The Rise of English as the Global Lingua Franca of Academic Philosophy (guest post)


“We think it is more or less inevitable at this point that English will be the global lingua franca of academic philosophy for the foreseeable future. We also think it is for the most part a good thing. But it has also produced some problems…”

In the following guest post, Peter Finocchiaro (Wuhan) and Timothy Perrine (Rutgers) argue that “the rise of English as the global lingua franca of academic philosophy might lead to several epistemic goods being unjustly distributed in our community, including credibility, education, and the standing to speak.”


The Rise of English as the Global Lingua Franca of Academic Philosophy
by Peter Finocchiaro and Timothy Perrine

Academic philosophy is a global institution. Nearly every country has universities with philosophy departments. Philosophy journals are read around the world. And many philosophers grow up in one country, get a PhD in another, work in a third, and have students who come from a fourth. Like many global institutions, academic philosophy has increasingly relied on English as a shared language for communication—as a global “lingua franca”. When a Finnish philosopher meets a Colombian philosophy at a conference in Japan, they will likely do philosophy in English.

We think it is more or less inevitable at this point that English will be the global lingua franca of academic philosophy for the foreseeable future. We also think it is for the most part a good thing. But it has also produced some problems for our community—problems that we think need to be analyzed and addressed so that philosophy can be more inclusive.

To get a sense of the kinds of problems we have in mind, consider the following case. A philosopher is fluent in English, having learned it as a second language. Their academic research consists in reading and writing in English. But a recent referee report complains that their paper is “not idiomatic” (even though the referee doesn’t identify a single passage that is unclear, disorganized, or obscure) and requests that the philosopher have their paper checked by a “native” speaker of English. So, to appease the referee, the philosopher reaches out to a “native” English speaking colleague. Both philosophers then spend some time trying to guess what’s not “idiomatic” so that the language can be “fixed” and the paper can be published.

Maybe this sort of thing hasn’t happened to you. But it’s almost certainly happened to someone you know or someone that you’ve read. It has happened several times to our coworkers and friends.

In a new paper of ours, we argue that these problems are instances of language-related injustice. The paper is part of a new special issue of Philosophical Psychology on understanding bias. Thanks to the generous support of Lex Academic, it is freely accessible here for 12 months as the winner of the Lex Academic® Essay Prize for Understanding Linguistic Discrimination.

As we argue in the paper, in the above case the philosopher gets labelled as a “non-native” speaker of English and is held to certain linguistic norms set by a “native” English speaking community. But satisfying those norms is unnecessary for understanding their paper. We analyze this and other cases using the framework of epistemic injustice, specifically distributive epistemic injustice (though we think there can be other frameworks that are also useful). We argue that the rise of English as the global lingua franca of academic philosophy might lead to several epistemic goods being unjustly distributed in our community, including credibility, education, and the standing to speak.

At the end of our paper, we consider some proposals for dealing with these. They are:

1A: Increase assistance with English—journals should provide English-language services such as proofreading at no cost to the author.

1B: Abandon “readability” standards—journals should stop evaluating submissions on the basis of “readability”, including how “idiomatic” the English is as well as its “flair” or “style”.

2A: Diversify the canon—philosophers (and journals) should engage with work from a wide range of traditions, not just the mainstream Western canon.

2B: Expand the SEP—articles written for the SEP should be translated into other languages and/or the SEP should commission original entries in other languages.

3A: Increase non-native English speaker representation—editorial boards of journals, admissions committees of graduate programs, etc., should include more non-native speaking philosophers.

3B: Increase cross-linguistic representation—journals should publish material that spotlights non-English language philosophy, especially that which is produced in non-Anglophone countries.

Readers may recognize some of these proposals. In 2021, Filippo Contesi created the Barcelona Principles for a Globally Inclusive Philosophy, which was discussed on Daily Nous here, with related discussion here. Contesi’s Principle 3 is almost identical to our Proposal 3A, and Principle 1 is very similar to our Proposal 1B.

In our paper, we briefly argue that the B proposals are better than the A proposals. As we see it, Proposal 1A is likely to just reinforce unnecessary linguistic norms that privilege native speakers; a better alternative, as expressed by Proposal 1B, is to abandon the enforcement of those linguistic norms. Proposal 2A is admirable and in general we favor diversifying the cannon. But we doubt it would do much to address the linguistic injustices we are worried about. A better alternative, as expressed by Proposal 2B, is to make current high-quality research more accessible to people from different linguistic backgrounds. Proposal 3A is similarly admirable, but non-native speakers are likely already overburdened with administrative tasks. A better alternative, as expressed by Proposal 3B, is to increase the representation of current research from philosophical communities working in languages other than English.

