• Power, privilege and English

    by  • June 5, 2012 • Essays • 18 Comments

    On Gaming as Women, we often discuss power, privilege, discrimination, who is allowed to speak and who is silenced.  One subject we haven’t discussed so far is language.

    The gaming community is international and multilingual. People play, write and discuss games in more languages then anyone will ever learn. The norm in international gaming discussion is to use English, since a lot of people know it and a lot of people have it as a first language. It is great that we have a world language, English, that a lot of people chose to learn to be able to communicate with people who speak other languages.

    But having English as the norm in international gaming discussion also create a privilege hierarchy, where the people who know the most English are the most privileged, the ones that know the least are at the bottom of hierarchy. The ones that can express themselves in English are heard, and those who can’t are silenced.

    As usual, this is not because people are evil assholes, but it is a side effect of having a world languages that not everyone is equally skilled at using.

    That means that in any international gaming discussion your knowledge of games won’t be the important thing in how people judge you and interact with you, but your ability to express that knowledge in English. Anyone that can’t express it well enough in English, wont be heard or wont be taken seriously. That probably mean we are all missing out interesting insights about games because the person isn’t a part of the privileged class of English speakers.

    I’m a Swede and fortunately for me Swedish is a tiny language, while at the same time Sweden rich country that takes English education extremely seriously. We Swedes are so few that we really do need it. Be it college textbooks, music or TV series, in Sweden the majority of it is in English, not Swedish. Because we are so damn few, we import more of it then we produce. Without English, you are screwed in Sweden.

    As I come from a whole culture that is dependent on being able to use English, getting into an international gaming community relying on my use of English hasn’t been that painful. But I’m privileged in that aspect. A lot of other people come from countries with a lot less English education.On top if that, many languages less closely related to English than Swedish is, which makes it a lot harder to learn the language.

    For anyone not fortunate to not know English well enough it can be a really painful experience to try to reach out and be a part of international discussions.

    Remember that privilege hierarchy based in English skills I mentioned earlier? I not at that bottom of that language hierarchy, far from it. I’m pretty good at English. In a gaming discussion I can say what I wanna say (although in a funny accent) and be understood, and I can with some help with editing write blog post at Gaming as Women. While I make mistakes I can voice my opinion in international gaming context and have people listen to me. My English is good enough to be treated and respected as an equal in gaming discussions. Yet, I know that respect doesn’t come from my knowledge of gaming. It about me being able to write express it in English.

    Normally I always get some help from native English speakers to proofread my articles. Both to fix normal errors like typos, but also to help me with all the problems I faces a non-native English speaker and as someone suffering from dyslexia. The editors change phrases so they sound more “right” and native and sort out all the mistakes I make. Of course everyone even native speakers needs a editor, but this post is unedited, due to the subject of the article. This is how I really write in English.

    So, even if I’m might not be at the top of the privileged hierarchy, but I’m definitively not at the bottom either. If I was at the bottom of the hierarchy, you would not even read this post. Because my English would be so bad that you would quit reading after the first sentence. Or even the headline.  Hell, you would not even read the first sentence. I never been invited to write for Gaming as Women of I been at the bottom of that language hierarchy, no matter how many interesting thing I had to say about gaming or womanhood.

    My voice would be silenced. I would be powerless unable to be a part of the discussion. And you, my dear reader, would be missing out on whatever I had to say. I could be the best game writer in the world, and I would  on my own not be able to make my voice heard on an international level.

    Even if I did know English, but didn’t know it well enough, I would be fucked. I never ever be heard or be respected as an equal. You see this every time someone bad at English try to say something in an international gaming discussion. They get ignored, mocked and not taken seriously. People don’t even consider that they might have anything good to say. They are screwed.

    I even been there. When I tried to discuss games in English at age sixteen with the English skills I had then, I was ignored, mocked and not taken seriously. Fortunately I probably didn’t have all that many smart things to say at sixteen, but I still remember that vulnerability. Speaking up can be hard enough, knowing that you won’t be taken seriously or even notices if you do. Shame and people behaving like assholes against anyone without perfect English silence even more people. People that could spoken up.

    Many adult, knowledgeable and intelligent gamers is and might forever be in the position where their English will be bad. At the bottom of that hierarchy. Invisible and ignored. English doesnt even have to be a foreign language, people with dyslexia can face the same problem if they have problems expressing themselves in writing.

    What do I want to say with this essay? That this hierarchy of privilege exist. Language is power. Become aware of it.

