Language: The Global and the Local World of Planning

Klauz R. Kunzmann

Klaus R. Kunzmann

Klaus R. Kunzmann, Professeur émérite et ancien Directeur de la School of Planning de l’Université Technique de Dortmund, revient pour le blog de la RIU,  sur les raisons de la domination de la langue anglaise dans le monde du Planning.

Il commente tour à tour, la puissance des éditeurs anglo-américains, le syndrome universitaire “publier ou-périr”, la manie du classement du monde académique, et enfin les risques induits par le développement du e-Learning

In the beginning of the 21st century, the international community of urban and regional planners communicates in English. Academic literature on planning is dominated by the Anglophone community. French, German, Spanish, Arabic or Japanese literature does hardly show up on the global level. Even Chinese, the language mostly spoken in the World, is not present in the global community of planners, though more and more Chinese authors are working at universities in the Anglophone world. English is the lingua franca of the scientific world. This is reality, whether we like it or not. For planning, however this has serious consequences. Planers, though only those, who wish to bridge theory and practice, have to be bi-lingual. The target groups of planners, citizens and politicians, have to be addressed in the local language: If we wish to communicate in the international world, learn from experience in other countries and share experience, we have to speak, to read and to write in English, or even in a third language. It is like a few hundred years ago, when Latin has been the lingua franca in catholic Europe. Modern sciences in Europe are rooted in Latin cultures. Until the early 19th century university lectures have been held in Latin. Even today, German and Austrian schools teach Latin to prepare for university studies (Medicine, Biology, Pharmacy, History of the Arts etc), where the knowledge of the Latin language is a requirement.

In the 21st century English is the unchallenged lingua franca of the globalized word. After World War II English evolved rapidly as the global lingua franca, in business and financial worlds, in politics, diplomatic circles, as well as in science. It is the language of international media and tourism. While Spanish and Chinese are slowly catching up to challenge the imperial dominance of English, French, German, Japanese and other languages are rapidly losing academic status and influence. Not surprisingly English has become the most taught second language. It is spoken and taught in international kindergartens and ambitious universities all over the world. The TU Munich is even considering to offer all master degree courses in English only. This controversial move is highly contested and alarming many, who fear that this conditional surrender to the cultural dominance behind the language.  Language has become a business. A considerable proportion of the UK economy is already based on English as a commodity. It s not the contents which attracts so many Asian planning students to England, it is rather the opportunity to improve their English. At least that is what they express, when interviewed.

Three phenomena additionally support the global usage of English in planning literature, though not in planning practice: the Power of Anglo-American publishers, the academic publish-or-perish syndrome, the ranking mania of the academic world, and, finally, a new peril is evolving: e-learning:

The Power of Anglo-American publishers:

Anglo-American publishers benefit enormously from the global interest in English publications on planning. Over the years they have increased their efforts to publish and disseminate influential books and book series as well as numerous refereed journals, responding fast to ever-upcoming trends in the field. They encourage authors and editors to publish their writings. And they promote international academic events to market their products. English journals on all kind of planning themes are mushrooming As a rule, the number of printed books or journals is low. Consequently prices for books and journals are gradually increasing. In contrast, authors are not generously funded. They often work almost for free, or have even have to pay, just for seeing their work published. On the other side libraries have no chance to escape from continuously increasing prices for books and journals, and just discontinue subscriptions. Readers are forced to pay, if they have no easy access to a library, but feel they have to read a certain paper.  It is a vicious circle.  Money for translations is rarely available. Authors have to write and publish in English, if they wish to reach an international audience. If they do not or cannot raise the funds for translation, they are just not read beyond the national  professional or academic community. Consequently there are only very few titles in planning, being translated from French, or Spanish and German , not to mention other languages, into English. It is rather more likely in the field architecture, sociology or critical theory.

The publish-or-perish syndrome:

The inexorable advancement of English in the field is additionally driven by the publish-or-perish syndrome in academia. For planning, a field which aims to come from theory and knowledge to practice, bridging academia and profession, this is a dangerous, if not fatal development. Young academics are forced to publish in internationally reviewed journal of they wish to further their careers. The majority of these journals are English language journals. In some countries, such as Taiwan, students can even not progress to a PhD examination, unless they have published two papers in an internationally refereed (most likely English) journal. A publication in English is seen by the institutions, which are setting up such foolish rules as a proof of academic quality and intellectual independence and academic quality. That this is not the case is obvious, when screening the thousands of descriptive and not very innovative papers on planning in refereed journals. There is one other thing to be mentioned. City planners in practice, as a rule, have no access, not even the time to read to such writings. Many academics in turn, eagerly writing the papers in another language than that spoken in their regional professional or academic milieus, have little time left, to learn more about the challenges of planning in the real world outside their ivory towers. As long as the academic promotion is based on the publishing output, English will dominate the selection progress, maybe not (yet?) in France, though increasingly in the academic communities outside the francophone and hispanophone worlds, in Europe as well as, and more and more so, in Asia.

The ranking mania of the academic world:

Since higher education has been discovered as a thriving business in the market-oriented Anglo-American world, the notorious ranking of universities has become an important marketing tool, and an instrument of students and parents to select an appropriate university. Ranking lists in all areas, whether in ranking higher education, entertainment celebrities, corporations or the liveability of cities, are welcome news for the media. They are used for praising a city, a university or rending stakeholders to take action. Not surprisingly, the screening of the annually published ranking lists by the Financial Times or the Chinese Jia-tong University shows that Anglo-American universities, where English is the language of education and research, and where university marketing has always received much support, are dominating the lists. The indicators used for ranking vary, though the number of (mainly English) publications in internationally refereed journals is always an important element in the quantitative assessment of the quality of a university. Although planning schools, unlike business schools, not being a much-demanded field of studies, are not ranked individually in any such exercises , the position of a university as a whole, is influencing the status and consequently decisions. The fact that all US American elite universities have established departments for planning and offer planning and offer planning courses programme is remarkable. Not many European universities do. This may be an additional reason for the dominance of  English in the field of planning.

E-learning, an evolving peril:

For a number of reasons, e-learning is evolving as a new mode of education. The growing mismatch between a rising number of students and shrinking budgets for university education, will force knowledge institutions to offer basic university education on line, albeit it is widely acknowledged that face-to face-to-face-education is more efficient and preferable. In the long run, more and more universities will switch to on-line courses for undergraduate (bachelor) education. In principle this could well be done in the local language, though higher course development costs, cosmopolitan demand and the power of Anglo-American publishing houses and elite universities will cause institutes of higher education to offer such courses in English. The MIT for example is already offering an on-line English language undergraduate programme for Chinese students. The prestige of elite universities, and the star professors recruited by these universities will attract students around the world to preferably enrol on such programmes, even if they are more expensive than local courses. The certificate of an elite university does impress potential employers, at least in institutions, where knowledge of local practice in urban or regional development is not considered to be essential.

There is little chance of return. Most probably a younger generations of planners , benefitting from more exposure to international experience during their studies and from ERASMUS exchange programs or INTERREG projects may feel rather relaxed in this respect. However, uneasiness remains that, with the language dominance, cultural differences will be levelled out. Already a decade ago, in a previous paper, entitled, unconditional surrender, I have expressed my concerns in more detail (see Kunzmann 2004) Unconditional Surrender: The Gradual Demise of European Diversity in Planning, PlanerIn, (2004) 4, 5-7. Unavoidable, in the future there will be a global and a local world in planning. Hopefully some passionate and multilingual bridge builders will be around to bridge the global with the local worlds of planning, and viceversa.

Klaus R. Kunzmann