An interactive feminist scholarly journal - Une revue savante féministe interactive
ISSN 1481-5664


Can the priviledged situation of the English language in the academy be overcome? ou La langue n'est pas neutre.

par Francine Descarries, PhD,
Département de sociologie
Institut de recherches et d'études féministes

        In the context of the editorial objectives of Feminist Stratégies Féministes, I wish to address two questions derived from my experience as a professor and an activist feminist in a francophone society.
1) How universal or culturally determined are the feminist notions, categories or concepts we use ?
2) Can we foresee ways of avoiding inappropriate and dominant relationships among feminist scholars in order to develop interactive and horizontal relationships among countries, persons and movements? More bluntly said: are there ways to overcome, or at least reduce, the intellectual and cultural "imperialism" of the privileged linguistic situation of the English language in the academy?

        If I raise these questions, it is because I believe that one neglected problem that is seriously threatening the epistemological and strategic development of feminist studies and networking is both the hierarchical relationship and the cleavage that exist among different national and linguistic feminisms in the construction of theoretical frameworks and practices. I am concretely referring to the damaging impact of the socio-cultural and linguistic barriers that generate theoretical and strategic blindness or misappropriation as a result of the ignorance of the plural and diversified nature and level of development of feminist perspectives in non English-speaking countries. Strangely enough, no matter how many international meetings I have attended, I have seldom seen the question of the development of feminist knowledge or communication discussed from this point of view.

        Communication, as we all know, largely consists in understanding each other's language, but understanding each other's language is by no means sufficient to establish real lines of communication or exchanges between feminist intellectuals, academics and activists. We need to realise that the notions we use are strongly linked with specific cultural, historical and political environments. As feminists and as academics we need to take this reality into account and find ways to deal with it, but most importantly, we need to learn and benefit from it.

        In this light, one has to remember that words, depending of the language used, do not necessarily express the same social realities. We all know that feminist issues relating to le droit des femmes à l'autodétermination sur leur corps or to the basic goal of equality do not necessarily refer to comparable experiences or call for analogous strategies in the minds of African, Asian or Occidental women. But less often do we take into consideration that the concepts and paradigms used in one language might not refer to the same theoretical framework or problématique in another language or might not even be part of our intellectual horizons. Good examples of this are the use and abuse of the concept of gender in feminist studies, the reduction of French feminism to one single school of thought by most American authors and the different meanings attached to the notion of nationalism in different political contexts.

        I do not think that I need to add to these examples to make my point. It is a basic sociological fact that a large part of communication, either between schools of thought or between scholars, are hampered by misunderstandings of a political, historical and cultural nature. As a matter of fact, true communication can only be established if one is willing to open a dialogue with others and accept to challenge her or his own points of view or problématiques from their political, historical and cultural experiences and references. It is thus imperative to ask ourselves not only the traditional question: "where does the other speak from?" but also and more importantly "where do I - or where do we - speak from?"

        Originating from a non-English speaking culture and society, I have to come to the unfortunate conclusion that amongst well-intentioned feminists, even those living in a bilingual country like Canada, we have not succeeded in developing a real intellectual network where we would have learned from each other's experiences and built an integrative body of knowledge inclusive of each other's intellectual perspectives and understandings. And may I add, replicating here the words spoken by former International Sociological Association president, Immanuel Wallerstein, "that unfortunately some of our American colleagues, as well as many of our British, Canadian and Australian colleagues, are often victims of their privileged linguistic situation, because they are unable or become uninterested in knowing and understanding different cultural traditions and perspectives" and frameworks of reference. Implicitly or explicitly, paradigms and conceptualisations developed in feminist studies are undermined by this ethnocentric approach.

        In practical terms what does this mean? It means that when I consult a feminist article or a book written in French and whenever I read, through translations, works written in languages other than English, it strikes me that these works often not only contain references to texts written in English, but also take into account the contributions of French or hispanophone feminist theories, or the specificity of feminist studies in Quebec, Latin America, Italy or Brazil to name only a few. In contrast, I seldom come across the same ouverture or preoccupations in anglophone literature. The absence of bibliographical references to materials produced or translated in languages other than English is clear evidence to this effect.

        All of us realise, I am sure, the power structures and relations that are at work in such situations. Not only are books or papers published in English more widely read and quoted than others, as well as too rapidly identified as the feminist productions, but the absence of interaction with the rest of the world is a clear obstacle to the production of better scientific knowledge as well as an obstacle for feminists, let alone societies, to understand each other. This to me is a very serious problem.