Maybe our evaluation of these proposals isn’t exactly right. We’re open to being corrected about that since an adequate evaluation should rely on a complex balance of empirical facts, personal experiences, and communal structures that we can’t claim to be experts in. We’re more interested in bringing greater attention to the conversation that Contesi and others have started: what should be done about the problems caused by English becoming the global lingua franca of academic philosophy? Indeed, since the both of us are “native” speakers of English, we’re eager to hear more from others, especially “non-native” speakers.

So let us know what you think of these proposals, and let us know what you think about other proposals that we haven’t mentioned. Additionally, we’d be interested in hearing about people’s experiences that don’t neatly fit into the cases we give above or in the full paper. At the end of the day, what we want is for academic philosophy to be more inclusive for all of its members around the globe.

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Kenny Easwaran
7 months ago

1B seems important to consider – but to be very careful with. I agree that “idiomatic”, “flair”, and “style” considerations are going to be based on what is interesting to upper-middle-class Americans to read (and occasionally British people) and are often going to make things much *harder* to read for non-native speakers (or for native English speakers from different cultural backgrounds). However, “readability” is probably a much *more* important consideration for non-native speakers than it is for native speakers. My partner tells me that in science journals they are told to avoid the use of contractions like “can’t” and “won’t” largely out of concern to improve readability for non-native speakers – I’m a bit skeptical that this particular suggestion is all that important, but perhaps it is, and we should absolutely be thinking of “readability” in those terms, of what makes something easier for a reader who isn’t a member of the same cultural communities as the author.

SCM
SCM
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
7 months ago

I agree.

“Readability” is ambiguous. Something can be readable because it’s filled with interesting allusions, subtle wordplay, beautiful cadence, etc. (i.e., enjoyable). But it can also be readable because it’s simple and straightforward (i.e., easy).

We don’t want people having to write as if they grew up reading Ovid, Milton, and Tennyson. But we do want people being able to write Ikea assembly instructions if they had to.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  SCM
7 months ago

Aren’t assembly instructions typically terribly written (or translated)?

David Wallace
Reply to  Nicolas Delon
7 months ago

IKEA’s are extremely well done – but they contain no words at all, typically!

SCM
SCM
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

Well, if you can’t publish a philosophy paper comprising only pictures of screwdrivers, dowels, and other Ikea hieroglyphics, then I really don’t know what to say …

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  SCM
7 months ago

Touché

Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  SCM
7 months ago

Mathematicians do it a lot.

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

That’s right, no words! (I agree they’re often well done, by assembly instructions standards.)

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  David Wallace
7 months ago

I recently had occasion to assemble two different pieces of flat-pack furniture, one by IKEA and one by another company. It’s really amazing how much of a joy it is to assemble IKEA furniture after having done one of the others. People just complain because assembling furniture on the basis of instructions created for an international audience is inherently hard, but IKEA does it as well as anyone.

Julia Molinari
Julia Molinari
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
7 months ago

How odd that science journals should be identifying contractions as being problematic for ‘non-native’ speakers! Having taught English for Academic Purposes over 2 decades at UK universities, it’s more likley to be the other way around, i.e. that non-native students are *told to not use contractions* because academic journals won’t accept them. Readbility has nothing to do with using or not using contractions: it’s the academic conventions that dictate these petty rules (which, by the way, many excellent academic articles flout to enhance flow and ‘readability’). I’ve published on this here, as both an applied linguist and philosopher, where I argue with many examples that what makes a text academic are its practices (eg the extent to which it is well-argued, evidence-based, etc.) and not its forms (such as contractions, colloquialisms, passive vs. active, etc): https://www.bloomsburycollections.com/monograph?docid=b-9781350243958

Matt L
Reply to  Julia Molinari
7 months ago

I’m sympathetic here, but this leaves out one of the main things that factors into whether I use contractions in a paper or not – am I close to the word limit?

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Julia Molinari
7 months ago

I definitely agree that contractions and passive vs active are unlikely to be real problems for non-native speakers. But I expect that colloquialisms really are going to often be a problem – not just for non-native speakers, but for native speakers of varieties that don’t feature the colloquialisms in question.

