Language matters in transdisciplinarity

By Tilo Weber

Tilo Weber (biography)

Why should transdisciplinarians, in particular, care about multilingualism and what can be done to embrace it?

From a linguist’s point of view, I suggest that, in a globalized world, a one language policy is not only problematic from the point of view of fair power relations and equal participation opportunities, but it also weakens science as a whole by excluding ideas, perspectives, and arguments from being voiced and heard.

When people communicate, more is at stake than mere exchange of information, coordination of activities, and joint problem solving. Every time we speak, write or engage in other semiotic modes of social interchange, we construe and transform social relationships, we convey, defend, and dispute images of ourselves and others and we establish and negotiate hierarchies of social order and power.

Goal oriented communication cannot succeed without a stable social basis that the participants rely on as trustworthy. Ethnologists, anthropologists, linguists, and others have shown this in the context of innumerable studies following Bronisław Malinowski (1923: 315) who first emphasized the fundamental role of phatic communion thereby referring to “a type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words.”

When I, a linguist, attended my first transdisciplinarity conference in Lüneburg, Germany in November 2017, I was struck by the way transdisciplinary practitioners put this idea in focus. While the ultimate goal of transdisciplinary projects is to collaboratively solve “real world problems,” the communicative construction of social relationships was widely acknowledged as a necessary precondition to every single one of the projects presented.

The practical—in addition to explanatory or descriptive—approach adopted was especially appealing. In many workshops, procedures, tools, and collaboration formats were introduced—and in some cases actually tested—that aim at implementing into the transdisciplinary working process diversity, multiperspectivism, co-creation, legitimacy in participation (to quote but a selection of keywords from various sessions) as pivotal factors.

The conference was an international meeting bringing together participants from all continents for presentations, discussions, and international, multi-cultural projects. And all that presenting, discussing, taking part was done in English. The English language, it seemed, was adopted and taken for granted as the medium of communication available to everybody, be they British, Thai, German or Brazilian.

It is a truism that language is—or can be—used, intentionally and strategically, as an instrument to exert power over others. However, even where there is good will on all parts and effort is invested to create a collaborative environment free of domination, the choice of a working language (or of several working languages) is consequential. Be it intentional or by default, adopting a particular language implies decisions about who will be able to fully participate according to their respective competencies and motivation and who will not.

Those whose mastery of a current working language does not allow them to express their points of view fluently, precisely and with appropriate rhetorical skill or to confidently understand the details of an ongoing discussion, will not—other things being equal—be able to represent their position effectively. They will not be able to make their arguments heard in cases in which they disagree with the group’s common sense and they will not be remembered as those who made the most and most valuable contributions which, in turn, will be consequential for their prestige and social status.

All this applies to projects that unite actors from different scientific, societal, cultural, and economic backgrounds in their collaborative striving to solve “real world” problems. On a meta-level, however, this is also true of the science(s) of collaborative problem solving. Put differently, organizing a conference, exchanging experiences and arguments, generating ideas for new projects, that is doing transdisciplinarity, is not just about the “real world”, it takes place within and is part of the “real world”. What applies to transdisciplinary projects also applies to transdisciplinarity itself. To choose English (or any other language) as the only medium of communication, privileges some participants over others. As a consequence, some collaborators will not be able to bring to bear what they have to contribute in terms of competence, creativity, motivation, etc., thus weakening the collaboration’s outcome.

In a globalized world, monolingual science is restricted science. In contrast, multi- or pluri- lingualism that at first glance may appear to cause confusion and costly communicational complexity can promote scientific (and other) progress by broadening perspectives and allowing more participants to enrich scientific discourse. This is more than wishful thinking. Summarizing his remarks on the Galilean revolution of the 17th century, Winfried Thielmann highlights the positive role of multilingualism and states:

Das scheinbare Skandalon mehrerer europäischer Wissenschaftssprachen ist […] ein Motor der Innovation gewesen. (The apparent stumbling block of several European languages of science was […] a driver of innovation; Thielmann (2009): 21; translation T.W.)

Of course, for many practical purposes, linguae francae are useful and necessary. In many cases, it is handy to use the one language that most of the people in the room more or less master. Multi-language strategies for international and intercultural communication raise a lot of questions, too: What would such strategies look like exactly? How could these strategies be implemented in practice? Wouldn’t the costs of multilingualism in terms of time and effort for translation, need for competent translators, etc., outweigh the potential gains?

Nevertheless it’s worth a try. Imagine allowing participants to use the languages they choose for the purposes of presentation and discussion. And providing resources for translations of written materials and interpreters for oral discussions thus allowing for questions to be asked in one language and answers to be given in another. Imagine doing multilingualism.

What has your experience been? Have you experienced a decrease in the richness of communication through monolingualism? Have you seen successful multilingualism in practice?

Malinowski, B. (1923). The problem of meaning in primitive languages. In, C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards (eds.). The meaning of meaning. A study of the influence of language upon thought and of the science of symbolism. Kegan Paul, Trench, Tubner & Cohen., London: United Kingdom, 296-336.

