SALT32 in Mexico City: Some Thoughts on Linguistic Diversity

Flying in to Mexico city for one of the world´s most exciting annual formal semantics conferences (Semantics and Linguistic Theory SALT32)— it does not get much better than this, especially after more than two years of digital conference participation. I was not disappointed. The conference delegates stayed mostly in Coyoacan, one of the older suburbs on the edge of the city, with a rich cultural history. It was a wonderful lively place, with lots of restaurants and bars and one felt completely safe walking around the neighbourhoods both in daylight and darkness. The weather was warm, with the occasional dramatic thunderstorm (see Sant and Ramchand´s poster on occasional here). The food and drink were wonderful, and the people were warm and friendly. Many many thanks to the organizers at el Colegio de Mexico and El Colegio es conocimiento ciencia y cultura for moving heaven and earth to get this to work  so well in a hybrid format and for being such gracious hosts.

As far as I know, this was the first time that SALT was held in a location outside of North America, and the first in a country where the local language was not English. Therefore it was appropriate that the conference was host to a special SALTED workshop on Prestige English as an Object and Meta Language. The invited speakers were, Enoch Aboh, Donka Farkas, Carol Rose Little and Andres Saab. We can all acknowledge  that English has emerged as the dominant language for dissemination in our field, and that there are indeed some advantages to having a common language of science.  However, the situation does present extra hurdles for linguists whose native language is not English— they have to write and present In a language that is not  simply a transparent conduit to thought, but whose comprehension and production is an ´extra thing to do´.   

When it comes to choice of Object language, all would also agree that more diversity in the object languages being studied semantically is something we should all work towards. Diversity in object language has certainly increased over the past few decades,  but the situation is still rather skewed.  Enoch Aboh´s position was that we as linguists need to work harder to train native speaker linguists in the understudied languages of the world. Especially when it comes to semantics, there are nuances and insights that are simply not available to the non native speaker. We desperately need a more diverse set of linguists to be working on a more diverse set of languages in semantics. There are challenges in teaching formal semantics to students whose native languages are not English because of the lack of teaching materials for semantics in those languages. This is true even for Spanish, which Andreas Saab and Carol Rose Little both discussed their recent experiences in teaching beginning formal semantics, and the pedagogical tools that were simply not available to them.  While I am here, I will note that in response to this challenge, Andres Saab and Fernando Carranza  have come up with a textbook on formal semantics in Spanish, which you can download from this lingbuzz link https://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/005205

We certainly need more textbooks in non-English languages. Michel de Graaf in the context of Haitian creole has pointed to research that shows that children learn formal topics like mathematics much better in their own native creole than in the formal French of normal school instruction.  If we want to train new generations of formal semanticists who can contribute to sorely needed crosslinguistic research, we need to start with diversifying the language of the teaching tools available in this area. Donka Farkas raised the important point that even in English language settings, formal semantics instruction would benefit from a diversification of the languages chosen to exemplify the theory. There is enough work around these days to do so in nearly all domains. She gave some examples, but most of us can think of a few, and the field would benefit a lot from pooling resources on this.

With respect to our current conference SALT32, we can take a look at the spread of different languages chosen as the object language for formal semantic study. In these counts, the first number represents talks where  no substantial data is  introduced from a language other than English, and the second number is the sum of talks where there was data produced for analysis in at least one non English language.

Main  Session Talks English vs. Other:  7 vs 8

Short Talks English vs. Other: 21 vs 14

So we see that at least with respect to the object language, we are currently hovering at about 60 percent English focus. I note in passing that this is still a better diversity level than what I found in ELM last month (Experiments in Linguistic Meaning).

The other languages in evidence as object language: Spanish, Russian, German, Dutch, japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Italian, Hindi/Urdu, Finnish, Djambarruyngu, Uzbek, Farsi, Amahuana, A´ingae, ASL, French Sign Language, Italian Sign Language and Sign Language of the Netherlands.  Ch´ol  also showed up in Little´s invited talk, and Andres Saab´s invited talk focused on Romance.

With respect to the meta language, it will not surprise my readers to know that all  of the talks were given in English. One short talk, in addition, was presented in parallel in sign (https://osf.io/wxn56/) ,  and most of the recorded poster presentation videos had captioning in English for the hearing impaired.  While there happened to be  no hearing impaired attendees in the in person audience,  there were many in the audience for whom English was a 2nd or 3rd language. It struck me that at a conference taking place in Mexico, subtitles in Spanish for all talks would have been a relatively inexpensive thing to do, given current technology. In talking with the organizers, it was pointed out to me that local students, while they are pretty good at English (better than I am at Spanish), still struggle with fast in person speech in English in many contexts. It would massively facilitate uptake of this highly technical formal content, if there were subtitles in Spanish (or even in English) for in person talks.  It also seems like it should be an option for researchers to present in their native language, especially in this case Spanish, and simply lay on English subtitles for the English speaking participants who happen to be Spanish-deaf.   After all, keeping English as the language of science in publication, does not need to mean monolinguality, but is also compatible with multilingualism in broader settings.  It seems to me that allowing for deviations from the norm whereby everybody is forced to wield an awkward in English at the same time as presenting their new research, would have the advantage of allowing non native English speakers to feel more relaxed and expressive, and also the advantage of undermining the monolith-ality of English and a kind of experienced monolingualism.  The current situation also somehow seems to contribute to the impression that English is the clear, logical, rational, language of science, while other people´s languages are just there to be studied.

So, people, what do we think? Shouldn´t we allow non English presentations at SALT. NELS GLOW and WCCFL?  After all, if Eurovision can do it…….

Here is my picture of super delicious taco sauces as a metaphor for linguistic diversity

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