Peter Finocchiaro
Peter Finocchiaro
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
7 months ago

I can’t speak for Tim, but for me these issues about readability are delicate and I haven’t quite made up my mind about them. I agree with how you (and others) put it: readability is, in some sense, even more important for non-native speakers. But I would distinguish between the good-making features that we want a paper to have and the policies that we put into place to get those features.

I worry that certain policies are more vulnerable to distorting ideologies than other policies. If academic philosophers evaluate papers on the basis of their “readability”, then the practical effect is that standards of “readability” will be based on what is interesting to upper-middle-class Americans to read (and occasionally British people), rather than the much more important sense of readability that non-native speakers benefit from. In other words, the bias toward native English is so strong that it is practically impossible to avoid it with this kind of policy.

In contrast, a policy aimed toward certain constitutive features of the good sort of readability might be less vulnerable. So perhaps a better policy is to evaluate papers on whether there is a clear thesis statement, or whether the author’s position is situated against other positions in the literature, or whether the paper’s overall argumentative structure is clear, or whether the sentences used are overly long and complex, etc. Or, if contractions really are harder for non-native speakers, we can evaluate papers directly on the basis of whether or not they have contractions. The point is that policies that target these more specific features are less likely to be vulnerable to distortion than policies that target something as contested as “readability”.

Axel Arturo Barceló Aspeitia
7 months ago

I am very worried that in order “ to make current high-quality research more accessible to people from different linguistic backgrounds”, the authors think it is important to translate FROM ENGLISH into other languages, instead of the other way around. This line of argumentation reinforces the prejudice that current high quality research is written in English and who needs access to them is people who have other linguistic backgrounds. Thus, I would add proposals that address linguistic injustice without reinforcing these biased prejudices. For example, having English language journals publish translations of contemproary philosophy into English.

Timothy Perrine
Timothy Perrine
Reply to  Axel Arturo Barceló Aspeitia
7 months ago

We agree that it is problematic to only translate material from English into other languages. That’s why our proposal 3B is meant to include translating high-quality work from other languages into English which could, then, be published in journals.

Miroslav Imbrisevic
Reply to  Axel Arturo Barceló Aspeitia
7 months ago

Agreed! And here is a radical proposal: the monoglots could start to learn some modern foreign languages – which used to be the norm in philosophy (e.g. Ayer, Austin). But many universities (in the UK) have dropped the foreign language requirements for undergraduates.

Daniel Weltman
7 months ago

An article on the topic some might find interesting: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jopp.12259

Marc Champagne
7 months ago

The more reviewers insist on papers being “idiomatic,” the more OpenAI will find new customers. The reviewer’s request “Tell me what I already want to hear” is not a path to insight — and becomes worse when one adds “in the manner that I already want to hear it.”

Examples
Examples
7 months ago

On readability, some examples in philosophy heavily rely on readers’ familiarity with western education and/or pop culture. I’ve never read Shakespeare as I wasn’t required to read him when I was a kid in a non-English speaking country, just as an example. Whenever there’s some example that comes from some western literature, I have to google it; as these examples are typically not explained even one bit. Maybe not assuming that readers are all familiar with classical western examples will help readers from other cultures a lot.

I think there may be a related problem when it comes to using non western examples in papers. Does the choice of examples hint that the author isn’t western enough to publish in philosophy? Do the examples trigger implicit bias? From my limited experience, my papers that included non western examples sometimes undergo very difficult review processes; while my papers that were all western had much easier times. But I admit my sample size is way too small, and there are too many variables for me to say anything definite.

SCM
SCM
Reply to  Examples
7 months ago

Just on Shakespeare, my sense is that the vast majority of EFL speakers in philosophy today have not read more than two or perhaps three Shakespeare plays: maybe Macbeth or Hamlet in high school and perhaps Romeo and Juliet somewhere along the line. What is true, however, is that there is a massive amount of idiomatic English that comes from Shakespeare and that’s been hard-wired into casual parlance over the last four hundred years. But reading the plays won’t really help much with that.

Helen De Cruz
7 months ago

There are several ways to think of style and flair.

One is to just equate it to idiomatic English, or to regard idiomatic English as a necessary condition for good style. I don’t think you need that. People who speak English as a second language can write beautiful prose as well. But we need to be expansive and tolerant, even welcoming, to a wide range of expressions.