        I am inclined to say that such disparity probably exists because the English speaking feminist field is l'Un (the One), to paraphrase the expression put forward by Simone de Beauvoir, and that the other feminist fields are l'Autre (or rather here, les autres or the others). As we know, l'Un as being the One does not have to define herself or question herself, whereas l'Autre (the other) is always defined or questioned in relation to l'Un (the one). And, it is l'Autre (the other) that is both trying to keep in touch with its own specificity and historical dynamic, and to catch up with l'Un, the one. And, as we all know, this leads the feminist peripheral fields to model their experiences on that of the center. They remain captive of a hierarchical dichotomous relation, even though their own historicity, political representations, and feminist struggles carry their own weight and direction and call for other channels of communication.

        In line with these first reflections, I wonder if we can foresee ways of establishing a better interlinguistic communication in feminist studies. Such communication would contribute to break the feeling of isolation or alienation that, notwithstanding everyone's good faith, often prevails when, being from the periphery, one hears talks on global feminism or feminist theories. On an analytical and theoretical level, it would also help to become aware of and deal with the differences that exist in our respective ways of seeing, conceptualising and acting our feminisms. Finally, we would greatly benefit from each other's analytical traditions and learn from our respective ways of asking questions, putting problems forward, constructing conceptual choices and methodological frameworks, choosing domains of research, discussing contradictions, etc. At this stage, I would reformulate my opening question by asking: How can we develop a global feminism that will encompass our historical, cultural, spatial, and linguistic ways of being feminists and thinking feminism, alleviate the tensions of a privileged linguistic hegemony and leave room for the absence of consensus while remaining in complete solidarity ?

        I hope it is clear that I am in no way promoting un féminisme de la différence ou des différences, nor denying the common and collective grounds of women's appropriation or exploitation. It is also important that everyone realise that I am not situating this discussion in the context of the linguistic dispute (contentieux) between Quebec and Canada, nor reducing the problem of communication and collaboration amongst ourselves to a linguistic problem. As a matter of fact, I do not, in principle, have serious problems with English as an instrument of communication. On the contrary, it is obvious to me that we need a lingua franca. In some circumstances, using English may be the only possibility to be heard and read by most people. My aim is to find ways not only to benefit from each other's experience, but to find ways by which knowledge and practices produced in non-English speaking feminist literature could be taken into consideration, integrated into the main feminist approaches and theories and thus contribute to the advancement of women around the world. In other words, to prevent the production and reproduction of a univocal and unidimensional approach to feminist theories and strategies as well as the exclusion of important contributions on the mere basis of their lieu d'origine. This being said, it is clear to me that we must get to work and develop an action plan so that linguistic barriers will no longer be a motive for ignorance, exclusion or worst, artificial homogenisation or reproduction of partial and fragmented visions of feminism.

        En terminant, on me permettra de réitérer les quelques principes sociologiques qui sont à l'origine de la réflexion proposée ici, à savoir :

il n'est pas de pensées qui ne soient soudées à une langue. Il n'est pas de structures de pensée ou de modèles théorique qui ne soient associés à une culture linguistique donnée. Et il n'est pas de cultures linguistiques qui ne soient tributaires d'un espace géo-politique et de son historicité.
Il n'est pas, non plus, de représentations idéologiques, sociales et politiques du mouvement des femmes qui ne soient liées à leurs conditions particulières de développement. Il n'est pas de choix de thèmes de recherche, de concepts ou de pratiques militantes qui ne soient fortement dépendants d'un environnement socio-culturel donné et de l'interrelation des expériences singulières et collectives des femmes dans cet environnement.

        Bref, la langue d'usage en sciences n'est pas neutre. En études féministes, comme dans les autres domaines, elle est porteuse de manières spécifiques de penser et de s'interroger; elle s'inspire d'expériences historiques et quotidiennes particulières.

        In other words, there is no thought or frame of reference that is not linked to a language. Language is not neutral. Scientific language in women studies, as well as in other disciplines, carries social representations, specific meanings and questions as well as historical experiences.

        As feminist scholars and activists, it is my conviction that we need to find ways not only to acquire better knowledge and understanding of feminist discourses, perspectives and strategies developed in different national and linguistic settings, but we must also challenge our own approaches and interpretations from these standpoints in order to break away from, or at least minimise, the patriarchal mainstream notions and practices of centre and peripheries, and find new ways of dialogue and collaboration amongst ourselves.

        This is why I invite you to take advantage of the interactive electronic forum of Stratégies to share your views on how to establish a better interlinguistic communication in feminist studies. It would also be most interesting to hear from you on how feminist perspectives and practices, developed in different cultural, national and linguistic settings, could contribute to bring about new strategies for change and take a clear stand against all types of inequalities and injustices.