The Words We Say by Julia Maristany

“What language do you dream in?” is in all honesty a really cute question that I sometimes get asked when one of my friends wonders what it is like being bilingual. I do not really remember the language of my dreams, but I do certainly know which language I learn in.  

In this blog, I wanted to discuss one particular aspect that, in my opinion, is sometimes overlooked in the conversation of mental health, inclusion, and accessibility in academia: language. I want to talk about how the linguistic monopoly that English has in academia affects the mental wellbeing of a large part of the student body. From feelings of isolation from your community, to increased exhaustion from studying and working all day in a language that it is not your own, language has a silent but strong effect on the daily life of many students.

A Lingua Franca

English is the new Latin, the common tongue of academic life. English is our new lingua franca.  Of course, this was not always the case. Before the 18th century, Latin was the language that used to hold that position. In the early 20th century, the vast majority of the scientific work produced in the Western world was published in German, French, or English. But today, English is the single uncontested linguistic ruler of the academic world. 

The question of how and why the English language came to be in this position, albeit an interesting one, is not something I aim to explore during this piece. As an Argentine graduate student, however, I am interested in discussing how language monopoly may affect the quality of a student’s academic life.   

English is the new Latin. Except – not quite. As Godin notices in his piece Absolute English, until the 20th century, scientific work was almost always a polyglot enterprise. Even when Latin was considered the language of science, it was nobody’s mother tongue, almost nobody learnt it as a first language, and everyone on the scene was able to speak multiple languages. 

It was, however, a system with many problems. It was elitist, as only those who had the opportunity to learn Latin could directly access the body of academic knowledge. A polyglot academia was also inefficient, as translating and learning a language takes a lot of valuable time. It seemed undeniable that there were advantages to counting with a common language for academic work, but such a thing came at a cost.

That language today is English. The main difference with Latin is that English is the first language of many of the most powerful countries in the world. As Godin remarks, it is not a neutral language. The work by Bennett, English as a Lingua Franca in Academia, draws attention to how ideological issues many times affects translations of academic work. Not only that, but the academic Anglophone system is still elitist, as learning a new language is many times an expensive privilege. And finally, it is still inefficient for those who do not speak it as a first language. 

In the article English as the universal language of science: opportunities and challenges, Drubin and Kellogg remark: ”It is essential that non-native speakers of English recognize that their ability to participate in the international scientific enterprise is directly related to their ability to produce manuscripts in English.” They also call for native English speakers to be “understanding, patient, and assist when reviewing or editing manuscripts”. Their article corroborates once more what we know to be true and accept as a universal fact: the international academic scene is not equally accessible, and language is one more of its many barriers. 

Mind the Gap

Learning a new language, especially with the ultimate goal of conducting research, is not easy. It is time consuming, mentally challenging, and, perhaps the most prohibitive aspect of all, incredibly expensive. 

My bilingualism is not a token of personal resilience, but a sign of my privilege. The reason I am able to write this while sitting in my room in the campus of a Canadian university is because my parents could afford to pay for private English lessons. As an aspiring scientist from Argentina, I felt as if I had little choice in the matter – if I wanted to pursue academia as a career, I had to learn English. In the case of Spanish, my mother tongue – and the second most spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese – publications in that language constitute only 0.24% on the SCI database, which indexes over 8,500 major journals. Over 97% of publications in the database are in English. 

The report Spanish as a Language for Scientific Communication, written in 2013, includes interviews with several Hispanic professors and academics, many of whom expressed their disagreement over the idea of encouraging Spanish as a language in which to carry out scientific communication, labelling the enterprise as useless, futile, inconvenient, “a battle lost before it begins.” One professor goes as far as to say, “What is not written in English, it doesn’t exist.” Instead of encouraging more science communication in Spanish, he suggests requiring students to learn English earlier and better, maybe including it as a requisite for obtaining a university degree. 

For Latin American and Spanish students, there is indeed an increasing pressure to learn English earlier and earlier in the academic career. At a university level, a lot of the instruction material is only available in English and in many instances it is completely inaccessible in any other language. Books written in English are imported, scarce, and very expensive. In order to apply for admission to a foreign university, typically an exam of proficiency in English is required. The most common one is the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). The TOEFL exam expires every two years, and it costs about 240 USD – about the same as the monthly minimum wage in Argentina. 

From a mental health perspective, these kinds of exams are exhausting, draining and incredibly stressful. Not only do they constitute an additional requirement that every international student must fulfil every time they apply to an English speaking school, rendering them incredibly time consuming, but they are also so expensive that students feel like they have no margin of error, as many of them cannot afford to take the exam several times until obtaining the required score. The standardized nature of the test is also an exam modality that many students are not familiar with, and oftentimes, the score relates more to the ability of the student to adapt to the particular nature of the test rather than their language proficiency.

Spanish native speakers are, of course, not the only ones that struggle with language barriers. In a study titled The Role Of English As A Lingua Franca In Academia: The Case Of Turkish Postgraduate Students In An Anglophone-Centre Context, the authors reviewed the perceptions of Turkish students conducting research in Anglophone countries. The majority of students felt that, even though there are undeniable benefits to having a common language in academia, they were still placed in a disadvantageous position. Another study, Problems in writing for scholarly publication in English: The case of Hong Kong, focused on Hong Kong Chinese scholars.  Here, the authors found that students struggled with a myriad of problems related to their inability to use their native language during their academic life, including difficulty in communicating, properly expressing their opinion and defending their research.  

