Finding no words: exclusion in academia
My story is about the sometimes missing links between research, written language policies and practice in academia. Last year I got an invitation to a seminar about a planned structural reform at our university. As an employee, I have registered to the event and waited for further details from the organizers. What came was quite surprising: I got a message written only in Finnish, including the part that is about not supporting people who do not speak the language. In my translation, the letter stated the following:
"We have been asked in what form we would serve those who do not speak Finnish. Unfortunately, we have no resource to provide materials and organize workshop participation in English, not even partially, with the exception of the Friday presentation about the reform at the Estonian university, which will be held in English."
To understand the second part of the message, it is important to add that a presentation was given by an Estonian scholar who was given the chance of using English. Naturally, the discussion after her presentation was also in English. So what were those lacking resources that made it impossible to organize the workshops or other programs in English, at least partially? Were the staff members not fluent enough in English? No, because they happily discussed complex professional questions with the Estonian expert. Is there a lacking language policy at the university that would give guidelines for organizing events for the whole staff, including international members? The answer is again 'no': our new language policy document has been accepted on 22 April 2015 (it is available online: www.jyu.fi/hallinto/strategia/en/JY_languagepolicy).
The document celebrates the diversity of students and staff, it promotes intensive dialogue between Finnish and international staff members and it officially establishes Finnish and English as the working languages of the university.
Of course, the recommendations of the language policy do not automatically mean that every single event should be bilingual, and using English is not an obligation. Using English (if necessary) may appear in many forms, including on-site interpretation which does not constrain anybody's right to use Finnish. Since structural reforms at a university with thousands of employees sounds quite relevant for the whole community, including 'international people', full access to discussions should have been given to everybody in the spirit of the official language policy document. In reality, something else has happened.
International staff members reacted to the lack of support in English in various ways. Many of them have cancelled their registration. Others travelled to the venue because they thought they could use at least the coffee breaks for networking, but they did not participate in any official programs, so they have accepted their marginal position and tried to capitalize on the informal occasions. Isn't it interesting that English works in the hotel lobby smoothly but it is not offered as an option in the official program because of the lack of resources?
So what was my decision? I decided to attend the seminar and try to follow the discussions. I have been living in Finland for more than two years so now I can somehow understand at least the main points of a lecture or a conversation. I enthusiastically learn Finnish - I was even presented as a successful Finnish learner in our 2014 university yearbook. I thought I could use the seminar as a mini language course - so my decision was also about finding informal ways of doing something rather than getting involved in the official program.
I was sitting around a table with colleagues who were well aware of my fragmented and limited capacities in Finnish; however, none of them showed any sign of the slightest effort to include me in the conversation. What I always find very funny in similar situations, even at meetings of linguists, is that people ask me after the discussion whether I could get anything out of it. If they know that I am not fully competent in Finnish, why do not they ask me beforehand?
And why did not I ask the others beforehand? Of course I am always part of the practices of exclusion by remaining silent and thus let the others do what they want. If they do not want to include me, then I do not force them to change their mind. Is it the correct way of politeness or is it only the avoidance of conflicts from my part?
At lunch, I shared my frustrations with a colleague. She told me: "But anyway, you should have told something in English". And yes, she was right: I should have asked the others to speak in English at least partly because I could only catch keywords from the discussion. Imagine that you are sitting at a meeting and you understand the following: "something something budget something somewhere somebody 40,000 EUR something university committee and the head of the department". How can you make a comment on this? Can you vote at a meeting with this amount of information? So this was exactly the case at this seminar on structural reforms. For example, I understood that at some point they were speaking about immigrants, education and exclusion. Being an immigrant excluded from the very discussion I did not find it a good idea to add anything, not even in English. Maybe this would have been the best moment to remind all of us to the absurdity of the situation but I did not take the opportunity.
Other reasons why I did not ask for switching to English come from my previous experience. First, of course, the most recent one: after reading in the information letter that no support will be provided in any form, I thought it would be a waste of energy to try. Second, I have tried to ask for bilingual meetings many times before and those initiatives have more or less failed. For example, at some meetings I get the points of the agenda in English so I know that "aha, we are now talking about budget".
But, as I mentioned, knowing the topic itself does not really help. Another type of reaction to my requests is that "when the topic will be relevant for you, we will switch to English". I wonder why some colleagues do not find it problematic that in these situations power relations are constructed in a very asymmetric way. That is, it is them who decide what is relevant for me and it is them who can decide when to include me in the discussion. How do they know for sure that I would be unable to contribute to those topics that they keep strictly in Finnish?
So what to do? Managing a huge multilingual workplace such a university is indeed challenging. However, negotiating language policies and implementing them in a flexible way would make the barriers between the 'Finns' and the 'international staff' less visible and would create a working environment that is much more comfortable for everyone included in our academic community. I hope that sharing my experience invites others to tell theirs so that we can initiate or extend such negotiations.
Tamás Péter Szabó