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Language, justice, and linguistic prejudice in academia

Guest Post by Sergi Morales-Gálvez and Josep Soler

This post provides a tentative view about the justice issues that arise from linguistic prejudice in academia. It introduces the plights that affect non-native English speakers, and how these may count as forms of epistemic injustice.

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Have you ever had something to say at the tip of your tongue, but you momentarily forget the correct word to express it? We are sure that’s an experience many of us are familiar with. For people who speak two, three or even more languages on a regular basis, this can be a frequent occurrence. This is, at least, our experience as speakers of Catalan, Spanish, English, and other languages. Although a momentary lapse like this does not mean that someone is not a capable speaker of a particular language, it might be interpreted negatively.

As native speakers of a language other than English (Catalan, in our case), we have experienced many unsatisfying moments when attempting to express ourselves in English within our field of work: academia. At the beginning of our career, some years ago, we regularly felt as if we weren’t good enough when speaking and writing in English. We usually felt lagging behind our colleagues, who seemed to speak far better English than we did. Were these insecurities simply subjective and psychological, or might they have been based on something else? Do linguistic prejudices undermine non-native speakers of English, in a world where more and more communication takes place in that language?

When it comes to academic and scientific research, theoretical and empirical studies demonstrate that writing in English takes less time (and demands less effort) for academics whose first language is English. Though this may seem trivial and obvious, it has significant effects – those who happen to speak English as a first language benefit from a bias that disadvantages and discriminates against those who happen to speak English as an additional language. Importantly, what we wish to denounce is not the portrayed deficit that additional language speakers may suffer from, but rather native-speakerism, the ideological construct that establishes a hierarchy amongst speakers of a language (in this case, English) and puts some speaker profiles as higher up in the social ladder than others.

Recently, some scholars have explored this issue by examining how scientists evaluate the work of their peers. Focussing on practice of anonymous peer-review, in which scientists assess the merits of work without knowing the identity of its author(s), they found that texts written in so-called “standard international” English were generally better regarded than those which deviated from that form of English, even though the scientific quality of the content was exactly the same. The consequences of this kind of linguistic bias can be significant, affecting an academic’s opportunities to participate in prestigious conferences, to network with leaders in their field, and to publish in leading journals.

Something to be learnt from this example is that people who speak and write non-standard varieties of English can be subjected to a negative bias and, therefore, susceptible to some forms of linguistic discrimination (something similar probably applies to racial and/or class-based accents). This kind of prejudice, experienced by people who deviate from what is considered as the “good” way to speak or write in English, can subsequently lead to our unfairly writing off people as less “credible” or “professional”, despite their expertise. This is a linguistic injustice, since those who happen to have English as a first language both find it easier to master the forms of ‘standard English’ expected in workplaces and are seen as legitimate owners of how English should be spoken, at least by comparison with those for whom English is an additional language.

These issues illustrate something that philosophers have labelled epistemic injustice, which has to do with how people are perceived (and treated) in their capacity as knowers. People are labelled as more or less credible depending on prejudices that are not based on the quality of their work, but on how they look and, especially important for us, sound. If someone’s way of speaking does not fit what is socially expected as “normal” or “standard”, then they may suffer from prejudice and lack of credibility.

One might wonder, is there anything wrong about this? Are there ethical grounds to complain about this situation? We believe that there are, at least, three reasons to be concerned about this.  

First, it is discriminatory to deprive people of equal opportunities as a result of widespread linguistic prejudices. People are not responsible for their linguistic origins and so should not be disadvantaged by them.

Second, linguistic prejudices can have harmful effects, for instance by damaging someone’s self-esteem. Our own experience, in common with that of many others, suggests that these kinds of undeserved barriers might curtail our aspirations and motivation. The very fact that someone knows that they might be taken less seriously can damage their confidence, discouraging them from following a particular career path.

Finally, these impacts are extremely problematic in domains such as academia, where production of knowledge is central. Scientific and other forms of innovation that we all might benefit from may be hampered if the credibility of those who able to contribute is mistakenly called into question, simply because they do not sound “proper” or speak with the “wrong” accent.

Knowing that, the immediate question that follows is how this type of linguistic injustice is supposed to be addressed. Some scholars argue to partially shift the onus of responsibility from speaker/writers to listeners/readers. Some others aim to promote everybody’s linguistic awareness of all these diversities. However, there is another question that might be also of important concern for any society aiming to be minimally fair: is this also happening beyond academia? There are some evidences showing this is the case. For instance, there is a study showing how consultations about apartment rentals resulted in differential responses depending on whether one sounds “white” or “black” in the United States. It seems that something wrong happens, that language might be a source of important injustices, and this clearly needs to be addressed.

Authors’ Bios

Sergi Morales-Gálvez is Marie SkłodowskaCurie postdoctoral fellow in Political Theory at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick, and member of the Political Theory Research Group (GRTP) at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. He works on contemporary normative political philosophy, particularly on linguistic justice, multiculturalism, minority rights and the republican tradition of thought.

Josep Soler is Associate Professor in Applied Linguistics at the Department of English, Stockholm University. He specialises in the study of language ideologies and on the macro-micro dynamics of language policy configuration in different settings, including internationalising higher education systems, family multilingualism, and minority language contexts.

Nicolás works on questions related to discrimination of and justice for vulnerable groups. He is particularly interested in issues related to the status of children in theories of justice. He is a Derby Fellow at the School of Law and Social Justice (University of Liverpool). He is currently working on a monograph entitled “A Political Theory of Childhood.”



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