October 10, 2019

How the English Language's Disproportionate Influence Skews Global Narratives

No one questions English’s status as the world’s go-to language for business, tech, tourism and academia, but that popularity has also made it disproportionately influential on news. In a chapter of Hostwriter’s Unbias the News: Why Diversity Matters for Journalism, journalist, writer and managing editor of the Global Investigative Journalism Network Tanya Pampalone looks at how English’s prominent status can lead to skewing of entire narratives. We break down an excerpt of that chapter published for GIJN and look at how this inequality also means missed opportunities for interactions between the non-native and non-English speaking world, creative or otherwise.

By the Numbers

Kai Chan, a distinguished fellow at the INSEAD Innovation and Policy Initiative, put together the Power Language Index in 2016, which measures which languages in the world hold the most influence based on five key factors.

  • (G)eography: countries spoken, land area, tourists (inbound)
  • (E)conomy: GDP, PPP, Exports, FX market, SDR composition
  • (C)ommunications: Native speakers, second-language speakers, language family size, tourists (outbound)
  • (K)nowledge & Media: Internet content, feature films, Top 500 universities, academic journals.
  • (D)iplomacy: United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Supranational Organizations (SNOs).

Based on these factors, Kai presented the world’s top 10 languages, their respective number of native speakers and their score for each factor:

  1. English: 460 mil (G1, E1, C1, K1, D1)
  2. Mandarin: 960 mil (G6, E2, C2, K3, D6)
  3. French: 80 mil (G2, E6, C5, K5, D1)
  4. Spanish: 470 mil (G3, E5 C3, K7, D3)
  5. Arabic: 295 mil (G4, E9, C6, K18, D4)
  6. Russian: 150 mil (G5, E12, C10, K9, D5)
  7. German: 92.5 mil (G8, E3, C7, K4, D8)
  8. Japanese: 125 mil (G27, E4, C22, K6, D7)
  9. Portuguese: 215 mil (G7, E19, C13, K12, D9)
  10. Hindi: 310 mil (G13, E16, C8, K2, D10)

These numbers don’t include the number of non-native speakers. In the case of English, Kai’s research reports over 500 million people who speak it as a secondary language. Other figures place the total number of English speakers at between 1.5 and 2 billion people.

The Perceptual Impact of English

This staggering influence of a single language that came about through various blends of colonialism, commerce, religion, media, and education, extends into many industries including that of news.

In their analysis of 54 million news items from 4,708 news sources in 67 countries in 2015, researchers Lei Guo and Chris J. Vargo found that wealthier countries both attract most of the world news attention and are also more likely to decide how other countries perceive the world.

Miraj Chowdhury, the Bengali editor for the multilingual Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), points out how two newspapers in Bangladesh have circulations of over 500 million, yet the English-language Daily Star with only 50 million dominates the international narrative about that country.

Quality withstanding, it represents a situation where a single source disproportionately shapes a perspective not because of what it does, but simply because of what it is. This dynamic has profound effects on both the news and journalism industries:

  • A story isn’t a story until it surfaces in English: Journalists Ben Nimmo and Aric Toler wrote about the Russian journalists who exposed the troll factory back in 2013, before it was involved with American politics.
  • Awards can’t judge non-English assess properly: Unathi Kondile, South African editor of a Xhosa paper, points out how judges can only properly assess Afrikaans or English written content. This means submitting Xhosa content for consideration becomes a waste of time.
  • Applications based on English ability, not talent: Journalists have to submit applications to international conferences and fellowships in English, which does not reflect their journalistic talent but does affect their chances.
  • Translations skew perspective towards English readers: Journalists quoting non-English-speaking subjects might be forced to translate terms that have no common or accurate English equivalent. Similarly, emphasizing interviews conducted in English can mean a less than accurate picture.

Linguistic Privilege

Seeing the ‘p’ word might trigger a few eye rolls, but in the context of a globalized world, this one can’t be ignored because it applies to basically anyone reading this analysis and because it remains a source of inequality far beyond the world of journalism.

Linguistic privilege is yet another package of benefits we can unwittingly receive whether we’re native or near-native speakers of English. It’s also one we’re less likely to feel because after all, we’re all speaking the same language, right?

Yet we aren’t always speaking it on the same level. When we interact with people who are non-native speakers (especially with a poor command of the language) or people with impeded speech, it’s easy to forget how uneven things are. To give some examples of how “not all languages are created equal.”