There are numerous advantages of having a common language in academia: it fosters collaboration and makes research more accessible and widely available. But there is always a catch, and in this case, it is that access to the language itself is not widely available. Non-native English speakers are often operating from a place of disadvantage, having to spend a lot of their time and resources into learning a different language. Writing papers, articles and grant proposals takes more time and effort, as well as reading and learning a new topic if the material is not in your native language.

Many times, in undergraduate and graduate classes, quickness is equated to ability – how fast you can finish a calculation, or how fast you can get the right answer. Professors consistently praise the student who gets the answer to the question first. When English is not your first language, and when you only have been speaking it for a handful of years, there are few things more stressful than being asked to think quickly. 

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) exam is the perfect illustrative example of this. The GRE and subject GREs are exams that most US universities require students to complete in order to apply for graduate school admission. The subject exams are particular to each discipline and consist of 100 multiple choice questions, which you must answer in under 3 hours. These exams, which are already being increasingly considered ineffective in assessing the potential of each student to succeed in grad school for reasons other than language, are only administered in English. As with the TOEFL, GREs are also ridiculously and prohibitively expensive. And, as the TOEFL, it is a highly inaccessible standardized exam, designed to test neurotypical students. Taking standardized tests is a very particular skill that is not taught in many different countries, let alone in a second language.

Subtitles, please

Here, I have argued that learning a new language is an indisputable barrier to accessing academia: it is expensive, time consuming, and an option only to a select few. But what comes after learning English, and after being admitted to an English-speaking university?

I remember my first class in English, in an international school for quantum information processing. During the first lecture, I raised my hand and asked a question, mispronouncing a few words, causing giggles around the class. It was a small incident, but I was mortified. It was the first time of many I would ask myself: does my accent make me sound dumb?

It is easy to feel isolated and excluded when you need to ask others to repeat themselves, because you could not quite catch what they were saying, or when others cannot understand what you have said because of your accent. This slowly can take its toll on your mental health.  After a few times, a few glares, a few giggles, you stop asking questions, and stop participating in the conversation. It is also easy to feel inadequate when completing an assignment or answering a question takes you twice as long, particularly in a system that equates speed with efficiency. 

These feelings of isolation and inadequacy feed imposter syndrome, playing a big role in the mental health of many international students. Sometimes, for example, constantly hesitating on how to express an opinion, or convey how you are feeling, makes you question if you even know what you are talking about at all. 

In addition, when it comes to mental health care in academia, language is rarely considered a crucial factor. When accessing counsellors’ or physicians’ help, being able to accurately express your thoughts and opinions is vitally important, and this is sometimes a big challenge for international students. Universities rarely provide mental health resources in languages other than English or their local language, rendering a lot of those services inaccessible for many students who are not comfortable enough with the language. 

So, what can be done? Of course, tackling the linguistic monopoly English has in academia seems like a futile enterprise – it is not like an academic structure resembling the Tower of Babel would be devoid of problems either. However, there are things that both institutions and individuals can do to make academia more inclusive and accessible. For universities, easing up on the language entry requirements, or offering an alternative and accessible method of examination administered by the university itself could potentially be of huge benefit to many international students. Stop requesting the GRE – results of that test are proven to be a better indicator of class, gender and ethnicity than ability to do research. In the same lines, for admissions procedures, institutions could try to come up with alternatives when requesting certified translations of official documents, such as diplomas or transcripts – certified translations can take weeks to obtain, and, once again, they are very costly. When it comes to daily life in the university, there are thousands of ways on which to include linguistic diversity, from small gestures, such as stocking the library with translated volumes of the most common reference books, to big ones, like offering translation services for immigration or health related procedures. And as for individuals, we must all remember that the person in our side may be doing research and studying in their second or third (or maybe even fourth, or more!) language, and that we must do our best to ensure that they have the space to express what they want to say.

At this point of the blog, I feel that it is my responsibility to address, once again, my privilege. I had access to English lessons, I do not have any disability that affects how I communicate verbally, and while language has been a sometimes mentally exhausting challenge, it has not been one that prevented me from doing research and working in many different institutions outside my home country. When I recall my own experiences and challenges regarding language in academia, it is important to note that there is some degree of survivor bias: the issues that need fixing are very likely not the ones I faced, but the ones many other people are facing that prevent them from accessing or staying in academia altogether. Intersectionality is incredibly important when assessing the possibility of introducing new policies in an institution, and regarding language, it must be no exception.

Julia Maristany (Photo credit: Institute for Quantum Computer (IQC)).

Julia Maristany is an Argentine physicist, who did her Licentiate degree in the University of Cordoba, and her Master’s degree at the Institute for Quantum Computing and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Waterloo, Canada. Her research was in the theory of quantum simulations, in particular, on simulating relativistic phenomena via quantum walks. She is currently starting a Ph.D. in theoretical biophysics at the University of Cambridge, studying the physics of chromatin. Aside from research, she really enjoys scientific communication, literature, photography, knitting, and cooking over-complicated dishes that don’t always turn out well as expected.

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