"This spring, headphones are the 'in' thing!"

An article about the use of English in international meeting, wrote for the 5° bullettin of Reclaim the Fields.


This article invites you to reflect on the use of English as the working language during the European gatherings of Reclaim the Fields.

During the last Reclaim the Fields camp in Rosia Montana, some simultaneous interpreting was provided. The Coati colletive offered to set up the required equipment to cover two of the tents and some other small groups. Two technicians were there, many people coming for the camp offered themselves to translate, and finally, six professional interpreters came, as volunteer, from Romania. Even with all of that, during the meetings, workshops and presentations, the vaste majority of interventions were made in English. Very few people spoke in other languages, and very few times we heard the point of view of the people would couldn't express themselves well in English.

I was asking to myself why we were listening to so few languages apart from English. I came up with various options. The first that came to my mind was that maybe everybody in Rosia Montana could speak good English; I rejected this one straight away: even I can only speak crappy English, and talking with others about that I realized I was obviously not the only one.

Then I thought that maybe some people were not speaking because they had nothing to say; I asked myself whether we had nothing to say just because we didn't knowing English. I rejected this option because it doesn't make sense, and makes me furious.

I came up with a third option; maybe the ones that didn't speak English didn't want to express theirselves. I didn't find this hypothesis very convincing either because I knew, from my own experience, that this was not true, but that lead me to another option.

I thought that maybe the ones that didn't speak English didn't feel comfortable in doing so in other languages even if there was some simultaneous interpreting. And I self-convinced myself that this was what happened to myself even if I did force myself to speak my own language several times during the meetings.

I reflected about the hypothesis of not feeling at ease speaking even in my mothertongue. I shared that thought with others, and in the end I think this is one of the main reasons why so few people spoke in their own languages. In a context where the working language is overwhelmingly English, it makes you feel ashame to speak another language in front of hunderd and fifty, twenty or fourty people, because that makes it clear that you are not able to do so in English. On top of that, for the others to be able to listen to what you are saying, they need to put on their radio, syntonize on the right frequency, or stand up to grab a radio because they took for granted that the meeting would be all in English. The intent of this text is not to explain in detail why someone could feel uncomfortable when not knowing English. The reasons could be many, amongt others: visiblizing your social class, your educational level, your origins, the fact that you never travelled out of your country before, etc.

Using simultaneous interpreting, and having meetings in multiple languages, even if it would have been technically possible, was not made a reality because we limited ourselves to facilitate the communication with those who didn't speak English. And for this very reason, we had to insistate that it was ok to set up the equipment and have the interpreters working to enable just one person to speak with confidence.

I think we need to have both a personnal and collective reflection on the use of English in our constellation because, for me, it plays an important role in defining who participates in our European gatherings and our network. Who can speak good English? Are we limiting ourselves to well-educated middle-class people from Western European descendancy? I guess that would be a shame to limit ourselves to this set of people and exclude the others.

We're leaving the work half done. RtF aims at being an assembly-led organization, working in a horizontal manner. We opted to use simultaneous interpreting so that everyone could participate and understand. But for me, that doesn't only mean having the opportunity to do it, but should also include feeling at ease in doing so. And even if that requires reducing the use of English as a working language in order to normalize the use of other languages and simultaneous interpretating, I think we should do it.

For me the inconvenience is minimal: the extra time introduced by the translation, the buzzing in the ears, having to put on headphones. And the advantadges are really worth it: if we can speak our own language we gain expression proficiency, depth in our reflections, ease, we're challenging hierarchies, and favouring the participation of all by bring in more diversity.

During the camp, some tried out a strategy to encourage people to speak in their own language by speaking first in good English, and then in their own language, thus forcing everybody to put on their headphones, and listen to the translation. That was great but not enough to inverse this tendency.

So I invite people to speak in their favourite language, in order to normalize the fact of having multilingual meetings. People who do not speak English would then feel that interpretation is not only here for them, but that we collectively choose to make it possible to speak in a language in which we feel comfortable, and that they are not special cases for which an effort is being made.

Speaking in your favourite language favors the participation of all, because language is power!