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University of Venus - English as the Academic Lingua Franca
September 6, 2011 - 9:30pm

I am writing this short text from a computer whose keyboard settings are not English but Icelandic, a language with slightly more characters than English. As my fingers have learnt to seek blindly for the O’s and the U’s and the W’s, I keep spelling words wrongly, until of course I switch the keyboard to English. Then the issue becomes NOT to look, and let the fingers do their job on their own, since what the eyes see is not what the fingers meet when they try to type.

This small detail about writing on a foreign (to me) keyboard is significant for the larger topic of English as the lingua franca of academics world over. I am currently attending the annual conference of the European Consortium for Political Research, one of the largest (if not the largest) political science gatherings in Europe. Of the hundreds of presentations that will take place here in Reykjavik, the program does not list a single one in a language other than English. The presentations will certainly bear the mark of their creator; Swenglish, and Spanglish, and Finglish, and Frenglish will make appearances in the various conference rooms throughout the week. But give it what prefix you may, it is still English that dominates our meetings, our publications, our grant applications.

This being the situation, is it a good or a bad thing? Many non-English speakers deplore the devaluation of their native language as a research communication tool. In Sweden, it has become increasingly common that not only regular publications (articles, books) but also doctoral dissertations are written in English. This worries some that soon those scholars who work at Swedish universities will not be able to communicate the results of their research to the national public that indirectly supports their work (since universities in Sweden are all public, money comes indirectly from the taxpayers). This would lead to a disconnect between the academic elite and the rest of the population.

Moreover, the critics of the anglification argue that the use of English as preferred language of research worldwide works against all those who do not have English as their mother tongue, while at the same time giving an unfair advantage to the native speakers of the language of Shakespeare. Especially in language-heavy subjects, but valid even for natural sciences, very good fluency in both writing and speaking are a must for all, becoming thus an extra burden for the non Anglo-Saxon scholars.

On the other hand, English is seen a providing many advantages, one of the most important being precisely its almost universal circulation. This increases the possibility of making one’s findings available to the entire scientific community. With this comes an increase in the verification of the data (more people can critically assess the research results), as well as an increase in the number and type of potential beneficiaries of the information revealed in these findings.

Moreover, no one prohibits the publication of articles in languages other than English, or the writing of popular science books and reports for the domestic public. If one can master several languages, then it is a merit to put them all to use. A scholar active in a non Anglo-Saxon environment can work both in English and in the local language, and can engage in the public debates in the place of residence. The use of English is not exclusionary to the use of other languages.

The quality of the research is increased by internationalization. Mobile, open and transparent academic communities foster a good research atmosphere, where hypotheses are tested, propositions analyzed, new angles suggested from a variety of points of view. A common language does not necessarily imply uniform thinking, and this is clearly illustrated at my conference. We disagree vigorously, in our common language: English.

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.


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