Linguistic Discrimination

by Miroslav Imbrišević


In 2013, an Argentinian philosopher working in the UK argued that analytic philosophers should publish in English rather than in their native tongue. [1] It looks like many have heeded his advice. This year, some institutions and scholars adopted the Barcelona Principles for a Globally Inclusive Philosophy (BP), which aim to dismantle the structural disadvantage of non-native speakers in philosophy. The focus of the Principles is on English, because of its dominance in philosophy, but it would equally apply to, say, an Italian philosopher working in France, or a German working in Spain.

How good does your English need to be?

I agree that dismissing what others say only because of their foreign accent is silly. But this is a societal problem, not one that is specific to (analytic) philosophy. Similarly, a journal editor who rejects a submission because the writer has a foreign name and/or doesn’t consistently write in ‘standard’ English is not a sensible person. As long as non-native speakers can communicate their ideas successfully, some deviations from standard English can be tolerated. For example, the writer might get the preposition wrong. They might preface a quote from Kant with something like this: “Kant’s proof for this claim is at [sic] this passage.” It is clear to any competent native speaker of English that the writer meant “in this passage.” Only if there is a high degree of – linguistic – communication breakdown, may the editor reject the paper, perhaps explaining: “The paper is full of non-idiomatic and ungrammatical English, which makes it very difficult to understand.”

Some idiomatic expressions transcend languages and there is no problem in communication. In English we say: to give up the ghost, meaning: to die; in German we say: den Geist aufgeben. This idiom uses the same metaphor and expresses the same idea in both languages. But language learners make the common mistake of thinking that all idiomatic expression will translate well into other languages, or they are not fully aware that they are using an idiomatic expression. Think of the phrase “to lead somebody up the garden path,” which means: to deceive someone. [2] If we translated it into German literally, we would get: jemanden den Gartenweg raufführen. German speakers would believe that someone was literally being led along a garden path. [3]

Now let’s contrast this with a German idiom: “jemand ist schwer auf Draht,” meaning somebody is quick-witted. The German phrase would literally translate as: “somebody is heavy on the wire”; and people would assume that it has something to do with a high-wire act in a circus. These are the types of minor problems (prepositions, idioms) I can envisage non-native speakers might have. These can easily be overcome. It is different if you struggle with the syntax and grammar of English.

There are other forms of communication breakdown that are not linguistic in nature: the writer simply cannot state his or her ideas clearly and succinctly. But such defects in writing apply to both native and non-native speakers.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is such a structural disadvantage for non-native speakers in academic publishing, as claimed in the BP. The problem would go away, if these philosophers published their work in their own language. But some might worry that publishing analytic philosophy in your own language, rather than English, would diminish the impact of their work. They could of course have their papers translated into English to have a greater impact. These are the “easy” solutions, but things are a bit more complicated.

Recently, I got an email alerting me to an online discussion about “linguistic discrimination” in academia:

The language you use to express yourself, your form and style of communication, and even the examples you use have a direct impact on how your research is perceived in your field and adopted among your peers. But what if breakthrough and innovative research is being rejected by reviewers simply because it isn’t written in standard English?

The organiser of the event is a company which provides “editing, translation and publication support for scholars,” but let’s ignore their commercial interests here.

Of course, there will be linguistic discrimination of the bad type: looking down on people just because they are not fluent speakers or because of their accent. But there also will be justified “discrimination” between a lucid piece of prose and a paper that contains many passages which lack – linguistic – clarity. Let’s ignore the first type of discrimination; that is the domain of the unenlightened. But the company which organised the event about linguistic discrimination offers a solution to the problems that non-native scholars face: Hire us to edit and polish you written work. This means that it really is a non-problem, provided you have the means to pay.

It is likely that tenured staff have the means to pay, but young researchers on precarious contracts may not. Still, a young researcher could ask a colleague who is a native speaker for help, and then there are always the mentors/supervisors who could improve a paper linguistically.

It would be interesting to know how many papers are actually submitted in poor English. I cannot imagine that there are many non-native speakers who would want to submit a paper, knowing that their grasp of the language needs improving. I suspect that most clear-thinking people would do something about it, i.e., have their paper checked over by a competent native speaker.

If I am right, then the implicit (or explicit bias) has nothing to do with the quality of the language (that will be adequate to the task), but it arises because the author has been identified as someone foreign; a foreign sounding name, for example, will do the trick. If we had a triple-blind review (i.e. both reviewers, as well as the editor don’t know the identity of the author) for all philosophy journals, that problem would not occur, but we don’t. So, at present, the likely candidate for the charge of implicit bias is the desk editor, who – allegedly – rejects a paper without giving it due attention.

