Language is a key social institution of any society, reflecting cultural practices deeply embedded in local contexts. Global diversity of cultures reflects on the diversity of languages – while on a world scale, “only” 23 languages are widely spoken, more than 7,000 living languages exist. These languages do not only differ in their words, but also in typical narrative structures, ways to build an argument, connotations, networks of meanings and the systems of thought they represent, which is why it is difficult to translate between languages. This is true already for languages within one language group such as the Indo-European languages (which include e.g. English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French or Russian but also Persian, Hindi, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Gujarati, Marathi, Panjabi or Urdu). For example, the German word “Wissen” is not the same as the English word “knowledge” which is the closest translation in English. This has vast consequences because the English-language “Marx-Weber-Debate” does not make any sense in the German original – the whole point of debate only arises because some subtleties of meaning in Weber’s reference to and reflection about Marx are lost in translation. The same is true for Weber’s epistemological work. Vice versa, Norbert Elias (who was a German native speaker) wrote his whole epistemological work on sociology of knowledge in English and always claimed that the subtle but important finer points could not be properly translated to German. If this poses already a problem for relatively similar languages such as English and German which belong to he same language group, the challenge is much larger for translating from and to Indo-European languages to other language groups which represent completely different systems of thought, such as Sino-Tibetan (e.g. Mandarin, Cantonese or Wu), Tai-Kadai (e.g. Thai), Austroasiatic (such as Javanese, Indonesian, Tagalog or Vietnamese), Dravidian (e.g. Kannada, Tamil, Telugu), Afro-Asiatic (such as Arabic, Amharic or Amharic), Niger-Congo (e.g. Swahili), Creole (e.g. Nigerian Pidgin) or Turkic languages (e.g Turkish).
Accordingly, since the early 20th century, sociology of language, sociology of science, sociology of knowledge, historical research, survey methodology and qualitative research have been aware and continuously stressed how important language is for research and have been developing recommendations of how to handle language issues in social research and academic communication but have also identified many dilemmas and open questions.
In recent years, these issues have become more pressing, not only because there is an increasing demand for cross-cultural research but also because English has been increasingly become a language for international science communication (with an increasing number of authors writing only in English) but also because many (especially qualitative) researchers increasingly do data collection in English only.
However, using English as lingua franca is not as self-evident as it might appear to many scholars on first sight, as only 17% of the world population can speak English (1.5 billion speakers). The other 6.5 billion humans speak other languages, and among the languages which at least 100 million persons know how to speak are languages such diverse as Mandarin (1.1 billion speakers or 15 % of the world population), Hindi (600 Mio. speakers or 8%of the world population), Spanish (550 Mio. speakers or 7% of the world population), French, Arabic and Bengali (with each about 270 Mio. speakers or 4% of the world population), Russian and Portuguese (with each about 260 Mio. speakers or 3%of the world population), Urdu (230 Mio. speakers or 3% of the world population), Indonesian (200 Mio. speakers or 3 % of the world population), German (160 Mio. speakers or 3 % of the world population), Japanese (125 Mio. speakers or 3 % of the world population) and Nigerian pidgin (120 Mio. speakers or 3 % of the world population).
The predominance of English becomes even more questionable, if one looks at the number and percentage of native speakers. It is not English but Mandarin which has the most native speakers (about 929 – 935 Mio. native speakers or 12 % of the world population), followed by Spanish (about 390 – 475 Mio. native speakers or 6 % of the world population) – English being only third with about 365 – 373 Mio. native speakers or 5 % of the world population).
Furthermore, limiting oneself to English (or any other single language) in academic communication or social research, creates enormous regional imbalances and blind spots, as most languages are typically spoken in specific world regions: English is mostly spoken in the North Amerika, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia-Oceania, India and the Southern parts of Sub-Sahara Afrika. In other world regions, other languages are more common. The speakers of European languages mostly reflect European history as well as colonial history. For example, Spanish and Portuguese are mostly spoken in Latin America as well Portugal, Spain, Angola and Mozambique. French is mostly spoken in France and former French colonies such as Algeria, Canada, Congo and Morocco. German is spoken in Central European countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, but also in former German colonies such as Namibia. Russian is mostly spoken in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. This reflects only a small part of the world’s countries and world population – and other world regions, other languages are typically spoken. For example, in China, mostly Mandarin, Cantonese and Wu are spoken. In Japan, Japanese is spoken. Indonesian is mostly spoken in Indonesia. Arabic is mostly spoken in the Arab countries as well as in North-Sahara Africa. In Nigeria, Nigerian pidgin is common. Bengali is spoken in Bangladesh and India, Urdu is spoken in Pakistan and India.
Even within a country, the number of languages can vary enormously. For example, while English is widely spoken among the Indian upper and middle classes, there are 179 other Indian languages, 544 dialects and 22 official languages. Within India, these languages are regionally unevenly distributed: 78% of Indian population speak other Indo-European languages (such as Hindi, Bengali and Urdu), 20% of Indian speak Dravidian languages (e.g. Kannada, Tamil, Telugu).
Finally, language has been increasingly become a source of distinction and tool of power for reaffirming and reproducing social inequality. In most countries of the world, typically only young educated urban upper and upper-middle class men are proficient in English, while elderly uneducated rural lower-class women typically cannot speak English at all. In many countries, this is reinforced by higher education being conducted solely in English, with the result that educated adult residents of country might have to go to language school – not to learn English but to properly learn their mother tongue.
Based on these observations, the session will explore the relations between language and social research as well as implications resulting from this. Both papers focussing on specific languages and general reflections about language and social research are equally welcome. Papers in this session should address one of the following issues and preferably suggest possible solutions for the issues addressed, including how academic training will have to change in order to do so:
• What kind of knowledge do we produce if we increasingly collect data in English? Which cultures and which social groups are socially excluded? What kind of blind spots do we create in doing so?
• When is collecting data in a specific language a “must”, and how does data collection change, if one collects data in this language (e.g. in interviewing techniques)?
• If the researchers themselves are not knowledgeable enough for collecting data in a specific language and do not have the time to learn this in the time of the research project, but data collection in that language is necessary for the project being successful, how should one go about this? E.g., should research instruments be translated and data collected by native speakers of that language or should one build joint research teams to conduct the research? How should one go about this?
• In cross-cultural comparisons, if data are collected in different languages, how should data be translated, and how can cross-cultural data analysis be conducted?
• How to proceed, of concepts in different languages are really incommensurable?
• How should the effect of language in social research be presented in academic writing? What happens if English increasingly becomes the language of academic communication? What bodies of literature written in other languages (e.g. German, French, Sanskrit, Mandarin) get lost? How does this disadvantage scholars whose native tongue is a different tongue than English? On the other hand, if everyone sticks to their own language and acknowledging the fact there is a limit to the number of languages one can learn, how can we communicate cross-culturally?