Thielmann, W. (2009). Deutsche und englische Wissenschaftssprache im Vergleich: Hinführen – Verknüpfen – Benennen (Wissenschaftskommunikation 3). Synchron, Heidelberg: Germany.

Biography: Tilo Weber PhD is an extraordinary Professor of German Linguistics at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg (Germany) and senior lecturer for German Studies at Technical University Liberec (Czech Republic). His research interests lie in the areas of cognitive functional grammar, pragmatics and conversation analysis, intercultural communication, and knowledge communication. He is co-editor of the Transferwissenschaften series published by Peter Lang and co-organizer of the 3rd international Transferwissenschaften colloquy on Wissenskommunikation unter Bedingungen von Mehrsprachigkeit / Znalostní komunikace v podmínkách vícejazyčného prostředí / Knowledge communication under conditions of multilingualism, in Liberec, October 2018, which will be an experiment in multilingualism.

This blog post is based the author’s reflections on the International Transdisciplinarity Conference 2017 at Leuphana University, Luneburg, Germany in September 2017.

10 thoughts on “Language matters in transdisciplinarity”

  1. The issue of language use, multilingualism and power in science and scientific discourse is still extremely relevant! Please have a look at the great study by Tasuya Amano et al. just recently published in PLOS Biology:

    Amano, Tatsuya, et al. (2023): The manifold costs of being a non-native English speaker in science. In: PLOS Biology 21(7), e3002184.

  2. Thanks Tilo, for this posting.
    This topic is has been discussed for some time… From my point of view (as a linguist), this only makes sense if we don’t see language as a unified thing. Languages themselves consist of so many different domains (we call it “intralingual multilingualism”) – for example, sociolects, specialist terminology etc. I’m sure you know a lot of technical terms that I don’t know. So we need to look at this topic from a linguistically systematic approach on the one hand and from the perspective of interactional linguistics on the other hand. And in addition, the use of the respective language must be strategically planned keeping the relevance for research ethics in mind – otherwise this can also be very detrimental to the project. First, we need to develop appropriate strategies…

  3. Thank you for the great post and helpful comments. It is fantastic to get a linguist’s thoughts on the role of language in this context. It seems like it could be quite fruitful to look systematically at the informal ways that people bridge linguistic gaps, and for me personally, I have found visualizations to be very useful in cross-disciplinary conversations. Thus, I very much appreciate Dena’s comment as well. One additional strategy that comes to mind is the proactive recruitment of bilingual individuals. If a concerted effort is made to find the (sometimes rare) individual who is a member of two relevant groups, then this person might serve as both a translator and a participant who is familiar with strengths and weaknesses of two distinct perspectives. For example: a person with an engineering degree who owns a farm, or a dual-trained academic (or professional), or a bilingual community member who fits into two social groups, might serve as useful liaisons in some conversations. Granted, it may not always be possible to find a bilingual person, but it might be worth it to look for them more actively. Could this be another strategy to add to the toolkit?

    Kind regards,

  4. Thank you for this interesting post. Different languages may also be regarded as different world views. I like your quote “In a globalized world, monolingual science is restricted science. In contrast, multi- or pluri- lingualism that at first glance may appear to cause confusion and costly communicational complexity can promote scientific (and other) progress by broadening perspectives and allowing more participants to enrich scientific discourse.”.

    • I certainly agree with the comment on languages and world views. That different languages provide us with the opportunity to adopt different perspective when looking at or talking about given phenomena or facts is another argument in favor of doing science multilingualistically.

  5. Thanks Tilo. Your blog post opens some important questions for the functioning of this blog. We don’t have the resources to provide translation, but we do encourage authors whose native language is other than English to provide their blog posts in their native language, as well as English. This offer has mostly been taken up by Spanish, Portuguese and French speakers.

    We welcome your ideas, along with those of readers, about other things the blog could do to encourage multilingualism.

    • As a matter of fact, my first intention was to do this blog post in a bilingual English-German form, letting the English version be followed by a parallel German translation or rather “translation”. This would have demonstrated in a very obvious way that doing the same thing in one language and then in another jus is just not the same thing. I eventually gave up on this idea to avoid unnessary length.

  6. Thank you for a great article and reflection on the conference! This has reminded me how important translation devices are, whether they are visual (my natural preference as a designer) or translators themselves, who are able to cross, speak (and importantly translate) multiple languages’.
    Kind Regards

    • I would be interested in thinking about what translation devices and — more generally — multilingual communication strategies and technologies are available and could be implemented into crosscultural communication. Formal translation and interpreting are well established procedures, but they also go along with high demand for ressources. In everyday crosscultural communication people employ various rather informal ad hoc ways to bridge linguistic gaps. It may be worthwhile to look systematically at this and ask whether it is possible to learn from encounters of this kind and apply these insights to scientific discourse.


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