By Christian De Vito (Bonn Center for Dependency and Slavery Studies)

This text was originally written 2019 in Italian, and published under the title Sapere e potere: le lingue dell’accademia in the journal Zapruder, no. 52 (2020): 193–200. It is re-published here with editorial consent from Zapruder. As I was translating it into English for publication on the WORCK blog, I realised that my standpoint in the last section might have been too optimistic. Indeed, I tend to see the “politics of language” within WORCK with a more critical lens now than I did two years ago, when the network was just at the beginning. Thus, I hope this blog post can trigger some critical debate not only outwards, from WORCK onto the broader academic world, but also within WORCK itself.

Language is communication, exchange of ideas, and the construction of networks and knowledge. Yet, language is also an instrument of power. It reflects the balance of power and contributes to produce and strengthen it. The two aspects cannot be separated—it is not even necessary to bother with Foucault to observe this. Academic contexts where scholars with distinct linguistic backgrounds meet each other especially become a kaleidoscope of situations of power and knowledge. In this contribution, I start from personal experiences in order to reflect on the “politics of language” in the academic world.

“Excellent” scholars between two systems

Bonn, March 2019. Workshop of the research groups of the Bonn Centre for Dependency and Slavery Studies (BCDSS). Approximately fifteen participants. Our passports—issued by Norway, Latvia, Italy, India, Brazil, United Kingdom, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Peru, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. We have experience of a dozen extra nations, and, taken as a whole, we speak a dozen extra languages. You can hear some of these in the hallway: the Indian PhD students speaks Bengali with the student from Bangladesh; the researcher from the Urals and the Ukrainian PhD student chat in Russian; we welcome the new Peruvian colleague with some sentences in castellano.

As soon as the workshop starts, we all speak English. It is the only language we have in common. With the exception of the British PhD student (who has a strong Manchester accent), ours is the “broken English” of the non-Anglophones. At times, it is more than just broken, and the exchange becomes quite superficial. In general, however, it is good enough for communication, and the workshop achieves its goals.

Yet, we live in a bubble, in the midst of the German academic system and in one of the most conservative universities of the country. Our small workshop and our bigger “cluster of excellence” – the BCDSS –  are Anglophone anomalies, albeit ones which are rapidly spreading out. They are the product of the Federal government’s intentions to transform the German academic system. This is a policy which started at the beginning of the 2000s and which was influenced, on the one hand, by the so-called Bologna process (from 1999 onwards) and, on the other hand, by broader neoliberal models applied in education. The key words are similar to many other contexts: “internationalisation,” “innovation,” “excellence.”

Yet there are professors already in the departments who spearhead a creeping resistance: they defend the indefensible world of “feudal” academia against the inacceptable project of neoliberal academia. Language is an important element in this conflict: the professors do their best to keep a distance from the meetings in English and speak German whenever possible. As far as we are concerned, as PhD students and “junior” or more “senior” postdocs, we are not yet able to voice the words “precarity” or “precariousness.” We have just started working here in Bonn, and four or even seven-year contracts seem a luxury to many of us, compared to the much shorter contracts we have had so far. But the BCDSS will close down in six or seven years and only three professors will stay here in Bonn, out of some seventy members who are expected to join the cluster at its peak.

The language of teaching

Two MA programs will start at the BCDSS the next year, both held in English. It is up to us—the members of the research groups, the three cluster professors, and their “assistants”—to make this happen. The “Principal Investigators” of the cluster (overwhelmingly of German nationality) are also professors at the university and are less interested in this issue. They will continue to teach in German within their respective faculties. The managers of the BCDSS are already busy with establishing contacts with foreign universities, mostly in the US and the UK, in the hope of attracting students from there thanks to the incomparably lower student fees in the German public system.

The question of teaching was at the center of an important decision by the Council of State in Italy (29 January 2018, no. 617), which established, among other things, that “the legitimate goal to increase the international vocation of the universities cannot come at the expense of the primacy of the Italian language.” A similar discussion has been taken place in the Netherlands in the past years. Even in that strongly Anglophile academic (and political) context, critiques have emerged regarding the quality of teaching in English by non-native English speakers. In the year I spent as a lecturer at the University of Utrecht I was part of that group, as well as of the somewhat narrower group of non-native Dutch speakers who taught in Dutch. In the Netherlands the situation reaches extreme heights: classes in English are often given by Dutch lecturers to Dutch students.

Often in this debate, the critical issue raised is that of the English proficiency of lecturers and within the academic community more generally. What is never mentioned is that, in the Dutch context as in our cluster in Bonn, English is introduced as a teaching language together with a neoliberal university model. This model accentuates class selection in the access to higher education, considering the uneven levels of linguistic training in high schools and the prohibitive costs of private or semi-private language courses. It is a model that detaches the universities from their duties towards the local communities (the “right to study”) and instead pushes universities into a global competition for students/clients. This has dominated UK universities for the last three decades, with the “hunt” for Chinese students and their exorbitant fees.

