In a recent tweet, Sir Richard Evans shared the acceptance rates in the Journal of Contemporary History. Besides the low acceptance rate, a comment raised a public debate: the main reason for rejection was “poor English”. Tweeter users from all over the world highly criticised his opinion, highlighting that non-native English speakers are thus disadvantaged in the academic publication process, and that solutions exist to limit this bias.
Although I do not share his opinions, these tweets highlight a sad reality – publishing is hard, and it may be even harder for those whose English is not their primary language. Although Evans focuses on Contemporary History, I believe this applies to all fields in academia.
In this assay, I share my journey at learning English and the language-related difficulties I faced in academia. The purpose of this assay is not to criticise Evans’ views directly, but to show a different perspective to his argument.
I am a white male who grew up in France, a highly developed country. English is taught at school from a young age, which provides an environment to learn and progress in English. France is a touristic country, and English is sometimes the only way to communicate with tourists. Travelling, if one’s economic situation is suitable, is also relatively easy within Europe, and English is once again, the gold standard for communicating in other countries. All the above reasons combined, one may expect French people to have a high proficiency in English, but the reality is different. Learning a new language is hard, and, although the reader of this assay may have learned a new language relatively easily, this does not apply to everyone. Financial barriers are also major constraints for travelling in English-speaking countries, which is the most efficient way at learning English.
Now, can you imagine how hard it would be to learn English when you grow up in a country where English is not the primary language, is not or hardly taught, with a difficult economic situation, and limited travelling opportunities? I cannot. I am deeply privileged by the country I was born in, the opportunities I had to travel, the fantastic pedagogy of my English-teachers, the similarities between English and French, and my learning facilities. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to learn English without these privileges. Yet, even with these privileges, I faced major barriers when I had to use English during my studies in Biological Sciences.
All my undergraduate studies and experiences of the natural world were taught in French. When I had to use English for academic purposes – I had to learn everything again. All the scientific terms, things as simple as the name of common animals – everything had to be translated. Fortunately, French has a Latin origin, which facilitate the translation. Still, this represents a major challenge that, I believe, many have faced when learning a new language and applying it to their studies.
At the end of my master’s degree, I had the unmatched opportunity to travel to the United States for six months. That was it. That was my opportunity at getting better in English - but I was terrified. I was terrified by my proficiency in English at the time, and how hard it would be to communicate my thoughts. Worse, I thought I would not be able to understand others. Hence, I prepared for my trip. Again, my privileges living in France allowed me to have a personal computer on which I could watch countless videos to improve my English. This “training” was helpful and I felt confident that, although not perfect, my English would be good enough to be understood and understand others.
The reality was different. My first few weeks in the States showed me how unprepared I was. Even though I worked hard to learn English, I was not quite there yet. I could understand most of the conversations, but it required a high level of concentration. I could not understand most jokes, which made me feel socially awkward, and my communication skills were lagging. My flow of words was probably halved relative to French, and I would sometimes get stuck – unable to communicate what I intended to. Communication with your supervisors and peers is a crucial part of academic work. We generate ideas, discuss them with others, challenge them. We also raise issues and solve complicated problems. All of this represent a substantial part of a job in academia. Difficulties to communicate not only slow down the progress on those parts, but also delay progress on others. Again, I was privileged to be surrounded by supervisors and peers who were compassionate and supportive. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to navigate in such environment without support.
Besides oral communication, I quickly faced another barrier that relates to Evans’ tweets – writing. Writing in another language is exceptionally hard. Again, all my previous trainings were done in French and I did not know how to write in English. Academic writing also relies on references from the literature, which are mostly in English and require extra reading time. Eventually, I produced a piece I am proud of. Yet, I would have produced the same piece in significantly less time, and perhaps of higher quality in my native language.
Slowly, but surely, my English got better. I now have been communicating in English daily for nearly two years and most of my personal and professional writing is done in English. Yet, I still face some issues. In my view, the most troublesome is how different my personality is in English vs. French. I realised that there are some things one cannot translate from a language to the other, some things need to be adjusted more deeply. It is an ongoing challenge that needs to be acknowledged.
In summary, privileges can shape our success at learning a new language. Given that academia is English-centred, people whose English is their secondary language are disadvantaged in many ways, both at the professional and personal level. Facing language barriers not only slow one’s progress in the workplace, but also act as a burden on mood, well-being, and confidence – which may easily feedback on working performance. For every part of an academic journey, language barriers add an extra layer of difficulty and stress. The extent to which these barriers will act on one’s feelings is variable, but some factors like the economic situation of the country or family of origin, the geographical situation, or the similarities with the primary language, are non-exhaustive examples that are important to acknowledge.
Rather than filtering the writing performance of English vs. non-English native speakers, providing an environment where everyone can thrive would be more profitable. In a world where some inequalities are finally brought to light, it appears crucial to me to acknowledge our privileges, learn from other’s experience, and embrace, rather than excluding, diversity in academia and beyond.