    We can discuss privileges and problems in the international gaming community all day long, but we need to be aware that we are shutting out anyone that isn’t good at English from those discussions. That we are privileged people in this aspect, and a lot of unprivileged people are never heard.

    If you are in the privilege position of being good at English, try to be compassionate of those who isn’t and be aware that there is a lot of people who can’t voice their opinion in an intentional context. Try to listen to them anyway and help them out. Otherwise you will be missing out on the gaming knowledge they can offer you.

    Internet translators like Google Translate is an excellent tools to reach out across language barriers to learn stuff about games written in other languages and from gamers that don’t share an common language with. There is a world of games out there you will miss out on if you don’t.



    Elin Dalstål is a game designer, larp and convention organizer living in Luleå, Sweden.

    18 Responses to Power, privilege and English

    1. avatar
      June 5, 2012 at 16:26

      I’ve actually wondered how much I’m missing out on by not having enough of another language to follow conversations in it, as I think gaming (both “rpg” types and video game types) is developing interestingly in other countries. I’d love to be able to read some of the philosophy stuff coming out of Japan, for example. Or some of the Jeep LARP stuff in its original (rather than having to rely on translation to capture the meaning behind idiom).

      Thank you for talking about this!

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      • avatar
        June 5, 2012 at 16:43

        Well, even if you spoke twenty other languages, you still be missing out on stuff. But English is a key language that do get you pretty far, both on each own, and because all online translator focus on English translators, so they are always the most accurate and useful if you use services like Google translator.

        Thank you, I’m glad you like the post.

    2. avatar
      June 5, 2012 at 17:17

      This is part of why I’m so interested in learning Italian – there are people I want to talk to, and things I want to read! The failure of American educational systems to see the incredible virtue in learning a second or third language cannot be overstated. Yes, many of us take a year or two of Spanish or French, but it’s usually too little and too late for easy fluency. I took 4 years of German in high school, and I’ve forgotten most of it.

      The on-going tilt toward English as a common language continues to prop up an artificial concept, on both sides, that native English speakers are somehow better, when all we are is lucky and hobbled at the same time. There are privilege issues there, to be sure. I have friends who speak 3 or 4 languages, to various degrees of fluency. Thanks to a progressive local school, my oldest son is increasingly conversant in Spanish. But it’s not enough. Putting myself in the place of language learner, taking small and hesitant steps towards communicating in another language, is a huge and exciting experience.

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      • avatar
        June 5, 2012 at 19:30

        In Serbia we take the first language when we enroll in the 3rd grade of our elementary schools, we take the second language in the 5th grade of the elementary schools and then we study both languages trough the rest of elementary school and high school and then we study one of them on our freshmen year when we enroll into a university of our choice.

        After taking 11 years of English language studies and 8 years of German language studies there is a tip or two I know for making learning a language easier:

        1) Try to have some of your conversation with a person who studies the same language in that language as the best way to practice a language is to actually use it in conversation.

        2)Try finding videos and channels (internet or TV) that are in that language and just watch them (preferably with subtitles in a language that you know well) to pick up the language and the structure of its conversation (being able to talk in German with people from the German language class is not the same as talking to a native German speaker or listening to a German TV channel).

        3) Make at least some of your thoughts in that language as it will acclimate you to the sentence structure in that language.

        On a side note the spelling rules of the English language are some of the most complex in the world, while the spelling rules in the Serbian language are some of the most simplest. This leads to two things:

        1)Serbian children knowing how to spell their words properly after they finish the 4th grade in their elementary school and most English adults not knowing how to spell a good part of their vocabulary.

        2)Because of he simplicity of Serbian spelling with 30 letters and the complexity of English spelling with 27 letters most Serbians will at one point reach the conclusion that the English language is in fact insane and this two is a form of language privilege as the rules that govern a language depend mostly on the historical conditions around which the language developed and whether or not the language underwent a reform to make it more accessible to the general public or not and it also depends on how succsesfull ….. succssesfull ….. sucssesfull ….. how the fuck do you write this stupid word in this insane language of yours? Google translate says it is spelled successful. The English spelled and spoken version of this word are not connected in my mind. If I were to actually follow the Serbian spelling rules (which are my default rules and the ones I use when I do not know or can not remember how something is spelled) the spoken version would be written like this: suksesful.

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        • avatar
          June 28, 2012 at 06:57

          English teacher here!

          You’re right, DMOL – English spelling is crazy. It’s the result of mixing Anglo-Saxon with Norman French, Latin and Greek (and many other languages), sound changes over the centuries and rarely having had a thoroughgoing spelling reform to keep up or even ‘rationalize.’