I’ve mentioned earlier on Daily Nous that academic philosophy is not welcoming enough to a range of literary forms: https://dailynous.com/2023/04/18/various-literary-forms-of-philosophy/

The demand for “idiomatic English” fits into this. Linguistic injustice and the tendency for conformity are closely intertwined. To use an expression from my native language, Dutch, academic philosophy is too much “eenheidsworst” (this is an untranslatable, literally it’s a sausage that mashes ingredients into a flavorless whole, the English translation of “uniformity” does not quite capture it).

As editor-in-chief of Res Philosophica I don’t know who the author is of our submitted papers unless and until I accept it. One thing I’ve noticed is that people who speak English as a second language tend to have more polished papers with fewer grammatical errors.

I also have created a new kind of submission format, the Res Phil short (3000 words or under) where we ask reviewers and authors to pay attention to style. Some people expressed concern that style means (or presupposes) idiomatic English. To (hopefully) mitigate these worries, I framed it like this (see here — https://resphilosophica.org/submissions/styled/)

“Style is an integral element of a philosophical essay. The reviews and decision process will take style into account. Many styles are possible: terse and analytical (e.g., Quine), fluent and simple (e.g., Russell), muscular and elegant (e.g., James), dreamy and ironic (e.g., Zhuangzi), lush and bold (e.g., Cavendish)… Think of Montaigne’s view that philosophy is “the painting of thought” (“la peinture de la pensée”). Note that you do not need to be a native English speaker to have a wonderful style. We welcome essays in English by speakers of any language(s).”

I’m firmly committed that anyone can write beautiful English-language prose. Indeed, having many authors who speak English as a second language further enriches and expands our modes of thinking. That being said, I always feel some worry (maybe stereotype threat) when I comment on posts like this that my English doesn’t sound idiomatic enough 🙂

Peter Finocchiaro
Peter Finocchiaro
Reply to  Helen De Cruz
7 months ago

Beautifully said, and much of this I agree with! In fact, what you say about style reminds me of this essay written by Ha Jin, “In Defense of Foreignness”. One major theme of the essay is that the non-native speaker, in virtue of their non-nativeness, is well-positioned to contribute to that language by expanding its limits. It’s something I try to remind myself when I speak in my very-broken Chinese =)

I’m curious how you incorporate evaluations of style into the review process. Is it something that you ask reviewers to take notice of but refrain from making a judgment on (something like: this paper has style X; I leave it to Helen to determine if X is good in this context)? If you ask reviewers to make a judgment about style, what sorts of guidelines do you give them to make those judgments? And how likely are you to intervene when you disagree with the judgment?

Helen De Cruz
Reply to  Peter Finocchiaro
7 months ago

I could probably fine-tune this further but so as to not overburden referees we kept the instructions succinct. I put them below fyi. The desk reject rate is high. Because it’s triple blind, the associate editor and I desk reject papers that we feel would not stand a chance.
Now that the format exists for a few months, I can say that the style aspect has not quite worked out yet. We have only one acceptance and a few more in the reviewing pipeline, and the accepted paper doesn’t have an unusual style (it had other virtues that helped it survive the review process).
We got a lot of intriguing submissions, even a poem (!) The poem was nice but unfortunately did not offer anything philosophically new, so we rejected it but with encouragement. I do hope people will keep on pushing the envelope and send us unusual things!

  • Please agree only if you can review this within max 1 month
  • For a negative verdict, please offer an explanation (it can be brief), e.g., “Not innovative” or “Not sufficiently interesting” is fine. For a positive verdict, please offer an explanation to the associate editor and editor-in -chief why, in your opinion, this piece is great. If you feel you can’t sufficiently advocate for the piece (“It’s fine I guess”), it is not good enough to be published. 
  • Pay attention to both style and content (style could be just clear and unobtrusive too, we value a great many styles of expression), and especially to originality of thought. 
  • Do not apply your usual approach to refereeing: do not expect a fully referee-proofed paper that exhaustively cites literature, etc. Rather, ask yourself if you think the piece is original, thought-provoking, while having a sufficient level of plausibility.
Sebastian
Sebastian
7 months ago

One related worry (though it’s not linguistic) is about an assumed shared frame of cultural or political reference. For example, you often encounter phrases such as “the supreme court” or “the first amendment” in political philosophy papers. I think it’s an indication that there is something wrong if authors and editors don’t think that it needs to be specified that it’s the US supreme court or the first amendment to the US constitution that they refer to. (There are other states with supreme courts and constitutional amendments.) I suspect that worries about English as an exclusive lingua franca and worries about references spring from the same source.

