Regular readers have noticed that I’ve started doing some blogging in English these past few weeks. Choosing a language to blog when an academic should never be an easy nor obvious choice. As a matter of fact, lingustic choices are very important all across our activities, be they a matter of language or style. I’ve never been at ease with the possibility to blog or write papers in English. I’ve only ever written one paper in English, for a presentation given in Lisbon, a few years back, as I can only read but not speak Portuguese. When I got back, I soon translated this talk in French and published it here, where it attracted its little readership. This was proof to me that although English is widely spread in Academia, other languages could still be of relevance.
Since the beginning of my short career, I’ve tried to support in my own little way non-English languages within Academia, especially in an international context. I’ve tried to jump in the finnish sauna. I’ve helped non-native French speaker give presentations and publish papers in French and I’ve included in my papers, my talks and my thesis, as often as possible, references to works in German, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Portuguese and, more recently and with greater difficulties, Deutsch, Danish and Polish. There’s a lot of papers and thesis out there that are quite deserving but that garner little attention because scholars won’t often search through databases with keywords other than those of their own language and English. Obviously, it’s always possible to add English keywords to any document but, by and large, the gap between avaibility of world scholarship on any subject and linguistic diverisity in citations is disappointingly large.
For instance, there has been a constant interest for French early modern literature in Brazil and Spain these last decades. But, whereas Japanese scholars, who have contributed in an important way in the same field, usually publish in French or English, many scholars from Bresil and Spain choose to do so in their own language. Although I personally find this very commendable, it has obviously gravely impeded the spread of such scholarship in the rest of the world. The same could be said, I gather, of Romanian scholarship in medieval studies, less known than its German counterpart, for instance, even so there seems to be less and less interest in German scholarship in German from young scholars as we move further into the XXIth century.
And yet, lately, some events made me rethink my position about on avoiding English if possible. First of all, let’s be clear. I love English. I’ve truly learned English when reading J.K. Rowling and W.B. Yeats back to back when I was fourteen. When I was seventeen, I paid little attention to my philosophy class because I was reading Shakespeare, hidden in the last row. Many of my favorite writers write in English: Dickinson, Yeats, Plath, Dickens. I’ve translated some of Woolf’s essays in French and published one of them in an academic journal, an other in a literary journal and a third in an academic blog. I’ve worked extensively on English literature, English and American television. If I avoid writing English, it’s partly because my style and my grammar are lacking, mainly because I feel the need to promote other languages but certainly not because any spite I would feel for this beautiful language.
The first event was when a colleague of mine was pressured to deliver her presentation in English, in an academic conference in Paris. Most of the audience was French but the chief of the organizing comittee felt that the only way to produce true international scholarship was to speak and write in English. Apparently, there was some resistance during the conference and my colleague spoke half in English, half in French. Needless to say it was not a enjoyable experience for her. Yet, as I listened to her when she told me about this, although I found the methods and demands of this organizer quite injustified and indeed deeply discourteous, I could see his point. On this occasion, he truly didn’t want to have a bigger impact factor, he just wanted to be able to engage with other academics that didn’t speak French.
The second event was when I gave the draft from my upcoming book on American television to read to my best friend. She lives with her partner in Warsaw: he speaks English and Polish, she speaks French, English, Spanish and she’s currently learning Polish. Therefore, when she would talk to him about the book, she would do so in English and, as he was kind enough to show some interest, he would ask her questions in English. She would then ask my these suestions in French and in French I responded, which she then conveyed in English back to her partner, with some precisions in Polish. It did seem like quite a bit of trouble to share my modest insights on 24. There, academic English was no longer for me an abstract aspect of the contemporary international academia but a rather more personal matter.
So, recently, when I wanted to engage with the Twitterstorians in the discussion of enjoyable historical sources and when I wanted to write about a show my stepbrother, who was raised in the United Kingdom, had watched in English, while my first impulse was to stick to French, I ended up writting in English. It has been a great experience. For a start, it has improved a little my writing, although I remain rather ashamed at my performances. It certainly doesn’t mean that I intend to stop writing in French. I still think it’s very important that every scholar publishes, at least once in a while, in his or her own language. I’m still scooping blogs in Spanish and Portuguese, on Hypotheses, for good entries to share and the references sections of my works will still be as babelian as I can make them.
So, while I will still support scholars I know who fear they’ll be missing on something if ever they don’t publish in English, I will also help in any modest way I can those who would wish to do so in English. I know many French academics, both young and weathered, who, although being proficient readers of numerous foreign languages, are intimidated at the prospect of writing or speaking English. Yet, we’ve all heard very good talks delivered in a terrible accent and dubious grammar. More often than not, academic gatherings should be like ordering in a foreign pub: it’s the drink that matters.
(P.S.: Since I’ve written this blog, last week, interactions in English on Twitter have allowed Emilie K. M. Murphy and myself to virtually meet, as she was looking for a French early-modernist who could help her assess stylistical aspects of a corpus of XVIIth century letters written by English nuns in French. So, I guess I’ve come full circle.)