Chapter 7: English and the global perspective
In President Theodore Roosevelt’s address to the American Defense Society (qtd. in Mikanowski ph. 2) he said “we have room but for one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turn our people into Americans, out of American nationality, and not just as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house”. But in the melting pot that is the United States, it’s ridiculous to allow only one language, English, to reign supreme. As an avid language learner, myself, I appreciate everything that different languages and culture can teach us, but unfortunately, not everyone shares that view, and bias and marginalization have run unchecked for too long, proclaiming everything inferior to English. In this essay, I analyze three academic journals, all having to do with this topic, that giving examples and evidence as to how bias towards the English language has taken over.
The first academic journal I studied, interestingly, contained the idea is that non-natively accented speakers can possess fears of discrimination and bias even before they converse with native speakers. This concept of “anticipated stigmatization” (Gluszek, Divido p. 225), was the foundational research point in the two studies done and recounted in the academic journal “Speaking with and Accent: Perceptions of Bias, Communication Difficulties, and belonging in the United States”. The authors, Agata Gluszek and John F. Dovidio, speculated that nonnative speakers already held internal doubts about being treated unequal, even before they interacted with native speakers (225). Their first study focused on nonnative speaker’s struggle with communication and their perceptions of stigmatization. In this study, a questionnaire we sent out, titled “English with Accents”, and received 203 responses in the U.S. nationwide (226). Of the 203 individuals, 77 were nonnative speakers of English. They were asked a variety of questions pertaining to experiences with bias, stigmatization, etc. (226). Conforming to Gluszek and Divido’s hypothesis, the nonnative speakers recorded more events of stigmatization and communication obstacles (227). Their second study attempted more in-depth research on whether nonnative speakers of English struggled with feelings of not belonging in the United States (228). This study, done on 88 native and nonnative English speakers (37 being nonnative), involved answering questions about problems on accents, communication, stigmatization, and a sense of belonging (229). Also, in accordance with their hypothesis, Gluszek and Divio found that nonnative, accented English speakers reported more difficulty with communication and a lower sense of belonging. I thought that this was a very interesting study, but the one thing that I question is the number of participants. It seems to me like there should have been a large group of individuals if the study was conducted nationwide in order for the result to be more realistic. In the first study, there were only 203 individuals throughout the whole United States that participated in the questionnaire. I worry that if there were too little participants, then there would be insufficient evidence to back up their claims.
The second academic journal I looked at, “Language Bias in Randomized controlled trials publish in English and German”, investigated academic journals themselves, and whether language bias had anything to do with their publication. This 1997 Lancet study explored whether medical researchers were more likely to publish significantly interesting findings in English or their native language. This is something that I had never thought about, but I was immediately intrigued when I saw the article title. Because English is the leading language in medical research, “investigators outside of the English-speaking word who want their work to be recognized have little choice but to attempt to publish in English” (1). The authors, Matthias Eggar and Tanja Zelllweger-ZAhner, researched randomized control studies done by German researchers that also published journals, perhaps the same publication, in English and then turned both in to be peer-reviewed (meaning other researchers verified their credibility) by investigators who were not aware of the journals title, dates, authors, or financial supporters (1). They found that only 35% of the academic journals published in German, versus 62% of the English language journals, contain significant differences between the controlled and experimental groups in the study (1). From this data, they drew the conclusion that researchers were more likely to publish their “best findings” (what they wanted the broadest audience to see) in English, even if they were not native English speakers (1). This academic journal was probably the most challenging to decode of the bunch, as it contained a lot of fancy terms and elaborate phrases that I had no idea what they meant. I found it extremely interesting and quite concerning that non-English speaking researchers are pressured to publish their findings in English if they want them to be read. Who knows what kind of information we could be missing because it was written in a different language and nobody gave it the time of day because of that?