In the Netherlands, as in many other countries in continental Europe, English teaching is the sign of a change in model. Whereas in the UK this change cannot take the form of a linguistic shift, elsewhere, and especially in post-colonial contexts, conflicts over the language of instruction reflect deep class and regional divisions. The Indian PhD who works at the BCDSS tells me, for example, that in the past years in India a broad student movement has been demanding an increase in the use of “vernacular” languages (Hindi, Bengali, etc.) for courses and supervision. This is especially the case for those “central” universities –i.e. universities linked to the central government—in which English is the norm, but its use implies the exclusion of entire social and ethnic groups. This is an interesting but contradictory demand, as it reflects both a fundamental need for social justice and the religious fundamentalism and nationalism of the Hindu party in power.

“Publish or perish”… but in which language?

La Paz, May 2017. A relatively big conference on labour history, with participants from all over Latin America. During the sessions, castellano and Portuguese are allowed. They are also spoken by the dozen US and European participants, all of them experts on colonial and post-independent Latin America. Paradoxically, though, two journals in English dominate the roundtable about academic publishing. Moreover, the editors of the two journals work with the assumption that English is the language of “internationalisation” and that publishing in an anglophone journal is the top aspiration of all Latin-American scholars. Their attitude does not go unnoticed. Critical interventions follow one after another: why should we write in English on topics that impact an academic and non-academic audience that in most cases cannot read English? And why should we communicate with readers who often have only a superficial knowledge of Latin American history? Speakers from the audience explain to the editors that Latin American universities insist on “internationalisation” and on publishing in English, but the journal “rankings” differ among continents, and also among the countries in Latin America. Moreover, critical voices from the audience raise the question of the lack of reciprocity: “we”—they insist—do publish or are forced to publish in English in “your” journals sometimes; but why do “you” never publish in castellano or Portuguese in “our” journals, which are just as good? The editors are caught completely unprepared.

I listen to this lively debate. The arguments of the Latin American colleagues echo my memories of the period I spent as a “honorary fellow” at the International Institute of Social History, in Amsterdam. Every year, the institute held a presentation of the latest publications by researchers from the institute. On the printed list prepared for this occasion, year after year, my publications in Italian were included in the category of “professional publications,” rather than on the list of “academic publications.” There I understood that in that context (and in the British one) publications in English were the only ones that counted. If I wanted access to that academic world, I basically had to start everything anew.

During those years, some colleagues suggested that I publish in English my book on the social history of the prison in Italy, which had appeared in Italian in 2009. It would be useful for my CV—they told me. And who knows, maybe some colleagues who did not speak Italian might have found it useful to read my book in English. Yet when I wrote that book, my main goal was to contribute to the debate on the prison in Italy. To that end, I presented it in various cities across the country, including behind bars. What would a translation into English (or any other language) have added towards that goal?

As the Bolivian debate continues, it reminds me of something more. Publishing in English in one of those journals, nowadays, does not only imply writing in English. It also implies an approach to history writing as a “science,” modelled after the social sciences, maybe even the “hard” sciences. The rules of the game are simple. Among others: anticipating the key arguments and findings in the introduction and repeating them in the conclusion; minimising the “empirical” part; explaining even basic concepts. Of course, it has not always been like that in Anglophone academia: one only has to read the articles of E.P. Thompson, Eric J. Hobsbawm, or Christopher Hill to realise this. But nowadays, if you use a different writing style in the first draft, the reviewers will bring you into line, often with unfriendly comments that reflect a sense of superiority typical of those scholars who view the present Anglosaxon model as “the standard.”

Disconnections and distortions

The pace of academic publishing makes it impossible to read more than a small portion of what is published, even within relatively limited sub-disciplines. Each bibliography is a microscopic selection. The sieve is made of individual choices, of course, but also of material obstacles. Not everybody has the British Library at hand, can access expensive digital repositories, or buy books and subscriptions. Digitization helps but is clearly uneven both thematically and linguistically. True, long and impressive lists of (ancient and modern) languages sometimes appear on CVs, but the linguistic skills of any scholar are necessarily limited. It is rare to see linguistically balanced bibliographies, and this is the case even when for the articles and monographs that aim at an overview of the academic production in a given field of research. Again, this is not just a question of personal taste. “National” historiographies are disconnected, sometimes because even key pieces of scholarship are missing in translation.

For example, while anglophone studies on the role of coercion in wage labour have multiplied during the last years, they almost never discuss the provocative arguments in Yann Moulier Boutang’s De l’esclavage au salariat, first published in French in 1998 and then translated in Italian and castellano, but never in English. The same can be said of the debate on the relationship between microhistory and global history, which has been going on for at least ten years now in the anglophone academia. This is a debate that figures scholars from several countries, each of whom brings with him/her specific views of those historiographical approaches, almost up to the limit of incommunicability. They talk about the same subject (e.g., “microhistory”) but think of totally different contents. This is also generated by the fact that, for example, only a few texts of Italian microhistory have been translated into English, and many anglophone scholars cannot access the important critical reflections on global history which have been published in German or in castellano.

