Brexit-Trump and the end of language hegemony

by Kelvin Smith

It looks as if the Brexit-Trump era is already having an effect on the international nature of higher education. In the anglophone world, academics are either feeling unwelcome or are being discouraged from taking up positions because of anticipated changes to immigration law and zealous security vetting. Internationally minded students are looking to live and study in countries where society is more welcoming, where universities are still supported by internationally minded governments, and are, quite often, far less expensive to attend. Add to this the movement of private research and development to more amenable locations, and the higher education sector has a lot of contingency planning to do.

As well as these being interesting times for scholarship and research, they might also affect the varieties of publications that promulgate, disseminate and critically evaluate the results of these activities. One unintended consequence of the current turn towards isolationism and xenophobia in the North Atlantic anglosphere may be a significant shift in the language of global and local publishing. There may be a smaller market for English language books and journals, and a renewed realisation that using one’s own language can give scholars and scientists more political and personal freedom, and more opportunity for innovation.

English became the language of science publishing when it became the language of scientific experimentation and exploration, but now, as science looks set to migrate from the British and American powerhouse universities, it may face greater challenges from other languages, as both the language of science and as the language of the business of science. German and Russian may rediscover a scientific clout not known for several decades; others, Mandarin, Hindi or Turkish perhaps, will become important servants of scientific innovations that serve the needs of large local and regional economic interests. National and regional languages may be used, not to spread the word about local knowledge to rapacious international exploitative industries, but to foster local innovation for local good.

In the social sciences, there must always be a nagging suspicion that analysis and policy have been inappropriately developed in a world language whose vocabulary and inflection were developed to analyse and direct the institutions of very different, often predatory societies. The tone set by the use of English in social research may have obscured understanding and made the development of successful local policies more difficult.

In the humanities, where knowledge of and sensitivity to meaning used to come from using and understanding a variety of languages, any current experience and knowledge is increasingly gained through translation, the development of new Englishes – both Globish and social patois, and the development of Artificial Intelligence and language learning by algorithm. At the same time, English as a language of creativity and as the language predominantly used to discuss such creativity has become overloaded with jargon and in-group locutions. Using more languages as an antidote to Brexit-Trumpism may be a shot in the arm for culture in all our countries.

Many now feel that the world is entering a new political era, and this may well entail a move away from English as the pre-eminent language of science and the humanities. This will change publishing, both in traditional formats and in whatever new publishing develops in the digital space. Publishers must not be slow to recognise that the dominance of English has been only a phase in the history of publishing and information dissemination, and they will need to plan for survival in the more linguistically nuanced publishing landscape created as the European and North American anglosphere retreats and retracts.

While English will not disappear as a language of knowledge and creativity, it may be on an irrevocable path to becoming, like Kiswahili, mostly a convenient language of business along the physical and digital shipping lanes of the world, with a fine tradition of religious and literary writing and publication, but mostly overtaken by the languages of those countries that are actually out there in the world doing the creating, experimenting, trading and colonising.