Ty Z
Reply to  Sebastian
7 months ago

Another example is jurors/juries, which I see somewhat frequently in epistemology papers. Many countries don’t have those and it creates a (tiny) barrier to understanding.

Jasper van Buuren
7 months ago

I think the broader context here is that academic philosophy has become a rat race much focused on quantity. As a non-native English speaker and writer of academic texts, your chance of being behind is statistically great, as it takes a lot of time to master another language and to learn about the ethos related to it. Native English speakers never had to make this time-investment. In addition, as is acknowledged in this article, there’s a bias towards the kind of philosophy that is popular in English-speaking countries. Even the adoption of continental philosophy by the Anglo-Saxon world has led to a specific interpretation of that philosophy that is strongly influenced by the analytic tradition. As a third point, in my experience, peer reviewers are keen to point out that certain references are missing, while overlooking that I include many references to e.g. German and Dutch philosophy that they’ve probably never read. So the bar is higher: for my continental-European audience I need to refer to Europeans and on top of that I can’t forget to mention any relevant philosopher from the Anglo-Saxon debates about the topic discussed in a paper. All I ask for is to give people a break, to look at quality and creativity rather than quantity and completeness, and to have more understanding for the diversity out there, for the fact that we’re not all part of the same shared world of philosophy.

Non-native speaker
Non-native speaker
7 months ago

Until I see concrete examples of such injustices, I tend to be rather sceptical of such moralizing reactions. Two points bear noting: 1) Also English native speakers need to make considerable and comparable efforts to modify and polish their written language to fit the standards of precise, good philosophy. I know that from having taught a lot of both native and non-native speakers. 2) There is proofreading and then there is proof…rewriting. In my experience those who need a lot of the former in fact need a lot of the latter, too, to the point that authorship may be compromised. But it may be just my experience.

Julia Molinari
Julia Molinari
7 months ago

As an applied linguist and philosopher, I’ve long argued that it is not the form of an academic text that makes it ‘readable’ but its social and academic practices, such as the extent to which it is well-argued, evidence-based, and building on disciplinary conversations that readers are already familiar with. Much has been written on this in philosophy, too, and much of it assumes that ‘clarity’ resides in the surface features of a text rather than in, inter alia, the shared knowledge between a reader and a writer and in the effort a reader also has to make to access complex knowledge. For example, Derrida’s texts make sense is you are curious about and/or share his epistemic and ontic worldview and are sympathetic to how his written expression embodies dualities/diffarances. If you’re with the Cambridge analyticos, then of course he is a ‘charlatan’.

If the aim here is to further epistemic justice via linguistic inclusion, then openness is needed for different ways of constuing and then re-presenting reality via language. That means readers becoming way more charitable than the English academic writing tradition allows for (because it places the onus on the writer to be ‘clear’). LLMs like chatGPT have been trained on the very standardised forms (with English dominating) that flatten, rather than stratify, ontology, making all writing sound the same.

2 references of relevance may provide some nuance and further evidence/references, both of them Open Access:

https://www.bloomsburycollections.com/monograph?docid=b-9781350243958

http://decolonialsubversions.org/docs/pdfs/2023/7_Istratii_Hirmer_21.10.23.pdf

Jamil
Jamil
7 months ago

The purpose should be to communicate /educate, and for that you need to be simple so that maximum number of people should benefit from it.

Chen
Chen
7 months ago

As a data point:

I hated English the most among school subjects growing up, and wouldn’t imagine it would become a prerequisite for doing my work. Even now, I am never motivated enough to be idiomatic. So I am naturally empathetic to this. In my own teaching, I do not pay too much attention to the language of my non-native students’ English and never let it affect my evaluation, but I will try to help if they decide to use the work somewhere.

That being said, it isn’t too obvious whether I have suffered any substantial injustice in journal processes. So far I have only ever published in American and British journals and I rarely see comments, if ever, from the referees complaining that my English is not idiomatic. There are complaints about typos of course, which I gratefully correct. Also, regarding my professional talks, I have never heard any complaints about my language. (I think it would have been frown upon if such complaint occurred.) I do feel some prejudice against nonnative speakers in ordinary interactions though. This is not as professionally serious, but does affect academic life quality.

