can be shown that the effort in communicating with greater language diversity leads to more and better knowledge creation, then the author's position would be scientifically justifiable, but that case does not appear to have been made here.

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  • louis coiffait

    I think this is a really interesting area, I'd love to do some research into how non-English speaking academics feel about the growth of 'global English' in HE. Is something lost by increasingly having to teach, publish and present in English? Are there patterns by discipline? What about Mandarin?

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  • Steve Williams

    Only in the UK would this be an issue - in any other country, it is blindingly obvious that one can engage more easily if one speaks the language of those with whom one wishes to engage!

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