Chapman, Contesi & Sandis float the idea that paper rejections might have something to do with writing style. They explain that “the Australasian Journal of Philosophy (AJP) wants referees to consider whether papers ‘display flair, or elegance, or vivacity in the writing’ and are ‘enjoyable, even exciting, to read’.” This may be true for the AJP, but when I read what is being published in other journals nowadays, there is very little evidence of such flair in writing. Instead, what I see – among native speakers – is uniformity, lack of imagination, and writing that is bone-dry. I suspect that style is actively discouraged by most referees and supervisors (possibly a malaise of analytic philosophy); and let’s face it, literary talent is not widespread.

If we are to believe that the AJP’s instructions to its reviewers translate into philosophy papers brimming with flair, elegance, and vivacity, then this journal would be an outlier. I refrain from making an aesthetic judgement about these papers.

For any commercial outfit offering editorial services, such claims (by the AJP) are a godsend. Attaining a good grasp of a foreign language is possible for most people by living in the country for several years. But the ability to “display flair, or elegance, or vivacity” in your writing is a tall order. Why? Because not even native speakers manage to achieve this in their own writing. Thus, many young researchers, even though their writing skills are at the right level (i.e., adequate to the task), are made to believe that it is necessary to jazz it up with “flair, elegance, and vivacity.” But even if the author services firm can add this kind of “spice” to the essay, it will most likely be shot down by the reviewers.

Structural disadvantages

According to the BP, “non-native English speakers, who have not had the chance to perfect their knowledge of the language, are at a structural disadvantage.” This is misleading. It’s not like people are preventing them from perfecting their English. Learning a language to near native speaker competence is a long process. If you try to publish (or teach) in a foreign language before you are ready, the result will not be good. However, when it comes to publishing you can overcome a lack of proficiency in the language by using a proof-reader.

So, it isn’t a structural disadvantage, it is a linguistic disadvantage. Does the linguistic inequality translate into a structural disadvantage? Only if philosophical institutions were set up in a way to keep non-native speakers out systematically. I don’t think that is the case.

The instigator of the BP, Filippo Contesi, said that it is an “attempt at advocating for greater openness and sensitivity to linguistic diversity in analytic philosophy.” The term ‘linguistic diversity’ is effectively a euphemism because it covers all near-native speakers of English, as well as everyone else who is not as proficient in the language. Even if someone’s grasp of the language is poor, they are still covered by the term ‘linguistic diversity’ – and diversity is normally a good thing. But do I want to be taught French by an incompetent teacher, just because their poor language skills come under the umbrella of linguistic diversity? Non! I submit that the same goes for a philosophy teacher who doesn’t have a good grasp of the language of tuition.

True, non-native speakers often have a better grasp of grammar than the natives; they know when to use ‘fewer’ and when ‘less’. But in philosophy, more is required: precision and nuances in the use of language are central. So, just understanding the grammar is merely a pre-requisite. It is difficult enough to express your philosophical thoughts in your mother tongue, but even more so in a second language. I remember my hesitation, when the principal of the school, where I was teaching German, asked me to take over A-level philosophy (students’ age: 17-19). At that time, I had lived in Britain for 15 years and my wife was British. She had majored in English and History, and her job involved writing clear English prose for the BBC; so, my English education had been ongoing for a long time.

I agreed to teach these native speakers philosophy, but I felt the burden and the worry of getting it right. In every lesson I didn’t just have to wrestle with the philosophy I was supposed to teach, I also had to wrestle English into submission, so that the language would do my bidding. But this is not all, you also have to mark their essays. A philosophy teacher needs to point out to the students where their writing lacks clarity, when they are verbose, when the tone of writing is wrong, when they make semantic mistakes, as well as correcting their grammar. This would be a difficult task for a non-native speaker who has only spent a couple of years in the country. It took me about a year to feel confident about my new role.

I keep reading job-ads from other countries, and they all say something like this: ‘It is expected that the candidate will be able to teach in Swedish, Spanish, Hebrew, etc. within two years of appointment. I find this astonishing. Your grasp of a foreign language might be good after two years, but I doubt it is good enough to correct the essays of students. By that I don’t mean the philosophical content, I mean their use of language.

Do these non-native speakers grasp all the nuances of English that J.L. Austin considers in “How to Do Things with Words”? Or let’s take an example from Continental philosophy, Heidegger’s famous Das Nichts nichtet. Will somebody who didn’t grow up in Germany be able to explicate the linguistic nuances of Heidegger’s language? I suspect that most will fail, particularly if they have only “lived” in the language for a couple of years. A paper is either written in good English or it falls short of that standard, to a greater or lesser degree. Analytic philosophy is about communicating (often complex) ideas in clear language. If the language proficiency of the writer is below a certain standard, then they are not at a ‘structural disadvantage’, they are at a linguistic disadvantage. Poor language skills, and the consequent poor writing, obstruct the aim of philosophy. If a non-native speaker submitted a piece of work in clear idiomatic English, they would not be at a disadvantage. However, if they wrote with flair and literary style, like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche did, they would have a hard time getting published in English philosophy journals.