The advent of AI helps with the language issues, so I am happy that the history is moving in this direction (I won’t get into the “side issues”;).

Recently I jumped in philosophy of science around the world very briefly for a few sessions. There were some native speakers but most were not. I have noticed that the non-native speakers were a tad more passionate speakers with more visually pleasing slides. Not try to generalize or anything, but just something fun to mention!

Tired
Tired
Reply to  Chen
7 months ago

You are very lucky! I once had a paper rejected by the editor of a journal due to “poor English.” For context, the review was double-blind and I have a recognizably ethnic name. One of the referees, though, praised the clarity of the prose of the paper and the paper later came out in another well-respected journal mostly unchanged. I notice that people tend to correct my English when they know my identity (I am non-white, non-native, junior). This could also be related to areas.

Last edited 7 months ago by Tired
Mark van Roojen
7 months ago

I’ve edited now and again, and if I saw a referee’s report recommending rejection or R and R with just the “not idiomatic” rationale I would have paid it no mind. Or probably more accurately, I would have read it for myself and made up my own mind. If my mind was that it was not idiomatic but perfectly understandable and grammatical I would not worry about it. Since it never happened I can’t say whether I would have gone back and asked the referees for examples or just decided to accept the paper if there were no other complaints.

Aside from (counterfactual) autobiography what’s my point? I guess it is that editors have discretion and they ought to use it.

Readability is different from being idiomatic. And it isn’t the same thing at all. An unreadable paper is not communicating. If one can tell that there is a good idea there, one is doing the author a favor to ask them to work on the writing. I suppose I think this is important to emphasize. Sometimes referees who don’t want to recommend publication as is are trying to do the author a favor. They think something is good but it could be better, and that it would be good for one and all if it were better.

And finally, being well-written is a plus. So probably a well-written paper has an edge over a paper with the same content but which is not as well-written. I don’t think that is bad or unfair. It is one of those things that if other things are roughly equal counts in favor of a paper.

praymont
praymont
7 months ago

Demands of clarity (readability?) often conflict with idiomatic writing. E.g., I avoid using “table” as a verb (as in “Let’s table the motion”) because the British (Canadians, etc.) use it to mean “introduce for consideration” while Americans use it to mean “remove from consideration.” I’ve noticed that many for whom English is not a first language (and many for whom it is) take the idiomatic concessive phrase “that being said” to mean “that being the case,” indicating that what follows is in harmony (rather than in tension) with what was just said.

It’s good to be clear but not at the cost of a dull, flattened language. Some use ChatGPT to ‘English’ (and clarify) their writing. As Julia Molinari notes, the results tend to lack flair. I’ll quote from the University of Waterloo’s guide to using ChatGPT for drafting and editing:

“ChatGPT and similar GenAI defaults to generating text in Standard American English (SAE), which reduces linguistic diversity and stylistic variety. If you use ChatGPT as a model for your own writing or speaking or to give you examples to build from, consider how your voice, your languages, and your choices make your writing individual and unique.” (“Using ChatGPT and other Text-Generating Artificial Intelligence [GenAI]”)

praymont
praymont
Reply to  praymont
7 months ago

Link to the University of Waterloo page mentioned: https://uwaterloo.ca/writing-and-communication-centre/Resources-AI-Overview

Nicholas Denyer
Nicholas Denyer
7 months ago

An Italian pupil, writing in English, acknowledged my “competence” as his supervisor. I wondered whether to tell him that the idiomatic English for “competenza” in such a context is “superlative skill”. In the end, I decided not to. But it was a question for which there was no good answer.

Last edited 7 months ago by Nicholas Denyer
Miroslav Imbrisevic
7 months ago

The Barcelona Principles tinker with the symptoms, rather than addressing the structural issue. And, I fear, the writers of this guest post do the same. See here: https://blog.apaonline.org/2023/05/24/linguistic-justice-and-neoliberalism-in-academia/

Filippo Contesi
7 months ago

Congratulations to Peter and Timothy for the prize, and many thanks to them, Philosophical Psychology and Lex Academic for shining another light on this problem. The problem is serious and will have to be seriously addressed, both for inclusivity reasons and to restore some of the quality and relevance analytic philosophy has lost in recent decades.