          In Anglo-Saxon “cniht = boy,” both the C=K and the N were pronounced, I was the I in the borrowed name ‘Tahiti’ and H was said like Serbian X/Croatian H or the CH in modern German ‘iCH.’ By Chaucer’s time, the H had become voiced, sort of like the GH one hears in Arabic, but the other sounds remained the same. Between Chaucer’s day and Shakespeares’s, the KN sound was simplified to N and the vowels shifted dramatically so that the long I came to be pronounced like the ‘AI’ in Italian or Spanish. But we still write it ‘knight.’

          And then there are the dialects – not the spoken dialects, though they are fun, but the different ways of spelling. The main division is between the system used in the US and that of the UK, with other English-speaking countries partaking of each to a greater or lesser extent.

          Sometimes, whole groups of words follow easy rules – UK ‘-our,’ ‘-re’ become US ‘-or,’ ’-er’ (colour, centre vs color, center), two syllable words ending in ‘-l’ double the ‘-l’ in derived forms in the UK but not in US (travel / travelled / traveller vs travel / traveled /traveler), UK ‘-ce’ becomes US ‘-se’ (defence, licence vs defense, license).

          But inconsistencies abound – US has ‘enroll / enrolling’ and ‘fulfill / fulfilling’ (with ‘-ll’ invading the base form) where UK has ‘enrol / enrolling’ and ‘fulfil / fulfilling,’ US has ‘license’ but ‘practice’ (US also misses the chance to differentiate between noun and verb here – in UK ‘-se’ marks license and practise as verbs, while ‘-ce’ marks them as nouns).

          There are also individual anomalies, e.g., UK ‘wilful,’ ‘jewellery,’ ‘pyjamas,’ ‘gaol’ vs US ‘willful,’ ‘jewelry,’ ‘pajamas,’ ‘jail.’

          And for a final madness think of George Bernard Shaw’s humorous suggestion that ‘fish’ might be spelled ‘ghoti’ – ‘gh’ as in ‘rough,’ ‘o’ as in ‘women’ and ‘ti’ as in ‘nation.’

          Crazy indeed!

          Good luck on any attempt to change this. I’ll just be over here, trying to combat sexsm and homophobia and bring down world capitalism – I think I might have the easier job!

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    3. avatar
      Melody Haren Anderson
      June 5, 2012 at 20:47

      This is a very painful topic for me. Not because I’m not a native speaker of English, or even that I believe (though I don’t know about the reality, just my perception) I have difficulties with it. I consider myself quite adept with the language, with some minor problems that I suspect are due to how I learned to read compared to my classmates, which I’ll mention in a second.

      My problem is I’ve tried and tried quite incredibly hard to learn other languages, but it availed me naught. I know (and I believe knew even in the class) as much French now as I ever knew, which is none, even after four years of it. Latin, I have a few minor phrases and words I remember but barely anything stayed put. And the fact that I’ve never been able to pick up even rudimentary skill at a second language is upsetting, as I consider myself an intelligent and educated woman.

      My spelling in English tends to be terrible, because (I suspect) I learned to read by reading. I never understood phonics and failed it over and over (but due to overwhelmingly high grades elsewhere was passed on till I no longer was taught it). On the other hand, based on my observations of fellow students, I was able to quite often not just gauge the meaning of a word or phrase based on context, but sometimes a sentence or two in sequence. And I realize I’m going off topic possibly, but let me bring it back around… I feel this implies that depending on the needs of the person, certain methods of learning a language might serve them better than others. As a gamer, there have been times others have used words I didn’t know, but I tried to figure out the rough meaning based on the way it had to relate to other points of reference in the language used. Spelling is important, especially in writing, but I’m far forgiving of spelling errors. But being able to pick up the meaning of a word based on usage helps everyone else “at the table” so to speak, because even if you need something clarified, you might know enough to need only meaning specific to the system or setting in question.

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      • avatar
        June 5, 2012 at 21:43

        That is an excellent point and you are right: context of a word or a sentence or a conversation matters more then correctly spelling it.

        But as you say certain methods of learning a language serve a person better then others depending on the situation.

        The method of learning my own language as I have already mentioned involves being able to spell out any word in my language as a 4th grader and it has been ingrained into my psyche by the rest of the 8 years of Serbian language classes, we never went back to learning spelling again, not even people with the F’s in Serbian made any spelling mistakes.

        Which means that every time I fail to repeatedly spell out a word properly my mind makes the conclusion that I am failing at something even the dumbest 4th grader can do right and then makes the leap to calling me dumber than a 4th grader, all of this of course without any conscious input from me.

