"Reading and writing English papers feels like trying to move in water. Every move is heavy and slow - and exhausting. I have to constantly look up words. Reading again and again sentences, or paragraphs. Being left with this muddling feeling even after finishing reading. I can tell I am not making sense while writing. Words just don't come to me. And in the end, I even lose my thoughts."
How many of you felt like this before? Or, how many of you know someone who may be feeling this way? If you are not, you are the lucky one - privileged, if I can use a sociological concept. Not that you discriminate others, but in this race called academia, you enjoy humongous advantages, specifically UNearned advantages, knowingly or not knowingly just because you were born in an Anglophone society and/or family.
Before I proceed, let me be clear. I am very much thankful for all opportunities that Anglophone societies (especially the U.S. and Canada) have gave me, all English-native colleagues and friends, and those who helped me improve my English such as my past supervisors and journal reviewers. But, I think there is a problem. So hear me out.
I don't think I have to reiterate that being an English native speaker is a huge advantage in academia, if you are a non-native or have know them. There are two major components of academic work: research and teaching. A major part of research is publication and involves intensive writing. I know many non-native scholars use editorial and even translation services for their publications, which of course costs much money and time. Personally, I do not use those services and I hope that my English is not so terrible (how am I doing here?). However, almost every journal reviewer so far pointed out that I should use at least informal consultation of a native-speaker scholar for the language. A strange part is that it seems those reviewers "understood" my papers and arguments, or else how could they provide so many oft-helpful comments? I was left wondering what level of English they wanted to see and why that was necessary.
When you are still a student, you will have to keep up with a heavy load of reading, writing, and classroom discussion (i.e., listening and speaking). I have not really seen any "accommodations" about non-native speakers in grad courses. I know some students take English courses that are not necessary for their program, because their supervisor said, "It would be good for you." Let's say those courses are not ill-designed and poor quality, and your professors happen to have good assessment of your English level and the level of those courses - which isn't sometimes the case. Then, yes, those courses would be good for you except that each of them may cost you thousands of dollars. Although being ineligible for many scholarships and grants because of our nationality is a very important complication here, don't let me started on it (that's not the language issue per se).
In terms of teaching, just think of teaching an academic course in your second language, if you have one. Can you teach, say, introductory history of France in your French? To French students? Well, that's how I feel when I teach leisure, sports and tourism for North American students in English. You may say that "10-hour for teaching assistantship (or primary instructor) is never enough!" from an English native point of view. Well, guess what, double the time you are spending on teaching for non-natives. Of course, I don't have any data besides my personal experiences, but I suspect that the number wouldn't be too off. For instance, every time when I marked final exams in a group of native and non-native grad students, I was always the one that took most time. And it seemed that it took 15 hours or so when it took 7 or 8 hours for other native co-workers. I have pride in my teaching practices so far, as I have never shown up in a class without being prepared. And that means I rehearsed it - rehearse the entire lectures including jokes and everything - three times before I went in, in addition to much time spent on preparing class contents.
By now, I have read and wrote articles and taught classes in my native language: Japanese. They were such liberating experiences! I can read 10 articles per day, though I can read max five 30-pagers in English. When I write in Japanese, I don't have to worry about "awkwardness" of my language. I write with confident. When I teach in my native tongue, students' questions would never strike you off-guard. I am more comfortable in front of them.
So, English native speaker status is a major advantage in an academic life. But, how come I described it as unearned? You might think, "I earned my English through my personal efforts!" Well, most of us master our native language(s) to an extent. In some cases, it happens to be English - the language of global academia - and this is not really within our control. You might think, "Well, I may have been lucky to be born as an English native, but the fact that some language has to have the status of the global academic language and English just happens to be." Is it? Of course, we need serious historical arguments and evidence to debunk this assumption. However, it's noteworthy that there were some times in history when for example medicine was more developed in the Dutch language, or Germany led the field of physical education (or at least so as I learned in my history courses). Or, what about ancient Greek and Chinese for philosophy? Why is it English that enjoys the dominant status in global academia today? It's the simplest, most logical/scientific language? I heard this from someone. But, here is the wildest hypothesis: Many Anglophone societies and people in the past exploited resources around the world and reached to the level of social development, where they could free one of the most educated groups into this oft-unproductive activity called academic work. And basically a great extent of English's status as the global academic language relies on this. I am not saying that any Anglophone scholars are discriminating or oppressing others; but, they may be running this race called academic life with so much "follow wind" - or unearned privilege called English - while others are running against wind, thanks to the past. We can do better.
"Shin, let's say that you are right about the above arguments to an extent. But, you chose to come to North America, Anglophone societies, when you could have chosen different paths. Don't you think you should just suck it up?" A good point. Perhaps this applies to someone like me who is privileged enough in many other ways: male, without major disabilities, coming from a upper-middle class of developed country, racial/ethnic majority (in Japan), not excessively old or young, heterosexual, and etc. But, please know that many non-Anglophone scholars come from economically less developed societies and many other backgrounds, in which it's impossible or extremely hard to get the education level they have in Anglophone society. Even for me, it was impossible to learn about leisure in Japan, where leisure is not recognized as a decent academic field. We chose to come, so it's our responsibility? Some of us had a really sucky hand of cards, while others had a really good hand to begin with. Being able to use English as a native language is one of those really good cards. Also, remember that this Anglophone dominance of academia influences not only non-native scholars in Anglophone society, but also those outside. For example, I know that many Chinese scholars have been pressured by their institutions to publish in English, premier journals and even teach in English. They certainly did not choose to come to Anglophone society.
So, before you say "Suck it up" or reject papers with not fantastic English or just ignore this issue, ask yourself. Would you say (or do) the same in other similar situations of social privilege? Say you are a man. Do you say to women, "Well it sucks that we have a patriarchal society, but suck it up."? If you don't have a major disability, do you reject access to knowledge by individuals with disabilities? If you are very rich, would you just ignore that your community has many who worry about food today?I bet you don't. At least we shouldn't. Here, I can find thousands, if not millions, of references to scholars who have argued so. Then why not the Anglophone privilege?
"Ok, Shin. But what can we do?" I would love to talk about that with you. Here are some ideas from me. In terms of research, if you are reviewing papers, please do not reject papers based on your perception that their English is "not good enough." As a native speaker, your privileged idea of "not good enough" standards may be totally okay for global academia. Think if language issues are really preventing readers from understanding the value of papers. If not sure, give them a second chance. Please also think twice before asking authors to explain their research contexts or so because they are non-Anglophone and unfamiliar to you. Think, "Would I ask this if this paper is about, say, Canada?" If you are an Editor, weed out such comments and warn reviewers. When you supervise students or so, don't easily say "I heard that English course or translation service is good. Use it." It could cost them a lot of resources. Can you take an extra step to help them find resources to cover some of the expenses (e.g., grant, discount)? More importantly, really check why you are recommending them. Their English is not good enough? Is that really the point of whatever they are trying to do (e.g., getting a PhD, publishing)? With regard to teaching, I hope that institutions can offer more resources for teachers who do not use English as their native language. Free language courses and translators/consultants? I mean, if international teaching assistants get so many student evaluation comments saying "Shin's English is not good enough. Can't follow what he is saying sometimes.", there should be some structural way to help them. That helps their students indirectly, too!
Also, let's challenge the predominant status of English in academia. If you are journal Editors, can we welcome papers in non-English languages? What about at least having abstracts in multiple languages (e.g., Mandarin, Spanish, Russian)? It could boost article views and citations? Encourage your students to learn their second and third and whatever languages, so they won't take this privilege of English for granted. Probably there are so many other things we can do, and I would appreciate your thoughts.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!