This blog post was submitted to the CPN from long time member Shaun Cleaver and colleague Anne Hudon. It raises the issue of the language diversity. This is certainly an issue we have not thoroughly addressed within the CPN: our executive meetings, and all of our international gatherings to date, have been/are conducted entirely in English (including the CPN Salon in South Africa and our un-conference in Wales), and although our website has some translated content (and a widget to translate most other content into a few languages) most remains in English.
The Costs of Translation
Dans ma vie quotidienne – familiale, sociale, et professionnelle – je communique entièrement en français. Il n’y a qu’une seule occasion où on s’attend à ce que je parle l’anglais: ce congrès. À un événement dit « mondial », il semble bizarre qu’on s’attende à ce que tout se fasse dans une seule langue.
A physiotherapist from France, speaking with Shaun at WCPT 2017
Language diversity is one of the many interesting facets of this world. People around the world live, play and work using different languages, each of these having their own colors, metaphors, rules and particularities. Language is one of the various ways through which the richness of the planet’s culture can be shared and acknowledged. Caring professions have a role to play in recognizing and embracing this diversity; doing so is necessary to effectively reach the people these professions care for. However, current trends in science in healthcare tend to have shifted toward an English-language hegemony, where conferences, publications and books are mainly presented and published in English. It is our impression that our profession has, perhaps blindly, followed this trend such that linguistic diversity is not appropriately enabled in many ways. Indeed, physiotherapy might be even more linguistically hegemonic than our peer professions: whereas the professional bodies of other caring professions (e.g., occupational therapy, nursing, and medicine) have adopted multiple official languages, the World Confederation for Physical Therapy is officially English-only.
We draw from our own experiences to explore linguistic diversity in our profession by considering one specific case: WCPT Congress 2017. Congress is physiotherapy’s major global event. Although other physiotherapy conferences might be larger, Congress is intended to attract, and be relevant to, physiotherapists everywhere in the world. The considerations that we explore in this post are specifically related to Congress 2017, but from our experiences in 2015, 2011, and 2007, we have reason to believe that this most recent Congress is likely representative of past (and maybe future) Congresses.
The ‘how much’ and the proposed ‘why’ of English-language dominance at WCPT 2017
In this most recent Congress, there were 176 sessions. Of these, 171 were in English, 1 in Spanish, 3 in French, 1 in Portuguese and 0 in the rest of the world’s languages. In 2017, there are thousands of active languages throughout the world, yet 97.1% of the official programming in our world congress was in only one language.
In previous correspondence with WCPT leaders, translation costs are given as the rationale for this overwhelming monolingualism. In providing this rationale, we suspect that the WCPT is referring to one possible conceptualization of “costs.” We do not see this conceptualization as self-evident and therefore we see value in clarification. In addition, we propose that there are at least two alternative conceptualizations of translation costs that are relevant to this dynamic. We present our understanding of these three conceptualizations below.
1) Our impression of the WCPT’s rationale: translation is a non-essential cost to include “minorities”
According to this utilitarian conceptualization, the status quo of operating in English is working well; many people from multiple countries attend WCPT Congress, even if it means that they must communicate in their 2nd, 3rd or 4th (etc.) language. Of course, this does not meet the needs of all physiotherapists who could conceivably attend the event, but widespread inclusion would be complicated. Globally, the numbers of people who do not speak English are larger than those who do. Paradoxically, since there is no other single language with greater prominence than English, the majority population (non-English speakers) is re-cast as a collection of smaller “minorities.” Since translation services are purchased with money, this money would need to either be found or re-directed from elsewhere. Although translation – and the associated inclusion of “minorities” – would be nice, the Congress is already functioning without these, proving their non-essential nature.
Let us be clear that we are aware that the distribution of languages spoken by all the world’s humans does not match the distribution of languages spoken by all the world’s physiotherapists, especially when we think of the legacy effects of European colonialism on education (and health) systems. Regardless, we reference the linguistic distribution of the world’s overall population for multiple reasons. First of all, this distribution has been quantified and the distribution clearly debunks the misconception that “nearly everyone speaks English these days.” Secondly, if the profession is decidedly more English-speaking than the population from which our professionals are drawn, it means that the problems of the alternative views we present below are more far-reaching than Congress: they are instead pervasive in the ongoing recruitment and education of physiotherapists. Nonetheless, we restrict our conceptualizations of translation costs to Congress because we are familiar with it and this restriction allows us to be more precise.
2) Alternative view #1: translation costs are downloaded to “foreign language” speakers
Many physiotherapists engage with the WCPT Congress in English through a personal process of translating back and forth to the “foreign languages” in which they normally think and operate. We know from our own experience that this translation process comes with costs: increased preparation time, incomplete understanding, challenges interacting, and exhaustion, among others. That is not to say that we condemn these costs as unacceptable: we both bear these costs as we work in languages besides our mother tongue by choice. Instead, we want to draw attention to the existence of these costs that are otherwise invisible in an event’s financial statements. In addition, we want to highlight the way that these costs are not borne equitably among Congress participants.
3) Alternative view #2: inclusion is valuable whereas exclusion is costly
By operating almost exclusively in English and not offering translation support, WCPT Congress systematically excludes the majority of the world’s population that does not, and will not ever, communicate in English. As we have stated above, part of this exclusion stems from physiotherapy student recruitment and education. Regardless, we see significant foregone value when our profession, including its leading international conference, restricts its activities to a systematically biased fraction of the world. Although this foregone value is also difficult to present on a financial report, we think that this systematic exclusion is best conceptualized as a cost. Beyond being invisible, this cost is also silent: this constituency is effectively absent from Congress (or the physiotherapy profession, entirely) and therefore easily overlooked. The inability of monolingual English speakers to understand the complaints that are voiced further ensures an erasure of consideration.
In the short space that we have for this blog post, we recognize that we do not acknowledge the efforts taken by the WCPT to increase linguistic diversity of Congress. Although we are confident that our assessment of these efforts would be “this is a start, but more is needed,” our purpose in writing this blog post is different. Instead, we aspire to clarify the rationale that determines the boundaries of possibility and propose that this rationale is not the only way to understand this situation. In so doing, we hope to support a more robust conversation about the ways we can be more inclusive for our profession’s premier event.
Shaun Cleaver and Anne Hudon are physiotherapists who live primarily in Montreal, Québec, Canada. Shaun is a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University; his first language is English, but in his current role he regularly operates professionally in his second (French) and fifth languages (Silozi). Anne is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo; her first language is French, but she regularly conducts clinical practice and research in her second language (English).