The examples could be multiplied, taking any national academic community as the starting point. How many essays and articles are inaccessible to many Italian, Brazilian, or Senegalese scholars because of the language they are published in? From this perspective, one might say that many specificities of each national historiography are also the product of the missed chances of dialogue with colleagues from different countries, and of the lack of translations of scholarly works. It is a banal affirmation, but very relevant if we think beyond the small world of the “Western” languages: how many important historiographic works, which are unknown to me (to us?), have been published in Russian, Arabic, Serbo-Croatian, Chinese, and Bahasa Indonesia?

The difficult multilingualism

There is little doubt that in many countries English has become the carrier of neoliberal transformations in the academic world. Clearly, at this level language merely reflects the geopolitical balance of forces: it cannot be charged with specific crimes. The managers of semi-privatised universities, in Western Europe and beyond, write “internationalisation” and mean “English.” They impose this language even under circumstances when using it has no benefits in terms of communication.

Yet, there are several academic contexts in which scholars share other languages, due to the nature of their own subject: there it is possible to use French, Italian, castellano, and other languages to communicate. There is also the possibility of multilingualism, including English or not. I have already mentioned the experience in La Paz, where castellano and Portuguese were the working languages. Similarly, castellano, Portuguese, and English are the official languages at the annual conference of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA).

Besides these specialised environments, however, multilingualism is a complicated, and sometimes impossible, practice. I can think of a nice seminar that the Italian Society for Labour History (SISLav) convened in Turin in September 2018. With great enthusiasm we proposed the use of four working languages (Italian, castellano, French, and English). Not only did we immediately receive an angry reply from a Portuguese professor, who felt herself excluded; during the seminar, the barrier between the neo-Latin languages and English marginalised the anglophone speakers (including scholars from India and Russia) during the sessions where neo-Latin languages dominated.

Indeed, under certain circumstances multilingualism can become an exclusionary practice, while English (more often than other languages) can become a real lingua franca. At the Nordic Labour History Conference in Reykjavik, in December 2016, the only way to allow for real communication between the Scandinavian and the Finnish (who are “Nordics,” not “Scandinavians”) was by using English. This, of course, did not prevent other exchanges taking place in other languages: the corridors were full of Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic scholars who spoke together, each of them in his/her own language.

I am pointing to the difficulties of multilingualism within the limited universe of European languages. The situation is understandably more complex when the exchange includes scholars from non-Western countries. Many among the latter often speak a Western language as a by-product of the colonial past of those nations. But in the case of many countries, selecting only speakers who know English or French means establishing contacts with a relatively limited group of scholars, and not necessarily with those who are doing the most interesting research.


Since the end of 2013, the working group “Free and Unfree Labour” of the European Labour History Network (ELHN) has been a significant point of encounter and discussion among dozens of scholars who study labour coercion. In 2019 it become the Cost Action “Worlds of Related Coercion in Work” – WORCK. Clearly connected to the academic world, this group nevertheless seeks to avoid its power dynamics, and to highlight horizontality and cooperation. In this context, the linguistic practices articulate flexibly according to specific goals and contexts. English is the working language in the general meetings and in most workshops, but the group’s composition allows for some selective and viable multilingualism, which has led, for example, to meetings in Dutch in Amsterdam and seminars in castellano in Spain.

This form of cooperation has expanded into the field of writing overviews which, albeit in English, benefit from the various linguistic backgrounds of the co-writers. This makes it possible not only to reference works in several languages, but also to compare the theoretical and methodological perspectives that exist in distinct countries. Indeed, an even more ambitious form of cooperation is ongoing, bringing together the empirical research of several members in a project that reflects on the “grammar of coercion” (i.e., on the terms used by historical actors themselves to indicate relations of coercion). In our intention, this might be the first step towards an even more challenging goal, namely a collective research based on archives held in several countries, pooling together linguistic skills that no individual scholar could master.

The experiences of this and similar groups thus reveal the political relevance of rejecting authoritarian linguistic practices usually naturalised in the academic world. They also foreground the need to acknowledge the linguistic and cultural traditions shaped by scholars who work in between countries and academic contexts, beyond the categories that fix them into national horizons (the “brain drain”) or uproot them from any material basis (the “expats”). More generally, these experiences underline the possibility of a flexible and democratic use of languages in contexts in which collaboration prevails over the vertical dynamics of both “feudal” and neoliberal academia. After all, the problem lies with the authoritarian structure of academic (and social) power, which linguistic practices mirror and reproduce. Precisely this connection between knowledge and power through language turns the linguistic field into a possible laboratory for critical reflection on academic practices. Sometimes also into a field of conflict.