17 February 2009

American linguistics

I have recently read an excellent book by the Spanish linguist Enrique Bernárdez: El lenguaje como cultura (Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 2008). This book covers a wide range of linguistic topics that I will discuss in future posts, especially his analysis of the concept of ‘language’ and his critique of some common assumptions in linguistics and human sciences. The title of the book (Language as Culture) is actually a clear indication of one of the main themes of his proposals. Today I am going to focus on one of the topics covered by Bernárdez in his book: the use of English in science.

It is clear that English has become the predominant language for international communication. It is the lingua franca of today, allowing the exchange of ideas between people who speak different languages. This is also felt in science, where English is by far the most usual language in all kinds of publications (books, articles in journals) and meetings (conferences, congresses, etc.). Linguistics is not an exception in this common trend: publishing books or articles in English is a priority for anyone who wants to be known as a linguist. Otherwise, you simply don’t exist as a linguist, especially for the American establishment. According to Bernárdez, American linguists tend to use bibliographic references that have been published in English, systematically ignoring the rest. The growing prevalence of English in science puts a lot of pressure on the authors who are not native speakers of this language, because they have to make an extra effort to produce 'acceptable' texts. And it is also a matter of style: the scientific discourse of English-speaking scientists, including their choice of vocabulary and conceptual imagery, is usually taken as a model. The driving force behind this ‘adaptation’ is the need to be considered ‘acceptable’ by the establishment. Otherwise, you simply don’t exist, especially by American standards. In linguistics, there is also a further negative consequence of this globalized process: Standard English is usually taken as the reference point for the study of 'language' (general principles, origins of language, etc.) and even for the comparative study of individual languages. A clear example of this is Chomskyan linguistics. Some authors, for example Takao Suzuki, have pointed out that the use of English, or European languages in general, as the reference point can lead to a wrong understanding of phenomena which are present in other languages of the world. But the truth is that, especially in American theoretical linguistics, this ‘monolingualism’ (understood in more than one sense) is not perceived as a potential shortcoming. Focusing on Standard English, they avoid the trouble of having to face real language (or languages) in the real world.

Now, is it true that American scientists tend to ignore articles or books that have not been published in English? I felt curious about it, and decided to take a look at my book-shelves to see if I could test this claim. I picked a book at random and this is the result of my 'analysis':

- Steven Pinker. The Stuff of Thought. New York, Viking, 2007. I read this book last summer and I found it quite insightful, written with Pinker’s usual display of intelligence and richness of detail. The book is quite thick (nearly 500 pages long) and it includes thirteen pages of bibliography, with a total of 597 references. I have taken the trouble to check these references one by one, to see the languages in which they were published. What is the result? Yes, you guessed right: all of them were published in English, 597 out of 597 references! 100 %! It must be said that in many cases these references were originally written in other languages and later translated into English, but the question is obvious: What about the texts that have NOT been translated into English? Do they not count? Even in the domain of linguistics, where the specialists are supposed to know more than just their own language, it is becoming increasingly normal to find only-English references. American (or American-like) mainstream theoretical linguistics, vastly influenced by Chomsky’s ideas, seems to be a self-sufficient, inbred, uniform world. But that is something I’ll be talking about in a future post.


Brian Barker said...

I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

An interesting video can be seen at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

JoseAngel said...

Yeah... might is might, or perhaps, might is must. Maybe you should be writing this weblog in Valenciano, or in Spanish, to reverse the trend, instead of feeding the monster! Anyway, if they ignore you, and you don't ignore them, you do have a kind of head start, maybe it's a compensation of a kind.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Well yes, English is the lingua franca for international communication today, and that's why I write my blog in this language. But if you take a closer look at the posts in my blog, you'll see that I use bibliographic references written in a variety of languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, and the quotations are always in the original language. My criticism of Anglo-Saxon scientific discourse was mainly on the fact that they tend to use only sources written (or translated into) English, which leaves out potentially interesting research-work. This is particularly striking if we're talking about scholars who are doing research on language. In his book (p. 42), Enrique Bernárdez says that it is not necessary to be a polyglot to be a linguist. Maybe not a 'polyglot', but I think knowing a few languages would be quite advisable for anyone involved in the study of language.

Ann said...

I'm a polyglot but unfortunately not a linguist. I'd love to find the time to study my 6 languages in depth. Es clar que si.