[1] At the time I thought: Not another pointless philosophy paper! I couldn’t see why anyone would want to express themselves in a foreign language (i.e. English), rather than in their own. I was wrong, and the author of this paper showed prescience.

[2] Note that British English uses ‘up’, US English uses ‘down’.

[3] At an international conference in Lucerne, a Scot, with a heavy Glaswegian accent, made life even more difficult for his audience by using several idiomatic expressions, one of them was ‘leading someone up the garden path’. Native speakers of English need to show some consideration to an international audience where not everyone has a ‘perfect’ grasp of English: 1. speak slowly; 2. avoid idiomatic or obscure expressions; 3. tone down your local accent.

[4] I will focus on publishing here and ignore the other areas mentioned in the Barcelona Principles.

[5] Accent can be a hindrance to comprehension. The content of philosophy is difficult enough, but when you struggle to understand what the lecturer is saying, it leads to frustration. 20 years ago, when I did the federal MA in philosophy at the University of London, there was one professor who had a heavy foreign accent. After the first lecture I decided not to return and I overheard other (English) students after the class who said that they found the lecturer very difficult to understand.

[6] Let’s not forget that being foreign is often considered a bad thing. A common slur in German is ‘dreckiger Ausländer!’ (dirty foreigner); in English I recall an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, where the Belgian detective is abused by the miscreant, after having been exposed: “You, little, foreigner!”

[7] What the AJP advocates could previously be found in Continental philosophy, but I suspect that today it has been side-lined by the pressure to conform to a particular template. And then there is the “pernicious” influence and dominance of analytic writing style in Europe, which does not tolerate writers like Schopenhauer or Nietzsche.

[8] I suppose the danger of communication breakdown is much lower in disciplines like mathematics, where a proof can be universally understood.

[9] If you want to engage with Carnap’s take on Heidegger, you might have to do this.


9 responses to “Linguistic Discrimination”

  1. “how many papers are actually submitted in poor English” – I don’t know how many in philosophy, but lots in the fields where I am a reviewer. I have been offered co-authorship where I would write the English text, and a friend worked as an editor for one of these editing/translation companies (lots of work, not paying real well). And in this era of bibliometrics, publishing in high impact journals (thus usually in English) is important for keeping one’s job. It’s interesting reading older philosophy journals, where a proportion of articles are translations of what the translator regarded as key recent papers – not so much of that now?

    “it isn’t a structural disadvantage” – it has to be surely? If we take a disability model for those who find it difficult to acquire a second language…

  2. That is interesting David, are we talking about the sciences? There, the data, formulas, proofs, may matter more than elegant English, as I say in my endnote (8). But you would still need to interpret the data.

    Yes, you don’t see many straightforward translations in journals. I suppose everyone is expected to be able to write in English.

    I have doubts about the disability model applied to language learning – we would need empirical data from linguistics.

  3. Terranbiped

    When I think of the abysmally poor and often humorous attempts at writing simple one sentence instructions in English that accompany foreign made products, I can only imagine the difficulties in expressing complex and nuanced thoughts in philosophy for the non native speaker.

  4. “I have been offered co-authorship where I would write the English text” – that is really shocking David. And I suppose some people take the “deal”?

  5. Yener Cagla Cimendereli

    Hi Miroslav! I have recently joined the group working on the promotion of the Barcelona Principles and personally speaking generating discussions as this one is one of my main motivations in joining the group. So, thank you for providing this opportunity.

    You seem to be thinking that, like many others in the profession, analytic philosophy is more about ‘arguments’ and less about ‘style’. All we need is intelligibility. If this is true, I wonder why it is a problem for the Barcelona Principles which basically requires one to not give undue weight to style and to have a self-check mechanism when they assess nonnative speakers. If a journal or an editor is already following these principles, we should expect many professionals and institutions to publicly endorse them. Yet, this does not really happen, does it? So maybe we should reassess the idea that analytic philosophy is just about ideas. Again, personally speaking, I think it is perfectly fine to say that analytic philosophy requires a certain level of linguistic proficiency which is beyond making intelligible statements and arguments. However, it is important that we are honest about it. And I think one of the achievements of the Barcelona Principles is forcing people to admit that they think analytic philosophy requires such a linguistic competency that it does in fact disadvantage nonnative speakers. Because only after dismantling this myth about analytic philosophy we can discuss whether linguistic disadvantage constitutes injustice.