        Also I will repeat my advice in the form of a question: Have you ever actually had regular conversations that oscillated between talking in English and talking in French?

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        • avatar
          Melody Haren Anderson
          June 5, 2012 at 22:16

          Honestly, my teacher tried that with me, but I found the words would slip the net of my memory and I couldn’t speak at all. There was one time she invited all of her French students (she also taught Spanish and they were invited a different time) to her house to cook and everyone was chatting away in French and I not only couldn’t speak a word, I wasn’t able to ken any either.

          Contrast this amount of effort, to how I can remember at least bits and pieces of Latin, a class where I spent most of the time focusing on playing Magic the Gathering and still was doing quite well on all my quizzes and tests. I mean, now I don’t remember much of it, but enough that I’m not embarrassed the way I am about French. 4 years with no retention ever, compared to half a year with significant retention of what I learned then.

          On a side note, I wonder how a person I knew and spent a lot of time with in high school learned compared to yourself, considering he was from the same part of the world (Croatia in his case).

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          • avatar
            June 6, 2012 at 06:56

            We have the same language. The Serbo-Croatian language. There are two differences between Serbs and Croats when in comes to learning languages.

            The first is the dialect: Serbs use the Štokavian dialects of Ekavian and Ijekavian (the Ikavian dialect is the third Štokavian dialect and it does not have as widespread use as the other two) while Croatians use the Kajkavian and Čakavian dialects alongside the Ijekavian (and Ikavian in some small areas) Štokavian dialect (Kajkavian is the dialect present alongside Ijekavian in Zagreb, which is Croatia’s capital, so those are the two dialects you will encounter when seeing Croats in the international media).

            The second and more important one is that Croats only learn Ljudevit Gaj’s Latin alphabet while Serbs still learn both Vuk Karadžić’s Cyrillic alphabet and Gaj’s Latin alphabet. So the Serbs (and Bosnians) still learn the Serbo-Croatian digraphia (which is the only active digraphia in all of Europe) while the Croats have opted for learning just the Latin alphabet (there is a debate in Croatia right now about whether or not they should return to the digraphic method).

            While digraphia in and of itself does help language skills a bit (learning to write two different alphabets from an early age makes it easier to adopt new alphabets, of course the more different the alphabets from the ones you know the harder they are to learn), the one in the Serbo-Croatian language evolved specifically and intentionally as a coping mechanism: historically we had to communicate with both the Latin writing west and Cyrillic writing east.

            So in conclusion I do not know what personal inclinations towards learning languages your high school friend has but if he was not taught digraphia in his elementary school days he would have had it just a little bit harder to learn non-Latin writing languages because of knowing only one alphabet to begin with.

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    4. avatar
      Melody Haren Anderson
      June 5, 2012 at 22:21

      Ok, this is something of a side note, but there was a game I was quite fond of that was originally French, but was translated and brought over to the US called Agone. I loved that game. The whole concept of it just hit notes that appealed to me. But the game flopped in the US and was quickly cancelled (as I understand it).

      The question that occurs to me is this, was it due to a fundamental difference in the style between French and US role-playing games, or was there something that might have been lost in the translation? I don’t know to be honest.

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      • avatar
        June 6, 2012 at 08:59

        OK read the Wikipedia entry on Agone it sounds like it is a Franco-Belgian fantasy setting RPG and your question about style made me think about the nature and problems of European RPGs in general and I will now go and write an article about that (look for the pingback here if you are interested).

        Also looking at the tropes that are used for building the fantasy setting of Agone I am reminded of a comic book (actually I am reminded of several different fantasy worlds from plenty of comic books, but I know this one came out in the US) called The Secret History published by Archaia Entertainment.

        The main surface difference (I am sorry but I could not find the English version of Agone and my Gothic German is non-existing) is in the fact that Agone is an alternate universe with its own laws and culture while The Secret History is an alternate history story which explores the deep flaws that have been a part of humanity for generations. If the secret history sounds interesting to you I should warn you there is nudity, human behavior from the entire spectrum of it and the usual philosophical component that comes with every Franco-Belgian work.

