Language, please!

One of the first decisions we made as organisers was to set English as the conference language. In this post, we want to share the impacts and intricacies of that choice.

The ‘obvious’ choice

Changing Worlds has its roots in the English-language international Master’s programme ‘Science–Technology–Society’ at the University of Vienna. This, coupled with our vision of creating a conference that would attract participants from abroad as well as Austria, made English the ‘obvious’ choice – we were simply used to treating English as matter-of-fact.

Our classes and the vast majority of our study materials in Science and Technology Studies were in English – the academic lingua franca. We routinely communicated with our teachers and fellow students in English (in or outside of class), so it felt almost normal to use English to communicate among members of the organising team as well.

Similarly, if you want to appeal to international audiences (particularly when you include academics), using English is seen as the most accessible language choice. After all, pretty much everyone speaks it at least enough to get by … right?

Close up of one of the conference's door signs. The original in German is replaced by an English version.

Another consequence of our choice to use English as the conference language:
We ended up replacing the venue’s original German-language door signs with English ones. (Photo: Mercedes Pöll)

Consequences and implications

Deciding on English as main conference language was meant to increase inclusiveness – but, as with so many things, an attempt at including a group of people often results in excluding another.

Yes, English meant that we would open the conference more readily to international participants – but only those international participants who speak it. At the same time, we curtailed access to the conference for locals who may feel that their command of English doesn’t allow them to participate as fully as they want to.

What does it mean to hold an English-language conference in a city where some of the main languages spoken are German, Turkish, Hungarian, or Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian? What does it say about us and our conference that we continue to perpetuate the idea of English – whose global dominance is tied to colonial history – as necessary when taking part in international exchanges?

A lot of these and related questions we only started asking ourselves after the decision was made – and considering the status of English as a global language, it’s questionable whether we would have chosen a different language in the end. After all, a lot of conference organising means schooling oneself in pragmatism.

Who speaks – who listens?

That language can be inclusive and exclusive at the same time showed itself in other ways as well, for example when it came to one of our workshops. Part of the 2015 programme was a theater workshop about power relations in educational systems and who has the authority to speak for whom – the Theatre of the Oppressed. The workshop facilitators consisted of a mixed group of university students and people with learning difficulties.

The facilitators expressed that what they had planned would necessitate a German-language setting. We felt that in this case, the ‘exclusiveness’ of German would be more than made up for by embracing a contribution that would problematize access to higher education and highlight issues of hierarchies in educational relationships. At the same time, we felt that it would be beneficial to give everyone at the conference the chance to hear about the project that sparked the workshop. This is why we ended up having an English-language talk alongside the workshop.

Of course, questions remain: while it was praised by those present, the workshop had very low attendance. Was this because of the language it was held in? Because people seemed, in general, to prefer panel presentations (compared to the panels, other workshops also had relatively few participants). Or does it exemplify a fear of contact with the Oppressed?

Better languaging

So how could we be more inclusive in terms of language? How could we, realistically, have done things differently (with the understanding that we can only ever approximate ‘full’ inclusiveness)?

In terms of including people who would rather choose a different (local) language to present their ideas in, there is the option of creating a panel (or whole stream) to host their contributions. Not only might this increase participation of people from the area in which the conference is being held, but also allow for a different array of knowledges to be shared.

In this vein, it should be noted that language concerns aren’t as simple as dividing people into those who definitely speak, or definitely don’t speak, a language. There are gradients in language skills, which expressly include both ‘native’ and ‘non-native’ speakers alike. While a person may not feel equipped to host a workshop in English, they may be perfectly comfortable following a performance in the same language, or asking a question they have previously written down.

The ‘easiest’ solution for all these issues would, of course, be having interpreters available to facilitate communication across language barriers. However, at the very least here is where we run into the matter of finances again. Interpreting is expensive – and yes, translation technologies exist, but they are still no subsitute for human interpreters. Additionally, they carry problems regarding availability and usability. If you can swing it, interpreting can contribute immeasurably to making your conference an event that accounts for its own diversity – but it might end up being one of the things that, for practical reasons, need to fall by the wayside.

Thoughts? Ideas? Revolutions?

What are your ideas about language usage at conferences or similar events? How could it be changed or improved?

Feel free to comment below!

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