In a very predictable way I managed to find myself an opportunity to postpone/procrastinate my first post, although almost ready. But the letter that French researchers are receiving those days from the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres is making me too mad to be left without immediate comment. The Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres is part of The Institute of France [Institut de France] — which fosters also the more well-known French Academy [Académie Française] — self-nicknamed as the “Parliament of Scholars”, and it is essentially interested in Humanities.
This morning, in the daily bunch of mails delivered thanks to the RISC list (French-speaking mailing list for anyone interested in Cognitive Sciences, as defined very broadly), we all have been forwarded a letter from this particular institution. The geist was that there are more and more scientific conferences happening in France exclusively in English language and that it is actually unlawful. Well, a few French researchers, me included, know for having tried that you cannot write a dissertation in English if you aim to graduate from a French university. Master or Ph.D, it doesn’t make a difference. You have to preserve the French language according to the so-called Toubon law (1994). Since it is because the Toubon law imposes the use of French in every public institution, it is indeed logical to consider unlawful the use of English in scientific conferences, which most of the time happen in universities’ buildings and thanks to public money.
But they are nice and understanding people at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. They recognized that French researchers need to take part in international research, so they propose some compromises. First, French should be admitted as a language of submission. Well, why not? I am actually going to a conference in January, in French-speaking Switzerland, where I could have submitted in one or the other of my daily languages. I chose to go for English: I work in an English-speaking country and my supervisor doesn’t speak French; there was really no point for me to do it in French. And it was perfectly OK, because it was entirely up to me.
This is where the second proposition of this morning letter gets everything wrong. They suggest that French speakers when in a conference in France should have to present in French and if necessary could summarize their work in English or display a full translation. First I am not sure what they meant by “display a full translation”, but if as I suspect, they are speaking about having your slides in English while speaking in French, they need to read a bit of cognitive psychology to understand how costly it would be, both for the speaker and the audience. If you want to mis-communicate and make sure people don’t go away with a message, go for it. And even ignoring this problem, you cannot convey your entire message using only slides. Then let’s assume you would choose the reasonable version, a French talk with English abstract, you cannot expect to have comments/questions as relevant as possible from non-French speakers, based only on the abstract. If you want to miss this opportunity, that’s your problem, to each his/her own ambitions. But if I want my work to reach the largest audience as possible, I should be able to do it. If, to achieve this goal, I want to endure having to work in my second language (however easy it becomes with time, it will still be slightly harder), you should encourage me. Not pillory me.
Their third proposition is not better. Non-French speakers can communicate in English but should provide at least an abstract in French. You would like to deter foreign researchers to come to our international conferences, you wouldn’t proceed differently. I know exactly what those conferences would look like, I have been to one so-called international conference happening in French. It looks like a bunch of French meeting their Belgian, Swiss and Canadian cousins. And it is not appealing. Also, imagine if every country was doing the same: to go to this conference in Budapest, next January, please write at least an abstract in Hungarian. Next year, you should seek a Chinese translator because there is a pillar conference coming in Beijing.
They have an amazing supplementary point regarding publications, which obviously should be in French with English abstract or translation. Again it is not clear what they meant. If they are talking about publications related to conferences, you bite your own nose in the same way as with the talk. Non-French speakers interested in your research won’t be able to have a full grasp of it if you translate only an abstract. If they are talking about papers in peer-reviewed journals, that’s even worse, because I don’t know how you would be supposed to achieve both this goal and to maintain high standards of publication, as French researchers are more and more pushed to.
Last but not least, they justified this letter by arguing that “language is not neutral and conveys inevitably ways of thinking (…)”. Therefore “using only one language has an impoverishing effect”. What? Should I understand that the evolution is a process that happens slightly differently in French? I am very well in position to understand that translation is always the opportunity to lose some bits of concept, that’s actually one of the categories on my linguistic blog, but data are data. They actually argue this point from the Humanities perspective, but even there, as far as I know, history is history, because documents are documents. Anyway even within a same language, researchers draw different interpretations (and this in every field). There is only one topic where I used to think working in your own language only was OK, and it is linguistics. But actually you do not want to lose the benefits of a third perspective. A non-native linguist has the right to be interested in your language and s/he might have some interesting insights because of his/her experience in his/her own language.
Dear French institutions, we, young researchers gone abroad, are not really tempted to come back. You might not understand why. But within our small community, we do. And you just proved our points.