  • “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”: Many regions have a prestige variant of language that is still held in a high standard such as Received Pronunciation (the “Queen’s English”) for the UK and General American English within the States. While there are actually many accents and dialects of English, only a handful that almost always includes those two, command the same impact. This is why they dominate ESL materials and the aspirational goals of many learners.
  • The cool factor: If you take English, pair it with digital media and package it with modern aesthetics, it makes for a very effective vector for spreading language and its associated culture (and potentially politics) — and for having it be received more readily. It goes without saying, English is not one of the most widely spoken and officially supported languages, it’s one of the coolest too.
  • Mobility: Of all the non-native languages we’ll see while traveling, there’s a much higher chance it’s going to be English. Even if native words are not translated for us to understand, having them transliterated for us to reference (such as on road signs) is already enabling us to travel and move around with ease.

The Key Takeaways

It’s very easy to dismiss the issues of non-native speakers as “well, you gotta learn English. That’s the way the world works,” but this attitude might only be accurate for so long. The number of secondary-language English speakers is rising daily, and more and more people are growing up speaking more than one language.

This isn’t a call to “stop being ig’nant,” and go out and learn a foreign language (though there’s plenty of other benefits in doing so, even if they’re not cognitive). It’s a reminder to recognize the place English still has in our globalized world, where that reputation came from and how that can skew entire dynamics.

So next time you find yourself in situations where English is the lingua franca between you and another person:

  • Dial back: This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to “dumb down” your language, but scale back the in-jokes, the pop culture references, the jargon and the slang. You might be understood better if you used less of them.
  • Slow down: We get it, it’s hard to be patient when time is money. But be aware of how stressful it is for some non-native speakers to try and communicate with you all the same. Consider slowing down when you’re speaking and process what people feel and intend versus purely the words they’re using when you’re listening.
  • Let them breathe: Similarly, if someone is translating for you on the spot, keep in mind that it is also a challenge and stress you don’t have the burden of. Let the person helping you know they can relax if you don’t need the play-by-play or be polite when you do want to know what’s being said.
  • Empathize: If there’s miscommunication, try to think from a communication problem-solving standpoint towards understanding and common ground versus whose understanding is to blame. Everyone’s seen the rude tourist who assumes they’ll be understood better by being louder, getting more irate and gesturing more wildly. Don’t be traveler.
  • Dig deeper: Assumptions already mess things up between native speakers, the same applies when communicating with non-English speakers. There’s no harm in asking questions to get the full story or more details. If there’s content or a good story on the line, it’ll be much better for it.

English, like a lot of cultural capital, is something that’s so widespread now that it becomes its own thing depending on the region. There are as many varieties of English as there are music genres.

In the case of a “foreign” accent, it often means another language is pulling on it, affecting the way it sounds and making it unique. Like with any sound outside of your comfort zone, it might sound strange and you might not appreciate all of its nuances, but recognize there’s a scene for it, one you gotta respect either way. Who knows, your next client, collaborator, friend or opportunity might come from it.

February 19, 2019

Is the world running out of people? This duo believes we might

People aligned wearing yellow teeshirts

No, the title is not a typo: we might get there sooner than you think. That’s if you ask Canadian journalist John Ibbitson and political scientist Darrell Bricker, who believe world population will decline in the next few decades. The two writers, promoting their new book “Empty Planet” during the interview, conclude that within 30 years we’ll begin to a long term demographic shift. Both men believe that once the population decline kicks in, it’ll never stop, challenging assumptions that are held by many people across the world.

What’s really going on?

The book challenges existing UN population models through new studies and number crunching. Unlike the UN which estimates the number to reach 11 billion by 2100, the authors believe old assumptions no longer apply due to tech’s growing impact. In fact, tech impacts people in many different ways, including population growth. Because tech can alleviate certain pain points, fertility rates in some developing countries don’t need to be as high. As the authors outlined:

  • Every woman living within an Indian slum had a smartphone
  • This gave them access to unlimited knowledge via the Internet
  • For context, India is one of the world’s largest countries, with a population well above 1 billion people.

As many economists will attest, economic growth is turbocharged through women’s education as women are often caretakers of future generations. More educated women mean smarter kids, and ultimately better underlying economics for a nation and its population.


Who gets the final say?

Although prior forecasts were fairly accurate, the past 100 years won’t be good predictors of our future. The advent of technology and its capabilities change the dynamics of our world, as well as its people and demographics. Perhaps the counter-analysis will be correct, but the fact remains that we are depleting our planet at alarming rates. Smaller populations don’t necessarily mean that this will stop, but harnessing technology properly can help amend these problems. The hard thing for us is to bite the bullet for future generations to thrive.

