From where I sit - English imperialism

February 14, 2013

The practical reality for many German academics and researchers is that publishing in English is becoming progressively more vital for their careers. However, some German linguists are railing against this process and drawing attention to its associated cultural, political and academic dilemmas. This is reflected in a new book, Deutsch in der Wissenschaft (German in Academia/the Sciences).

Linguist Konrad Ehlich, honorary professor at the Free University Berlin, and his colleagues lament various aspects of the compulsion to publish in English or perish. The problem is that the German language is allegedly losing its function and being devalued as a result. Adding insult to injury, those academics who still write in German are often considered provincial and mediocre.

As early as 1999, another language expert, Ulrich Ammon, professor of Germanic linguistics at the University of Duisburg-Essen, was encouraging German institutions to face the music and use more English. Such trends are certainly pervasive in many fields, including medicine, the natural sciences and business administration. However, “squeezing out” German comes at a price.

Language is more than a merely passive medium for conveying information, such as research results. Rather, culture is bound up in language. If work is written in another tongue, this context is largely or even entirely lost. Knowledge developed within a certain cultural context is a product of all that culture entails, and part of that is inextricably linked to the vehicle of expression itself.

Ehlich draws attention to constraints imposed on knowledge creation and dissemination by “striving towards monolingualism” in the international scientific scene. He argues that multilingualism is a fundamental element of knowledge creation, which even requires a degree of confrontation between cultures and languages to be optimally productive and fruitful. He adds that this process of discovery needs to permeate both teaching and learning.

Few translations, whether done by the authors themselves or third parties, truly reflect the style of the original. While this is arguably more of a problem in literary than it is in scientific or economic work, the fact remains that Germans working in English will inevitably produce something different from what would emerge in their mother tongue. It takes a really first-class translator or editor to eliminate this language filter and it can seldom, if ever, be done to perfection.

Furthermore, there are issues of democracy and liberty involved. National languages are a matter of pride and personal freedom. Accordingly, argue Ehlich and others, academic freedom extends to the linguistic realm as well. The rise of American English as the only scientific or academic language with any real clout is regarded by the most trenchant critics as cultural imperialism and hegemony.

Although there is a historical tradition of the language of science and knowledge shifting dynamically between Greek, Latin and various other languages (including German) over the centuries, the current situation is particularly entrenched and needs to be confronted now. The unchallenged dominance of English should be understood in terms of its pros and cons.

While having one common language certainly disseminates knowledge widely and efficiently, in the hands of non-native speakers, its accuracy, effectiveness and cultural integrity varies considerably. Ehlich pleads for German and other European languages in particular not to be devalued further and consigned to the scrapheap of “historical linguistic phenomena”.

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Reader's comments (1)

I can understand the frustration felt by researchers who feel compelled to publish in a foreign language, but don't see any practical alternatives. As Bloch rightly points out, this issue needs to be confronted. However, the debate needs to go beyond simply complaining about cultural imperialism, etc. What solutions does Ehlich suggest?

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