A Point to Consider when Studying International Relations (IR): That invisible barrier Called ‘Language’

PENULIS: Ryan Muhammad Fahd.
EDITOR: Kamil and Hasya

I expect that I will learn a lot of languages in the IR department. My expectations are the following:


First, the IR department will sharpen students’ English (Yes, the global presence of English is undeniable). Second, they will let students choose any official UN language to concentrate, besides English (Russian, Arabic, Chinese, etc). Third, they will let students concentrate on one of ASEAN languages (our neighbours). But, no, there was no mandatory language learning, and there was no encouragement to learn another language. Out of curiosity and frustration, I took up a lot of foreign language courses (my native language is Bahasa Indonesia).


The problem of IR ‘language attitude’ is twofold. First, we will miss a lot of texts, materials, interviews, etc. Second, more dangerous, hubris. Consider the first point. It is like being an MD without a proper understanding of anatomy or being a physicist without an understanding of Mathematics. Without language (the tool), we will only have secondary material. What if most of our materials on China or on Russia do not accurately represent Chinese or Russian attitude toward a specific subject that we want to study? (false picture). What if Russian Defence Minister statement (in English) turns out to be a lie…and we cannot read dissenting opinions because we do not have any command of Russian.


Or ‘the better’: No ASEAN (in my department) experts speak any language of other ASEAN countries, no Latin American specialist (again in my IR department) speak Spanish or Portuguese, let alone Nahuatl or Tupi Guarani. For Europe, it is a little bit better, one of them speaks pretty good German, but he does not care to transfer his enthusiasm for learning another language to us, students. The list, of course, can be extended to the point of exhaustion.


Renaissance is made possible by a rediscovery-by the means of language- of Ancient Greeks philosophical texts. The Arabs translate it from Greek to their language, the European studied Arabic and brought that wisdom back to their homeland. Works the same way with ‘0’. Arguably, the Indians invented (or discovered?) the number ‘0’. The Arabs that learn Sanskrit brought this knowledge to their people, and it is later followed by the Europeans who possess a good command of Arabic. 


We will never know that something is important until it is proven to be important, so let us keep our option open, that is, by exposing ourselves to a large number of materials. In IR, no other means possible, except by mastering the language. Indian scholars will have to learn Hindi, Latin American scholars will have to learn Spanish or Portuguese, defence analyst of France will have to learn le français, one who is interested in Greek Crisis will have to learn Ελληνες (Greek), etc.


But then, the schooling will be very long…it will be, maybe…it will be. It will be inefficient and redundant. This brought me to my second point, hubris. 


“Why must we learn any other foreign language when most of the best IR text is in English?”


“We have to be parsimonious; we cannot take into account all the factors. We have to simplify to explain”


The social world is very intricate. Most of the time, causalities will never become clear. It appears to be clear, until other learned man or woman provides a different interpretation, on the light of new evidence, made possible by a discovery of previously unread material. What we don’t know is far more important than what we know. Maybe the best (Anglo-American) IR text never consider this and that factors that lie outside his or her command of the language. Be sceptical.


Most of IR text are Anglo-American, but what about Russian IR text? Spanish IR text? What about Chinese IR text? Possibly, more interesting. We do not know; we do not care to know. 

Because we can write a short paper, an accomplished journal article, a ground breaking dissertation, become an expert, lecturing on this and that seminar, debating minutiae on the definition of ‘power’, ‘interdependence’, ‘balance of threat’, make student feel bad of themselves without…any consideration of learning the language of a country, an area, or an institution (La francophonie, for example) that we study.


Alas, dear reader, thank you for your time. 

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