    This brings me to another problem in your essay. You say that the problem is not structural but linguistic. It is not clear to me that why you take these two properties as mutually exclusive. Racial injustice for example is racial and also structural. In fact, it is in virtue of being structural that it is unjust. The same is true for gender. I don’t see why the same cannot be the case for linguistic. That is the problem can be both linguistic and structural in the sense that it can be argued that it is an injustice too.

    I have much more to say but let me just finish this reply adding that your description of the publishing process is not accurate and uncharitable to the main argument. It is true that one can ask a native speaker friend, if they have one, to proofread their paper every once in a while. But this sounds like advising a mother that they should ask a friend to look after their children when they need childcare in order to going to work. If we take gender equality seriously, we should instead provide childcare support to mothers so that they do not have to depend on others’ benevolence. Similarly, there are ways for nonnative speakers who are privileged or lucky to have a partner who is working as a copy editor in English to get their work proofread without paying. But this does not address the structural issue which disadvantages nonnative speakers.

  6. Thank you for your comments, Yener Cagla Cimendereli. Just to clarify, you misunderstand what I mean by ‘style’: I mean literary style, flair, vivacity (Schopenhauer is considered to be the greatest stylist in German philosophy) – not the style (= their language proficiency) of writing by a non-native speakers compared to native speakers of English.
    1. If you try to follow the exhortations of the AJP, writing with flair, vivacity and style – you will find it hard to get published. A lot of reviewers have been trained in this way. They want you to follow a template: bone-dry, boring prose. If you have the urge to write with literary style, then you really are “disadvantaged” in analytic philosophy. But the commercial editing companies claim that you need “style” to be published – this is dishonest. The are just exploiting people. This myth helps their business model.
    2. “analytic philosophy requires a certain level of linguistic proficiency which is beyond making intelligible statements and arguments. However, it is important that we are honest about it. And I think one of the achievements of the Barcelona Principles is forcing people to admit that they think analytic philosophy requires such a linguistic competency that it does in fact disadvantage nonnative speakers. Because only after dismantling this myth about analytic philosophy we can discuss whether linguistic disadvantage constitutes injustice.”
    Well, any good philosophy requires “linguistic competence”, there is nothing wrong with that and this does not translate into injustice. Learning a language is a process. If you haven’t reached the level required for publishing, then you need to either get help from native speakers/commercial outfits, or you keep learning until you are at the right level. A neurosurgeon who is still training is not at a ‘disadvantage’, compared to those who have finished the training successfully, when it comes to operating on people. The use of the word ‘disadvantage’ is misleading – it suggests that we are wronging those who are still learning the language, if we require that they come up to a certain standard – for publishing. Your analogy with race and gender doesn’t work: language learning is a process; being of a certain race or gender is not. There is no proficiency in race or gender, but there is a proficiency in language. Take the common language assessment levels in the EU:
    3. “we should instead provide childcare support to mothers so that they do not have to depend on others’ benevolence.” So you are saying, journals and/or philosophy departments should support non-native speakers (by providing proof-reading services) when trying to publish a paper? Agreed. Philosophy departments should certainly do so, because they are employing these non-native speakers. What puzzles me here is that the departments expect them to be competent as teachers, but, strangely, these teachers are not competent enough to publish without linguistic help.
    4. There is much more to be said, because the system is set up in the wrong way: pressure to publish; pressure to publish in English journals (why?); overproduction of philosophy PhDs and too little jobs; a lack of understanding by university managers: they think you can teach (in the humanities) in a new language after 2 years; teaching duties for (non-native) PhD students and post-docs; etc, etc.

  7. Dear Miroslav. Yes, I am in the bio/statistical sciences. Many large Anglophone research groups have a single member who is the “writer” ie does not perform actual experiments etc but prepares the manuscripts, so I don’t regard this as shocking per se. As to individual differences in second language acquisition, there is an extensive literature where they assess the importance of language aptitude, personality, size of working memory etc etc. Here
    is one paper suggesting it’s all downhill after age 17, so temporal luck is important 😉

  8. Contesi & Terrone [] write:

    “non-native English speakers authored less than 6% of the 500 papers and books that were most cited by articles published between 1993 and 2013 in (those which are often taken to be) the four most prestigious analytic philosophy journals, namely, Philosophical Review, Journal of Philosophy, Noûs and Mind”.

    It would be interesting to know the percentage of non-native speakers working in English-speaking countries during this period. Was it below or above 6%? And among those 500 papers and books: how many authors worked in non-English-speaking countries? Without this info the 6% don’t really tell us much.