I would like to say, to any institutions that might be interested, that the Barcelona Principles are actively soliciting institutional support now:

https://www.ub.edu/biap/bp/

Please do not hesitate to get in touch if your institution (journal, society, department) is interested in endorsing the BP.

PhilMouse
7 months ago

As a non-native speaker, I am very sympathetic to the authors’ suggestions. Thank you for working on this important issue. I have two quick thoughts.

First, when I started writing papers in English, there were two separate challenges: word-choices and stylistic expressions. I agree that the quality of a paper should not be judged on its “style”, but word-choices sometimes matter. For example, I used to use “possible” and “probable” interchangeably (we have the same term for them in my native language), but it could be very misleading in a paper in metaphysics. I also spent sometime figuring out the differences among endorsements, commitments, recognitions, etc. in a paper in political philosophy. I sometimes feel lucky that analytic philosophy relies less on language (i.e. English), especially the adjectives. I am curious to what extent the authors’ suggestions apply to continental philosophy and other areas where language seems to play a more important role (philosophy of literature, critical theory, etc.).

Second, translation is not easy. It requires the mastery of both languages and a decent philosophical background. It also takes a lot of time. While I understand that translations are not the same as original papers/books, I hope we give more credit to translations in assessing faculty research.

Peter Finocchiaro
Peter Finocchiaro
Reply to  PhilMouse
7 months ago

I don’t have any deep thoughts about the extent to which our suggestions apply to those other areas. I suspect that they do apply to some degree. But I am much less informed about how those other areas operate and so I hesitate to say anything definitive.

I agree that word-choices sometimes matter. Your example about “possible” vs. “probable” is a great case in point. It also demonstrates an underlying theme of what we are saying in the paper. The differences between “possible” and “probable” are mostly lost on non-philosophers. So it’s a bit strange that non-native speaking philosophers are expected to defer to native-speaking non-philosophers. Someone could say that they should instead defer to native-speaking philosophers. But that also seems a bit odd. The differences between “possible” and “probable” are technical differences local to how English is used in an area of specialization. I don’t see why a native speaker of the non-technical version of English should have a disproportionate influence over how the technical version of the language should be used. Insofar as we are speaking philosophical English, we are all non-native speakers.

editoring
editoring
7 months ago

Another data point: My experience of editing is that there is no strong correlation between the strength of the writing and whether English is the author’s first language, though the types of mistake tend to differ depending on the author’s first language.

I’ve also noticed in recent years that it has been almost exclusively non-native speakers who (rightly or wrongly) point out shortcomings in an author’s writing. (Perhaps the equivalent of grad students/ECRs writing the harshest referee reports?)

I’ve never seen a paper given short shrift in the peer review process simply due to language issues, though of course language issues may lessen the reader’s ability to follow the argument and see its force. A not insignificant amount of head-butting between authors and referees amounts to poor communication of this kind (again, regardless of first language).

Miroslav Imbrisevic
Reply to  editoring
7 months ago

editoring: “I’ve never seen a paper given short shrift in the peer review process simply due to language issues”.

I suspect editoring is right and the problem is not as prevalent as some people claim it is. One of the language editing companies writes:

“The language you use to express yourself, your form and style of communication, and even the examples you use have a direct impact on how your research is perceived in your field and adopted among your peers. But what if breakthrough and innovative research is being rejected by reviewers simply because it isn’t written in standard English?”

The editing companies promise to make all these problems go away for non-native speakers (NNS) — if you are able to pay for their services. The real injustice lies in the fact that these junior scholars are on precarious contracts and can hardly afford to pay these fees. Some journals and book publishers are now offering author services—for a fee. And some are partnering with editing companies. A much more obvious solution for NNS would be to ask colleagues/mentors for help with polishing their writing.

After having lived and worked in an English-speaking country for a while, there will be many researchers whose language skills are at a level where they can write a research paper or a research proposal without linguistic help from others. But such autonomy would make them immune to the pull of market forces. In an essay, published in the Philosophers’ Magazine, we are given another reason why these papers might be rejected (rejection is actually a common experience for all researchers, whether native speaker or not): what they lack is the ability to ‘display flair, or elegance, or vivacity in the writing.’ Note that two of the three authors have ties to companies offering editing services and thus have a vested interest in promoting such ideas.

