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Embracing non-English linguistic communities

By Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2005. Embracing non-English linguistic communities. Tieline, 16 January 2005.

For an international organization, STC remains resolutely English: Our publications are in English, and, despite strong presences in Europe, Asia, and the Scandinavian and Nordic countries, our communication with members is largely in English. This makes good sense, since English is the modern lingua franca among people with no other language in common. But practical though this focus may be, it blinds us to interesting possibilities. In this article, I’ll discuss efforts of the Montreal Chapter STC to reach out to Montreal’s French community, and suggest what that success can mean for you. I’ll also consider other initiatives that may expand the potential of chapters in attractive ways.

Quebec: a bilingual society

The phrase lingua franca (the “language of the Franks”) has obvious implications when one lives among the Franks. STC Montreal lies in the heart of Quebec, an island of French language and culture in predominantly English North America. Last year, as chapter president, I recognized that our chapter, unlike Montreal culture as a whole, was primarily English. I decided to make our French members more welcome at meetings by starting several initiatives.

Our first points of contact with members are our e-mail announcements and newsletter. With the help of an energetic volunteer, we began translating all our announcements and newsletter articles so that both were bilingual. Meetings are our second, and more important, point of contact, so I began introducing speakers and announcing news and upcoming events in fluent English and passable French. I also encouraged members to ask questions in their preferred language, with the possibility of translation on request. I received immediate, enthusiastic feedback about both initiatives from many French members.

The same enthusiastic volunteer, buoyed by our initial success, sat down with our Webmaster and developed a process for maintaining a bilingual Web site. (We haven’t yet translated unilingual speakers’ notes and other presentation materials, but this may come in time.) This past year, we held three fully bilingual meetings, and we plan to hold more in the coming year. We’ve also begun working with Quebec’s own communication society, the Société Québecoise de la Rédaction Professionnelle. STC Montreal thus becomes the only chapter I’m aware of outside of STC Japan to have achieved this level of bilingualism. (If I’m wrong about this, I encourage you to report your own successes in Tieline!) With this base now firmly established, we’re hoping to welcome more French-speaking technical communicators as active participants in STC Montreal.

Obvious opportunities

Most STC chapters lie in predominantly English-speaking regions, so there may seem to be little value in offering bilingual meetings. Montreal is, after all, an exception in North America, where most people use only a single language. But is your local community really as monolithically English as it appears?

In many regions of the world, more than one linguistic community is the norm. In California and Florida, there are large Spanish communities; in the U.K., there are Welsh, Scottish, and Irish communities, with their own languages. Many North American cities, particularly on the West Coast, have large Chinese and Japanese communities, and many people in these communities have strong ties with friends, families, and colleagues in Asia. Even without sufficient demand for bilingual chapter meetings, there’s an obvious networking opportunity with these communities.

If you live outside North America, people in your community often speak two, three, or even more languages. Many STC members living abroad are English expatriates, and hold meetings in English because this offers the comfort of familiarity. But expatriates often develop considerable proficiency in the language of their adopted country, and could easily reach out to members for whom English is a second language. And of course, STC isn’t the only game in town. If you’re in Europe, consider co-hosting meetings with European communication groups (some of which are listed at the end of this article). Some chapters already do this to a limited extent.

Don’t forget that in the Internet era, inconveniences such as national borders and geography shouldn’t stop you. It’s easy to contact other chapters or organizations by e-mail to arrange Webinars, e-mail discussion groups, and perhaps even in-person meetings at suitable intermediate locations.

Less obvious opportunities

Focusing on the name of the language (English, for example) can lead us to assume that a language must be spoken or written. But languages are much more interesting and complex than this.

As writers, we make many assumptions about the display of visual information, but our blind members clearly have different assumptions. Alternatives to printed ink, such as braille, present unique characteristics; though the language is clearly familiar, the medium and presentation clearly differ. What options are available to make PowerPoint slides or other images useful to our blind members? Let’s not forget our deaf members, either. Could we interest them in attending our meetings by hiring a sign-language interpreter (or having one volunteer) for our meetings? There’s much we could learn from helping these members become more involved in our chapters.

To take just one small example, sign language for the deaf clearly differs enormously from the spoken and written languages STC members are familiar with, as it includes strong somatic (motion, position, and shape) components that are generally absent from spoken and written language and strong metaphorical components (symbolic and representational signs) that have clear parallels with spoken language. Moreover, sign language has dialects much the way that other languages do, so deaf travellers must develop some expertise in localization issues.

Making our meetings accessible to these two communities, and perhaps even encouraging their members to present at our meetings, would clearly offer a great deal to our members. Contact STC’s AccessAbility SIG for more information.

Linguistic diversity

Making an effort to bridge the gap between different linguistic communities offers many pleasures and advantages, not the least of which is the chance to reinvigorate our love of the many subtleties of communication. I encourage you to explore some of the linguistic options that surround you!

European Communication Societies

European STC communities should consider hosting meetings with local chapters of the following European societies:

©2004–2018 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved