Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Little Thought Experiment for Philosophers Who Are Native English Speakers

[This is a second post in a series of posts about doing philosophy in English as a non-native English speaker (the first post is here. All posts in this series will be reachable by clicking on the category "EFL Philosophers" at the bottom of the post; please see here for a disclaimer to all the posts in this series).]

Let me start with a little thought experiment for philosophers who are native English speakers (we are philosophers---we love thought experiments, right?), as, I suspect, some have never thought about this before. Suppose that, tomorrow, all international philosophy journals announce that they will only start accepting only submissions in Spanish (or French, or whatever language you have learned in school as a second language (if you happen to be bilingual, don't cheat---pick a language you are not a native speaker of!)). Your career (and, possibly, your livelihood if you don't have tenure yet) still depends on publishing in those journals and so does your ability to disseminate your work to a wider international audience.

What would you do? You probably would still try to publish in those journals. But how hard would be for you to write a philosophy paper in Spanish (or substitute your non-native language of choice here)? And how likely would it be for your paper to get accepted? Sure, you learned Spanish in school but you are far from being fluent (lo siento, mi amigo/a, pero esa es la triste verdad) and around the world there are many philosophers whose first language is Spanish and who write beautifully and fluently in Spanish without much effort and, as good as your Spanish might be it will never be as good as theirs and, even if it were, it would still be much harder and more time-consuming for you to write as well in Spanish than it is for them.

As you are engaging in this thought experiment, it's a good time to remind you that the Dunning-Kruger effect is a widely confirmed and extremely pervasive psychological phenomenon and you are probably overestimating both your proficiency in Spanish and your ability to get your Spanish-language papers and books written, published, read, and cited.

If you think that this little thought experiment is unrealistic or unfair, we can change the story around a bit and we can suppose that the Soviets won the Cold War and that Russian is the language in which philosophy is taught and communicated internationally. You attended a prestigious PhD program in Moscow and have had a chance to improve on the Russian you had learned in school back in your home country (be it the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics of North America or the the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics of the British Isles, or the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics of the Australia and New Zeland), but your Russian is still far from being as good as that of a native speaker of Russian and, even if it is as good, it is much harder and more time-consuming for you to write an academic paper as well as a native Russian speaker.

Nowadays ESL philosophers (i.e. philosophers whose first language is not English) are very much in the same situation in which you have found yourself in the thought experiment(s) you have just performed and, before writing other posts on the topic, I though it would be helpful for philosophers whose first language(s) is/includes English to contemplate the situation (albeit briefly and only imaginatively) from the perspective of an ESL philosophers.


  1. "Bim ag Smaoinigh ar Rudai i Danlann, DamnĂș Air!" by Christy Mag Uidhir

  2. Sorry for the confusion. That was supposed to be a jokey comment about how hard it would be for me to write an article in Irish (a language in which at one point I was functionally fluent). The comment translates as "Let's Think about Things in the Gallery, Damn it!"--which is about as sophisticated a Philosophy of Art title I could come up with in Irish. Sorry for any confusion. I promise I wasn't being an asshole.