What is a linguistic monopoly?

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Amer Abukhalaf

Research institutions and funders need to be more aware of the phenomenon, writes Amer Abukhalaf

During the Second World War, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, gave a strong speech in Harvard on the 6th of September, 1943. In his speech, he emphasised the unity between the United States and the United Kingdom, and their plans for global peace-keeping [6]. Churchill was one of the longest-serving politicians in British history, but also he was a Nobel Prize-winning writer who set the rules for a new global dominance using the English language [17]

In the same speech, Churchill said: 'This gift of a common tongue is a priceless inheritance…but I don’t see why we shouldn’t try to spread our common language even more widely throughout the globe…the power to control language offers far better prizes than taking away people’s provinces or lands or grinding them down in exploitation. The empires of the future are the empires of the mind', which why later the speech was called the 'The English Empire of the Mind' speech [6]

The power of using colonial languages, such as French and English, is clear through history [4]; it is what still ties India to the United Kingdom, and Algeria to France. However, using the power of language purposely to control people’s intellectuality around the world to stay head and shoulder above them was for sure something unseen before. And this is what I refer to in this article as a linguistic monopoly.

After the Second World War, Churchill became the Prime Minister of UK for the second time, from 1951 to 1955. His vision of an English language global dominance became more of a plan, starting with academic and research institutions [17]. The plan was achievable and English gradually became the world’s global language [15], and mainly because of the power held by the people who spoke it [7], which was no longer limited to politics and military, but also financial and economic power. 

No one can deny that the dominance of the English Language in academia has many cost-saving and logistic benefits. Still, we should also be aware of the imbalances in the system created by such dominance and how it jeopardizes the quality of research around the globe.    

Nowadays, most scholars worldwide are forced to publish their work in English if they want to be recognised by the global academic society [1]. If English is your native language, you hold a position of unjustified superiority over others [5]. Scholars who don’t have the ability to publish their work in English, no matter how good their work is, their voices aren’t being heard, their work is being overlooked, and they are being excluded from the international debate. This also happens on an institutional level. For example, the universities that don’t have the ability to meet these linguistic expectations are severely ill-funded, with almost no publications, no grants, and no recognition [4]. This can be seen as linguistic discrimination against scholars [2]

But when we force scholars to research and publish their work in their second languages, putting the game of power aside, what does this linguistic monopoly mean for research quality? To answer that, we need to get a little bit heavy on the relationship between language processing and the human mind.

The consequences of linguistic monopoly in academic research 

Our life has been getting more complex little by little every day, and so a new attitude toward languages became necessary to make the communication process faster and more effective [14]. It is easy to realize how your linguistic skills as a scholar can affect your daily life due to technical reasons; for example, Google only deals with 103 languages among 7,000 languages around the world [18], so if you don’t speak one of these languages at least, you won’t have the luxury of Google. Similarly, the majority of articles on Wikipedia are written in less than six languages, so if you don’t speak one of them at least, almost the whole content of Wikipedia isn’t accessible for you [10]

Speaking a second language is one of the strongest sources of individual differences for human beings. To become fluent in a second language, it takes 15 to 20 years of full-time study for that language [13], which is rarely the case for any of the scholars who publish in their second language. Many studies have been conducted to explore the bilingual mind. Some researchers investigated the bilingual mind clinically [11], while others did it psychologically [3]

Recent studies show that second language processing is mentally depleting, even for scholars with high language proficiency levels [19]. When scholars use their mother languages, this puts little to no strain on the brain resources, compared to using a second language which requires more mental effort and depletes the brain resources [9]. In other words, listening to or reading a sentence in a second language is slower and less accurate compared to the first language [12].

Moreover, making a decision in a second language tends to moderate risk-perception [11] and underweight losses and gains [16]. Recent research provides sound evidence that using a second language influences human moral judgment; second languages are associated with less severe moral evaluation towards actions [8], which may lead to unethical practices in academic research. 

One of the best models that explain the mental consequences of using a second language is the Brain-Drain model [19]. In this model, Volk explains how using a second language negatively impacts self-regulation and decision-making. Using a second language can negatively impact scholars’ ability to recognize opportunities, and limits out-of-the-box thinking.

The Brain-Drain model also explains how bilinguals perform better while working on tasks that involve creativity, such as research and design, when they use their native language. Creative performance and using a second language are both processed in the same part of the brain, which means the brain capacity is split between the two, reducing creativity and lowering language accuracy. 

Less accurate research results, lower research efficiency, less creative work, and less ethical research practices; this is the price of linguistic monopoly in academic research.

In conclusion… 

The linguistic monopoly in academic research started decades ago, and it became deeply rooted in the system around the globe. That’s why many of us fall into that trap unintentionally, and some of us are even unaware of the existence of the problem. Although we might be among the few who are benefiting from the injustice embedded in the status quo, it is our responsibility as scholars to promote justice in our research and practice, and highlight the imbalances in the system that is affecting all of us one way or another.  

There is also a responsibility on an institutional level. Research institutions and funders should become aware of the linguistic monopoly and what it does to research quality, and they need to stay reminded that achieving equality by giving scholars around the world the same resources and opportunities isn’t enough for establishing fairness in the field. Fairness can only be achieved by promoting equity and recognising the different circumstances, including linguistic abilities, of scholars worldwide to create fair opportunities that we can all as an academic society benefit from.

Amer Hamad Issa Abukhalaf is a researcher at the Florida Institute for Built Environment Resilience


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