The increasing development of transnational ties and coalitions among social movement activists and organizations through the decades reveals how multilingualism can act as a vital and empowering resource for promoting sociopolitical change. Yet, the global hegemony of English also reveals how underlying power dynamics present dilemmas for progressive movements founded upon inclusive principles of multiculturalism and participatory democracy. Social movement scholarship also reflects this linguistic power dynamic and scholars should take heed. By providing more opportunities and venues for non-English speakers to participate in shaping academic debates and discussions new insights and theoretical perspectives are more likely to develop.
The ability of grassroots activists to speak multiple languages helps them to better reach out across borders, establish new allies, expand social networks and bolster visibility through mass media outlets. When Zapatista rebels launched their insurrection from the heart of Mayan territory in 1994, the capacity of leaders to integrate indigenous languages with Spanish and English allowed the movement to establish a broad base of support characterized by both transnational breadth and deep local roots. When North American and European television journalists descended upon Tunis and Cairo during the Arab Spring in 2008, the voice of protest which they captured was multilingual with Tunisian and Egyptian youths displaying banners and placards written in English and French as well as Arabic. When activists from around the world gathered at the 2011 World Social Forum in Dakar, the program was polyglot and designed to embrace linguistic diversity. When immigrant rights protestors shut down Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles in 2010 to protest Arizona’s stringent laws, their claims were voiced in both English and Spanish so as to highlight the strategic alliance between Anglos and Hispanics opposed to immigration policies fueled by racism. Across all of these examples activists recognized the importance of multilingualism and in doing so crafted campaigns geared toward maximum inclusiveness, participation and collaboration.
While social movement actors and organizations around the globe have recognized the strategic value of multilingualism, it is also clear that the global hegemony of English can skew the empowering potentials of transnational participation and collaboration toward those actors who are most capable of articulating their claims in English. Indeed, the hegemonic status of English as a global lingua franca obliges many non-English speaking actors and organizations to adopt and incorporate English into their campaigns while also privileging the claims of Anglophone actors and organizations. This dynamic has some powerful consequences for issues of movement visibility and recognition. While many alter-globalization activists in France, Greece, Italy and Sweden may frequently and readily articulate their public claims in English so as to maximize their visibility across Europe, how likely are parallel activists in the U.K. willing and able to article their claims in a multilingual manner so as to reach out to the broader community of non-English speaking Europeans?
The dilemmas posed by linguistic hegemony are compounded for indigenous activists situated in rural areas of the Global South who primarily speak minority languages. In looking to achieve visibility and recognition, these actors may become too reliant on outside mediators such as NGOs or the representatives of political parties so as to translate and communicate their claims to a wider national or international audience. While useful, this can also create the problem of highly localized issues and interests becoming ‘lost in translation’ as they become re-framed, re-oriented or even co-opted by more dominant actors focused on the ‘big picture’ issue of combating global neoliberal economic policies. Lost in the process are efforts to address the more immediate ‘bread and butter’ issues sought out by indigenous locals who may not readily identify with the Leftist discourse of anti/alter-globalization. Such dilemmas can be dealt with in part by providing activists from indigenous communities with the possibility of speaking in their own tongues and thus on their own terms.
While the existence of a global lingua franca certainly has strategic value by facilitating communication, it also creates an imbalance in the potential to be seen and heard. An awareness of linguistic diversity and a conscious effort to embrace multilingualism by activists from both majority and minority language communities can help prevent this linguistic balance from turning into unequal opportunities for recognition and participation.
The problems yielded by the global hegemony of English are also reflected in social movement scholarship within the US where many of the contributions and ideas of researchers working in languages other than English are acutely absent. This is (hopefully) not due to a lack of curiosity or interest on the part of scholars and students within the US, but rather to a lack of translations into English. For example, while one is quite likely to find the works of influential Anglophone scholars such as Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow translated into Spanish, it rarely works the other way around. Influential scholars from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America such as Arturo Escobar and Javier Auyero have made a big name for themselves in the English-speaking world in great part because they do stellar ground-breaking work but also because they are multilingual and can write in English. And, while many scholars based in countries such as Colombia and Argentina are proficient in English, why should they always have to work in their second (or third) language so as to get published in the prestigious journals and widely cited university presses based in the US and UK?
Embracing multilingualism in social movement scholarship does not only entail having English works translated into other languages such as Spanish or Mandarin and Arabic, but also ensuring that research published in other languages gets translated and made available in English. While translation services are generally available, they often come at a price that scholars and students in many parts of the world cannot afford. If the big journals and presses in the Global North could help defer these costs, our understanding of transnational movements and protest from the Global South will only be richer.