English Only, Please

A couple of weeks ago my colleague Mary George published an article in Inside Higher Education about student confessions related to what they didn’t know about research. (For the record, I am not the "Academic librarian" in the comments section.) Some of these are typical missteps many of us probably see with students all the time. They try to find periodical articles in the OPAC, or believe (or maybe just hope or even pretend to believe) that if an article isn’t digitized they won’t be able to get it. It’s a good list of some of those tidbits of knowledge both professors and librarians might take for granted, but that somehow never got passed on to the students.

This could signal many things, such as a breakdown in communication or instruction or a failure to integrate research skills into the curriculum. I suspect as much as anything it signals our inability to unlearn and get back into the mindset of a novice researcher, especially one used to Google or Yahoo who suddenly encounters the sometimes unnecessarily complicated world of the academic library. (I mean unnecessarily complicated in a theoretical sense, because after all why shouldn’t students search for periodical articles in the OPAC; had librarians begun indexing a century ago instead of relying upon commercial indexes, how different the library world might be.)

One topic that didn’t make it onto Mary’s short list of misunderstandings is language, but it’s one I’ve seen many times. We’ve all encountered the students who believe that everything is online, whether it’s a recent article from the New York Times or a church bulletin from a small parish in England in the late nineteenth century. In some ways this doesn’t surprise me as much as the double assumption that everything will be both online and in English, no matter what it is or when or where it was published. Long after I’ve gotten used to the misconceptions related specifically to library research, I have to admit this one still astounds me.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, there’s the old joke: "What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages: Bilingual. One language: American." Still, I am surprised, not because students seem to have no familiarity with any foreign languages. I think I’m more surprised by the assumption that there’s some organization somewhere that takes every document created anywhere in the world at any time and immediately translates it for American college students. The Babelfish Institute does this for everything, regardless of the origin or likelihood of being used.

The reasons for the misunderstanding seems to vary. One I heard recently made at least some sense to me. Someone had seen citations from a conference proceeding and wanted to track down the articles. The proceeding was from a technical conference in Germany in 2007. According to Worldcat, only two libraries held the proceedings, both in Germany. It looked like they were available from the institute that hosted the conference, and had time not been a factor I would have suggested requesting we purchase them since they weren’t expensive. Then I discovered the student didn’t read any German, but thought that since some American scholars had cited them maybe they had been translated. This definitely shows a misunderstanding of the world of scholarship, but I could sort of see the logic in this, because often scholars not writing in English have to be translated to make an impact in America. In all seriousness, how much of an impact would existentialism or poststructuralism or other French philosophy have made in America had not Sartre or Derrida or Foucault or Lyotard been translated into English?

Sometimes the assumption seems considerably less grounded even than this. "I’m looking for primary documents in Soviet archives written by Russian spies." "Do you read Russian?" "No. Would I need to?" "I want to study the local French response to riots in the banlieues of Paris." "Do you read French?" "I need newspaper editorials from Mexican newspapers about the drug wars." "Do you read Spanish?" I think you get the idea. In some cases, the fact of sources being in English or even translated into English would seem inplicit in the request. Russian spies wrote in Russian. The French respond to things in French. Etc. If we find news articles from Djibouti in English, they’re probably from the BBC World Service.

So many questions suggest themselves to us that probably don’t occur to students. Why would this particular document have been translated into English? Who would have translated it? The same questions apply to digitization. Who would have taken the trouble to digitize this obscure document from this relatively poor part of the world? Do students have any sense of the time and effort that goes into digitization or translation, how many people have to work together to get something digitized or translated, how much funding would be involved, or how that typically there has to be some commercial benefit or assumption of broad appeal before such projects are launched? Of course they don’t, and there’s no reason they should have thought about this. I’m not ridiculing the students, but only pointing out another area of understandable ignorance that has to be dealt with.

Thus when I work with students, I’ve learned to counsel them about a neglected rule of scholarship. if you’re going to work on historical or cutural topics about some other place in the world, you need to learn the language. If you don’t know the language, either learn it or change your topic. I try not to make it a harsh lesson, but somewhere along the way students have to learn that despite the popularity of English, most people in the world are not communicating in English in their local communities, and that a lot of people even in the United States don’t communicate in English in their local communities. People in non-English speaking countries are involved in living their lives and being in their worlds, and never pause to think that some American college student might want to study them for a research essay.

This lesson might be hard to communicate to most students. It might be easier to just digitize every document in the entire world and have it translated into English. Maybe Google can take care of that for us.

One thought on “English Only, Please

  1. I’ve started calling attention to language limiters and preference settings in library instruction sessions, especially in music and nursing where articles in foreign languages are fairly common.
    One issue I’ve seen come up quite a bit is that the bibliographic entry in the database may be in English, creating an expectation that the article it refers to is also in English when in fact it is not. On the other hand, I was recently helping a chemistry major from Russia who was able to significantly expand her search results (due to the nature of her topic, she was finding a lot of patents) because she reads Russian as well as English.

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