English: Serial Killer and Racist

The English language has been the topic of much discussion and debate recently, primarily due its widespread dominance and its perceived effects on other languages and the people/nations who use it, such as, the reduced global use of these other languages (domain loss) and the inequalities that non-English speaking researchers and scientists have to contend against. As Ives (2006) has noted, this rapid spread of English has led some to depict the language as predatory, killer, and imperialist, which destroys cultural diversity.

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However, I am here today to show that these personifications are unjustified and inaccurate, because, as we shall soon see, domain loss is not really threat yet, since there are measures to prevent it already in place and while the inequalities are completely real, they are caused mostly by the uneven wealth distribution among nations (the poorer ones being the most disadvantaged). Domain loss, or the decreased influence and/or global use of other languages, as mentioned, is one of the issues that has been caused by English, and has led some to even refer to English as a “killer language” (Skuttnab-Kangas, 2003:33).

This description is unfair though, and inaccurate, since languages can’t kill each other, only people can, by completely forgetting them, which is rather impossible in this day and age, where every bit of information can and is being saved and stored away forever. In fact even “dead languages” like Latin still exist, because they are still remembered if not used. We should take note, however, that domain loss and the outright extinction of a language are two very different things.

While there is little evidence that English poses an existential threat to standardized national languages of European states (Ferguson, 2007), English is relegating them to lesser roles (or just making them less important in a global scheme) . Even now, countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are trying to implement measures to fight-off domain loss, mostly by trying to promote the increased use of their own languages across all domains, including research and higher education.

One method these countries wish to use is a policy of parallel-lingual-ism, meaning they want to have the dual use of both English and their native language in areas like the, ever popular, research and higher education. This policy, sadly, causes some doubt, since, as Mufwene (2002:24) says, “ Languages or dialects can be threat to each other when they compete for the same functions”, and parallel-lingual-ism forces two separate languages into the same “function”.

Still, there are more radical policies that might be more effective, like barring the use of English from higher education and research all together (University of Oslo language policy report, 2006), for example, so hopefully one of these methods will bear fruit. One last thing to point out is that the threat of domain loss seems to only apply to the domain of science. Numerous authors, mentioned by Ferguson (2007) like, Berg, Hult & King, (2001) Peterson & Shaw, (2002) Preisler, (2005), have pointed out that the percentage of academic publication published in English is not spread evenly across all disciplines.

The highest percentage belongs to the natural sciences (close to 100%), which makes sense, since science papers are usually published with the assumption that it will be read by a global audience. The lowest goes to humanities and disciplines such as Law, whose subject matter is local and based on culture (Ferguson, 2007). Well, now that it seems that the fear of domain loss has been quelled, we can now spend some time discussing the history of English’s dominance; after all, English hasn’t always been this dominant (even though there was something called the British Empire a few centuries ago) .

Before English, German was actually the predominant international language of science (Gizycki, 1973), at least up to 1914. After 1914, the use of German fell sharply, following its post-war banishment from international scientific conferences (Ammon, 2001b). This continued until after the second world war, which resulted in the devastation of the scientific communities of France and Germany, but not the United States.

The second world war also gave the US a flood of foreign scientists, hoping to escape the war-torn lands of Europe. Next, the race to beat the USSR during the Cold War further sped up research and, afterwards, the development of computer technology and the resourcing of large research oriented universities lead to an increase in the United States’ share of the world’s research output, which in turn, lead to the switch from German to English as the “principal medium of scientific communication” (Ferguson, 2007).

The USSR was also left mostly untouched (aside from the vast reduction in population) and spurred on by the unset of the Cold War, however it wasn’t able to get the same popularity as English, possible because Russian is considered to be a harder language to learn than English. Now, with the background information taken care, we can return to dismissing the aforementioned impacts, and we’ll continue with the inequalities in scientific/academic publication.

For starters, the native speakers of English receive numerous advantages over non-native speakers due to the global spread of English, which are, of course, undeserved because whereas native speakers learn the language naturally in childhood, second language users must devote time, effort, and money to learn it, while still not being as fluent in it as the native speakers. Furthermore, by learning English, non-native speakers contribute to the dominance and spread of English, making it “self-expanding” (Ives, 2006) and adding to the pressure their peers are under to learn English as well.

The disadvantages to non-native speakers are also worth mentioning, if only because there are many, in comparison to the advantages gained by the native speakers, not to say that these disadvantages are actually related to English at all; producing high-quality scientific research is expensive, since it requires both an established research infrastructure (libraries, laboratories, specialized equipment, etc) and the consistent funding of the research (the results of which may or may not bear fruit).

It may be safe to assume that the research output of a nation is dependent on its wealth and the bibliometric evidence ( mostly found by Ferguson) does in fact point to this conclusion. For example, figures published by the European Commission (2003) showing the publication shares in world scientific output, show that around 78% of the world’s published scientific research was produced, ollectively, by the US, the EU (European Union), and Japan, all of which are wealthy. More figures published by the European Commission, this time showing the publications and publication growth rates by world regions, demonstrate again that the largest portion of total published output (70%) belongs to the NAFTA (USA, Canada, Mexico), EU and developed Pacific Rim countries (Japan).

Statistical data that Ferguson provided are not in favor of the assumption that all these issues are caused by language, either; Sano (2002) reported that the amount of chemistry papers published by non-English speaking increased from 31% in 1970 to 58% in 2000, while Swales (2004) reported that the percentage of TESOL Quarterly articles originating from the US fell from above 90% in 1984 to 50% in 2000. Also Benfield & Feak (2006) stated that over the period 2003-2005, around 60% of submissions to the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery were from non-native authors.

However, as Ferguson pointed out, all this data only highlights the results, so it is still possible that a language barrier does hinder non-English speaking researchers, just in the actual research and writing, rather than publication. However, to prove that, we will need to shift from the bibliometric evidence to the case studies and we’ll start with Curry & Lillis’s case study (2004), in which three non-native speaking scholars claimed that they have to waste extra and effort when writing for a publication in English, and discuss the opportunity cost of learning and maintaining English skills to a high level.

Similar results are seen in Flowerdew’s case study (1999b: 254), in which he reports that his sample of Hong Kong academics felt that they had a worse vocabulary and couldn’t express ideas as clearly. Other examples presented by Ferguson all show similar results, including, Benfield & Howard (2000) who provide a study that shows that second language users receive far more critical comments on language and writing quality then native speakers do. This last study, however, also points to there being possible discrimination towards non-native scientists/writers.

Both Ferguson and Salager-Meyer (2008) mentioned the possibility that there is discrimination, however they both concluded that the conflicting evidence (mostly in the form of more case studies) was inconclusive; Some studies in numerous disciplines offer support for Benfield & Howard, and provide “clear” evidence of bias, the most recent ones being Braine’s(2005a) report and Li’s(2006) sociopolitical case study, while other studies contradicted that evidence, like Flowerdew’s (2001) research that suggested that there is no evidence of discrimination against non-native English submissions.

Regardless, even if there isn’t (or is) discrimination, there certainly is enough evidence to prove that a language barrier does cause some of the inequalities (if only a small amount).

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