Of course, this is a confected problem; the high rejection rates of “prestigious” journals explain why even excellent papers don’t make it into print. Furthermore, the promise of literary flair by editing companies is a chimera. Attaining a good grasp of a foreign language is possible for most people by living in the country for some time. But the ability to ‘display flair, or elegance, or vivacity’ in your writing is a tall order. Why? Because not even native speakers manage to achieve this. Thus, many young researchers, even though their writing skills are at the right level (i.e., adequate to the task), are made to believe that it is necessary to jazz up their papers. But even if the author services firm could add this kind of ‘spice’ to the essay, it will most likely be shot down by the reviewers, because analytic philosophy nowadays favors uniformity in writing style, instead of literary flair.

There is one good thing about the rise of ChatGPT – it will likely destroy the business model of the language editing companies.

Ty Z
7 months ago

Two related proposals:

(1) Refrain from using idioms, or at least explain them clearly. There are plenty of those in academic philosophy: “bite the bullet”, “barking at the wrong tree”, “take it with a grain of salt”, to name a few. I’m ambivalent about terms like “biting the bullet” which are already well-established and useful, but there are many that just confuse non-native speakers without serving much purpose (and, to my knowledge, some native speakers too).

(2) Be cautious about culture-specific references (to second Sebastian’s point). One example I have in mind is baseball: David Lewis famously drew an analogy to baseball, and I vaguely remember Sharon Street using a baseball example in a constructivism paper. I really admire those papers, but the reference creates a significant barrier for anyone who isn’t familiar with the specific culture. I remember being in a seminar in the US where a group of grad students who don’t understand baseball spent 10 minutes trying to understand the reference and then just gave up.

I also wanted to suggest that these issues are pertinent not only in the context of journal publishing, but also in the classroom. When a professor uses a “colorful” or “fun” idiom or reference, it risks alienating minority students (international students, non-native speakers, other minority groups who tend to be less passionate about “mainstream” culture).

Peter Finocchiaro
Peter Finocchiaro
Reply to  Ty Z
7 months ago

It’s funny that you should mention these baseball examples because I had this exact same experience earlier this semester. One of Ásta leading examples of a conferred property in her book (Categories We Live By) is a baseball umpire ruling a pitch to be a strike. Most of the students in my Social Philosophy class don’t really know the basic rules of baseball, let alone the details of pitching. So I had to spend 10 minutes of class giving a physical demonstration of ball trajectories and strike zones!

I should say that the proposals you mention are contentious. I got into a fight with someone on DN about them once. Their position, as I recall, is that the use of these culturally specific idioms and references is an opportunity to learn about the specific cultural background of the author and enrich our overall understanding of the world. I think there’s some truth to that. But, as your comment suggests, these things are often done in a way that excludes outsiders rather than welcomes newcomers.

Ty Z
Reply to  Peter Finocchiaro
7 months ago

Thanks, that’s an interesting example and I’m sure the students appreciated the demonstration! Incidentally, “in the ballpark” is another idiom that I once found confusing – so many baseball cases.

Re: the argument that culturally specific idioms and references is an opportunity to learn about the specific cultural background of the author – I think in an ideal world where all cultures have equal influence and power, that would be a perfect idea. But the issue is that when a certain culture is dominant, people outside are really forced to learn about that culture.

And I wonder, empirically, how patient philosophers in the dominant culture would be when they read a reference from a different culture.

Another Philosopher
Another Philosopher
Reply to  Peter Finocchiaro
7 months ago

I feel like I should mention that Ásta is not a native speaker of English.

Cagla
Cagla
7 months ago

Congratulations on the prize! As a member of the Barcelona Principles Working Group, I am very happy to see that there is more discussion on linguistic discrimination against nonnative speakers of English and systemic disadvantages they endure in academic philosophy. This paper very well illustrates some of the issues we are hoping to address through Barcelona Principles, but I think even more importantly, it facilitates discussions like this.

One thing I was curious about is the native status of the authors as English speakers. Would it be possible to disclose this information publicly? (I tried to find that information but couldn’t. Sorry if I missed it.) I think this is important for several reasons but maybe the most prominent being the worry that nonnative speakers may be unjustly disadvantaged in publishing. If it turns out that the winners of this competition are not nonnative speakers themselves, then this would potentially provide a new perspective on that issue.