This struggle that non-English speaking researchers have with getting their academic journals recognized is reminiscent of James Gee’s concept of conflicting ‘discourses’, which he writes about in his own academic journal, “What is Literacy?”. This work, from the 1989 publication of the Journal of Education, describes a discourse as being a way that languages is used, and it identifies you as part of a group (Gee p. 18). The article also outlines the “rules” that all discourses follow, the one that most aligns with our purposes being that a person could belong to two opposing discourses (p. 19). Each discourse has its own set of values and opinions and is unwilling to accept the views of another’s (p. 19). These conflicting views are exactly what the non-English speaking researchers were dealing with. In this case, the researchers were confronted with choosing between their most familiar (or primary) discourse, the native language, and risk their findings not being given a wide enough audience , or their secondary discourse, the field of English-language-dominated medical research. The bias of the medical research discourse is also another fundamental behavior of all discourses. Each discourse is biased towards its own views, marginalizing any other viewpoints (p. 19). In this case, the medical research discourse is biased against any language that is not English, considering anything written in other languages as credible enough.
The third and final academic journal I decided to look a little more intimately into the bias in college admissions tests against non-native English speakers. In this academic journal, “Linguistic and cultural bias in language proficiency tests”, authors Zheng Chen and Grant Hemming studied the English as a Second Language Placement Examination (ESLPE) at the University of California, Los Angeles (p. 155). Of the 312 students taking the examination at the college, it was found that Chinese language speakers, 77, and Spanish language speakers, were the largest in number, and thus chosen as the groups to be studied (p. 156). After the examination, it was discovered that the Chinese speaking examinees scored above the Spanish speaking examinees in everything but vocabulary (p. 157). Chen and Grant accounted this to the structural similarities between Spanish and English, noting that “some bias favoring Spanish [in this aspect] might be expected” (Chen, Grant 157). Because Spanish and English stem from the same languages, they have many cognates, or words that are like each other. Chinese, on the other hand, does not stem from the same origin as English does, and therefore shares no cognates. This is possibly the reason that Spanish speaks had the upper hand in the vocabulary section of the examination. Looking later into the journal, Zheng and Chen wrote that there were indeed four cognates found in the Spanish examination that biased that section in favor of them (p. 159). However, admitted that further research would be needed to determine for sure the amount of bias against certain languages, to which I have to agree. I thought that it was a little unfair for the Spanish test to have cognates that could have made it easier for the examinees, but then again, the key word their it could. The test takers still could have gotten the translations wrong regardless of whether they were similar to a Spanish word or not, it all depended on if they could figure out that the word actually was a cognate.
With almost 400 million native speakers, and around one billion non-native speakers around the world (Mikanowski ph. 2), English has, in a sense, taken over the world. And with it comes prejudice, marginalization, stigmatization, and everything else that label all other languages as second-class. I never knew the extent to which language bias stretches, and after doing in depth research into this topic, I feel like I now have a better understanding. Will we ever get to a point where all languages are respected and treated equally? I don’t know, but I hope more steps are taken to promote language equality and end discrimination against certain languages. With English rapidly becoming the “king” amongst languages, I wonder if we will lose the diversity of being able to communicate in so many different tongues.
Gluszek, Agata, and John F. Dovidio. “Speaking With a Nonnative Accent: Perceptions of Bias, Communication Difficulties, and Belonging in the United States.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology, vol. 29, no. 2, 2010, pp. 224–234., doi:10.1177/0261927×09359590.
Egger, Matthias, et al. “Language Bias in Randomized Controlled Trials Published in English and German.” The Lancet, vol. 350, no. 9074, 1997, pp. 326–329., doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(97)02419-7.
Chen, Zheng, and Grant Henning. “Linguistic and Cultural Bias in Language Proficiency Tests.” Language Testing, vol. 2, no. 2, 1985, pp. 155–163., doi:10.1177/026553228500200204.
Mikanowski, Jacob. “Behemoth, Bully, Thief: How the English Language Is Taking over the Planet.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 July 2018, www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jul/27/english-language-global-dominance.