Sunday, July 24, 2022

Official language: Broken English

This week, I've been to another conference (ESU9 in Salerno, Italy, for people who want to know. I will blog about it later). It was a wonderful conference, both in terms of ideas shared and in terms of a pleasant and friendly atmosphere. The kind and clever people presenting came from all over Europe (and beyond) and can read and speak brilliantly in French, German, Spanish, Norwegian, Greek and so on - these capabilities are useful, by the way, when doing historical research. However, even in this context, I heard people apologize for their bad English when presenting in English. I hear these apologies in all conferences I go to where English is the official language.

I have, however, also been to a conference (was it Mathematics Education and Society?) which states specifically that the official language of the conference is Broken English. Broken English is, according to Wikipedia, "non-standard, non-traditionally spoken or alternatively-written versions of the English language". The whole point of having English as an official language of a conference, is that everybody - even those who do not learn English when they were children - do their very best to speak some version of English, and that everybody, obviously, do their best to understand. There is no reason to apologize.


Having Broken English as official language has at least two consequences: 

  • People do not have to apologize for speaking English in the very best way they are able.
  • People should be prepared to do an effort to understand, and also know that some points may be lost in translation. 
  • People who do not speak Broken English (that is, people who have English as their first language, for instance), should not pretend they are in a conference where Perfect English is the official language. For instance, they should not try to get a 30-minute presentation into their 10-minute timeslot by speaking so fast that only native listeners can understand... (I have experienced that, although not recently).


Having your first language the official language of a conference is a privilege, as it is so much easier to present your ideas and formulate your questions and comments. We need to work to make this privilege less than it has to be.


(By the way, there is of course differences of privilege in the group using Broken English as well - I am so lucky that one of the languages that we use at home, is (Broken) English, which has given me some training in formulating thoughs into Broken English...) 

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