February 4, 2019

Streetwear for white supremacists is on the rise and rallying groups

Streetwear white supremacy

Streetwear is helping right-wing nationalists communicate and drum up support by mobilizing youth supporters. Clothing and streetwear have always embodied a sense of tribalism, but this radicalized fashion angle hasn’t been seen for some time.

Why this is alarming but not surprising

It’s hard to gain support for a movement when it’s easy to single you out as an extremist. Right-wing nationalists or white supremacists traded in the white robe and pointed hat for business suits in the mid-’70s and similarly, the skinhead look has made that style marked due to its associations with the Neo-Nazi movement.

The open platform nature of streetwear has made it easier for groups to hide their ideologies and messages behind the veil of street culture, making it easier for them to communicate, identify and move around out in the open.

Clothing as “secret handshake”

Aside from acting as a secret ticket to get into events such as concerts, clothing helps targeted youth or other members rally around a cause while acting as a “secret handshake” to identify allies within that cause. Clothing meant for nationalist or white supremacist causes tends to rotate around a few themes regardless of where the movement is located in the word.

Key themes within nationalist streetwear

Re-interpreted cultural iconography: Because the Nazi swastika and similar overt icons have been summarily banned in many parts of the world, the modern movement draws its visual identity from re-interpreted cultural iconography. This could include Viking and Celtic symbols that allude to the supposed Aryan origins of those tribes, hint at warrior culture and a time when people were “harder.” This helps the messaging blend in with the guise of embracing European cultural heritage over the more alarming racial supremacy angle.

Violence: The movement positions followers in an “us versus them” struggle where they’re locked in a war to the end to defend racial purity or national identity against an invasion of foreign peoples or ideas. As such, symbols that suggest combat, violence or warfare can feature heavily too.

Historical or political references: References to myths and historical events, like the Crusades or Reconquista (a Spanish pogrom against Muslims in the Middle Ages), are sometimes paired with mentions of contemporary regional tensions. The phrase “Reconquista Crimea” hints at a violent expulsion of Muslims from Crimea.

Grey area messaging: The highly layered and codified nature of internet slang and meme culture allows racists and nationalists to hide their message in grey zones to elude association. For instance, 2YT4U (“too white for you”) is easy to pass off as something else to law enforcement, teachers parents and the general public. Similarly, “MY FAVORITE COLOR IS WHITE” on a purple shirt can be played off as a reference to the color of the shirt.

In addition to the expansion of fashion-led causes, there’s been a notable uptick in logo and graphic design permeating the white supremacist community.

November 13, 2018

Identity, judgement, and the power plays that find their roots in clothing, with specific reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a new representative-elect in The White House, representing NY-14. Megan Garber talks about how the 29-year-old politician has been surrounded by an (un)fair share of gossip and rumor in her short stint in DC. Earlier this week she tweeted about repeatedly being mistaken for an intern. One day later, Eddie Scarry, a writer for the Washington Examiner, tweeted a photo of her taken from behind as she walked down a corridor wearing a tailored black jacket and carrying a coat. The caption: “Hill staffer sent me this pic of Ocasio-Cortez they took just now. I’ll tell you something: that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

Clothing as identity
We represent ourselves every day through our clothing, whether we like it or not. Supposedly not caring what we wear still consists of making a choice. The problem with the Scarry situation—setting aside the topics of fragile masculinity and exclusion tactics—is that expectations of how we represent ourselves differ from person to person. This means that clothing, as such an obvious and instant medium of judgement, can easily be used to divide as well as to connect.

Division or connection
Through our sartorial choices, we assign ourselves to tribes. We find brands that fit our beliefs, hobbies, or simply have been worn by people we admire, and wear them as suits of armor. And, just like suits of armor emblazoned with flags and embedded with meaning, our outfits divide us into enemies or allies. Ocasio-Cortez’s clothing has been used as a vessel in which to carry personal judgement, and raise points of belonging and power. As a candidate who promised to challenge, to change the status-quo, Ocasio-Cortez is an easy target for those who strive to keep American politics a stationary, stagnant club. It is not surprising that Ocasio-Cortez’s most basic actions–existing in The White House, and wearing clothes—have been the target of derision and seen in themselves as challenges.

Final thoughts
The power of clothing to form identity and send messages are some of its great qualities, and the reason many of us at MAEKAN are fascinated by it. Being instantly visible, clothing has the potential to bring people together at first sight, or divide without a question asked. Describing clothing this way isn’t taking up a position—it is a fact. The fact that Ocasio-Cortez has made such an impact so quickly, intentionally or unintentionally (almost definitely the latter), by wearing certain very normal things, reveals a demographic of insecure, sensitive and childish ‘professionals’ in American politics. More power to Alexandria, may she continue to upset and challenge.

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