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    5. avatar
      June 6, 2012 at 16:03

      I’m very happy you wrote this article! I relate to it a lot. Whan I was a teenager language was not a problem to me – I could play and discuss games in my community with my friends who speak Polish and my English was good enough to understand things published on the Internet. Things changed when I moved to Norway to live and study there for a year. People whom I met were friendly and welcoming, very eager to speak English. Kuntepunkt is largely English-speaking event, even at Danish Fastaval I could easily find people to play games in English just because of me. In Oslo (where I lived) I played quite a lot of games in English as well. But I felt somehow wrong about it. It was my choice to move abroad and play in a language different than my mother tongue, but I was also making other people speak foreign language just not to make me feel excluded. This way I was depriving them of the most powerful tool in a game that is language. It is obvious that in your mother tongue you can express much more than in any foreign language. So our communication was always kind of… handicapped. I put a lot of effort to change it and after a year I was able to play larps in Norwegian. My Norwegian was still very, very bad but I could understand what was going on and could manage “one to one” kind of situations. It also seemed that people around me felt more comfortable than when we were playing in English.

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    6. avatar
      June 7, 2012 at 18:35

      Excellent article, I’m really glad you posted it. :)

      I’m a native English speaker, and have all the privileges that entails. I also have a few experiences that helped me understand first-hand how language privilege works, and some small exposure to what it feels like when on the wrong side of that stick.

      I have had the great gift of being able to live and work abroad in places where English is not the primary language (Quebec, Brazil, South India), but also in institutions where English is a primary language of the industry. In each place it was fascinating to watch how language created and witheld privilege, and how language (both English and the language of the country) were used to leverage power and control. It’s particularly intense when viewed that way because it reveals how it’s not just reinforcing power on a local level in an Anglophone country (immigrants to a Anglophone country being less employable because they are ESL) and on an international level (non-Anglophone participants on an international gaming forum), but also on a local level in a non-anglophone country (people who don’t know English have barriers to influence and affluence in their home country). Also, pushing one step further in observance… the pernicious extention into class; those that have less affluence and influence to begin with are less likely to speak English which is the gateway to further affluence and influence.

      Even the tiniest building blocks of this item are hugely affecting, and I don’t think we english speakers really get it. As an ESL speaker, you probably must invest a lot of time and energy into reading your communications from an outside observer perspective to assess if your message is clear. You probably assume on some level that there will be some inevitable miscommunication that we might need to work through, you possibly take more accountability or culpability when that happens, and obnoxiously, I’ll bet English speakers put it on you too. And as you get good at it (and we can’t detect a text-accent) it probably just gets harder for you due to all your hard work.

      None of that is true for English speakers on English forums. We have the ease of just writing what we write, without having to worry about if we’re clear in language (though we should be doing that more anyway), forget that the people that we talk to are working twice as hard to participate, and often blindly assign misunderstandings to intelligence or knowledge rather than the translation or context issues that they might be.

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      • avatar
        Melody Haren Anderson
        June 7, 2012 at 20:19

        It’s funny, I think you’re right. But my personal instinct is to rationally assume that if someone makes a statement I don’t understand or uses a word I don’t know… well I assume it’s ignorance on my part of a cultural thing they have that I don’t have the context for. Maybe that is me being weird, I know I’ve had a number of quirks over the years and still do.

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        • avatar
          June 9, 2012 at 16:56

          It could be a quirk, but it also could be contextual. Often, though sadly not always, people who have practice understanding their privilege and have done some work to mitigate it in one area, start to do it contextually, and instinctually in other areas. You could be affording empathy, which is part of bypassing privilege.

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    8. avatar
      June 28, 2012 at 08:07

      ItIt’s interesting, Mo, that one of the first ways colonialist governments attempt to disrupt the culture of the colonized and render them powerless is to take away their language

      We saw this in the US and in my own country (Australia) when indigenous children were taken from their families and put in ‘homes’ where they were forbidden from speaking their birth language. Of course, speakers of English were happy enough to attempt this with other ‘white people’ too – after the 1745 Rebellion, Scottish Gaelic was
      proscribed (this only lasted for 50 years) while in the nineteenth century in my mother’s country of Wales, schoolchildren were not only forbidden to speak Welsh, but were encouraged to inform on their classmates too.*

      And then the US concept of the “melting pot” was traditionally understood as involving the surrendering of one’s birth tongue to English. Here in Australia (since the end of WWII), the government has pursued a more multicultural policy, at least as far as language is concerned, even extending this policy to Aboriginal languages – US acquaintances of mine express surprise that federal government documents are always printed in multiple “community languages.” Yet a common bleat of racists is “why don’t they learn to speak English.”

      In Welsh we have a saying, “Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon = a people without a language is a people without a heart.”


      * If a child was heard speaking Welsh, s/he was burdened with a ‘necklace’ consisting of a leather thong with a small block of wood attached. On this block was written “Welsh – NOT.” The child got rid of this object if another child were heard (or could be tricked into) speaking the forbidden tongue. The necklace came to be called homophonously the “Welsh Knot.”

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