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Curating language within our academic endeavours

My focus is on inclusion. For many years, in several academic contexts in the Netherlands and most recently in the UK, I have done a lot of thinking about the position of language in academic learning environments; its ‘situatedness’. I am interested in the ways in which language, and choice of language, functions to enable or to block learning; to encourage or to limit participation; to foster perceptions of inclusion or exclusion. In Haines, Kroese & Guo (2020), we cite Mathilde, a Dutch student studying Business Administration through Dutch at a university in the Netherlands that prides itself on a proven ‘internationalisation’ strategy. Mathilde chooses to study in Dutch rather than English in order to avoid being “totally international”. But when she joins the student-led study association, she needs to communicate with non-Dutch students through English and she reports “a notable success; not avoiding international students at parties anymore because of the fear to talk English” (Haines et al., 2020, p.192).

In another study, I worked with a Zimbabwean academic Joram Tarusarira, an expert in conflict management, to investigate the participatory experiences of academics from ‘elsewhere’ who are teaching in English in an institution in which Dutch is used widely beyond the classroom, i.e. in which there is considerable explicit and implicit code switching between English and Dutch. While these academics reported language to be “an instrument of possibilities” and “a vehicle for community”, one academic explained that colleagues in the Dutch university whose native language is neither Dutch nor English “struggle because they are always at a disadvantage, it’s never their native tongue and their voices are not always heard” (Haines & Tarusarira, 2021, p.201).

So how do we reduce anxieties around the use of languages and ensure that everyone has a voice? The editors Kumar & Welikala wrote of our chapter: “It further highlights the fragility of the decade-old (western) habit of imagining life in terms of polarised realities. Rather, people continue to shuttle between Being insiders and Being outsiders, across the multiple professional and social contexts they inhabit” (2001, p. 295). In this way, despite her issues with using English, Mathilde accepted that English was “a way to learn about a different culture without having to go abroad” (Haines et al 2000, p.194). Meanwhile, Sophia, another of the academics described in Haines & Tarusarira said of her experience using Dutch as a second language: “When I’m speaking Dutch, I can be the imposter, but when I’m writing (Dutch) my imposterness is very quickly gone” (2001, p. 202).  So we can understand that where language is concerned, complicated parts make up a complex whole, and the linguistic realities of both students and the academics who teach them are more of a tangled web.

Let us think critically for a moment then about power relations in academia and the way that language, and in particular the English language, functions as both an opportunity (as Mathilde experienced) and as a potential barrier (as Mathilde also experienced) when we use it to ‘categorise’ people within existing academic hierarchies; hierarchies which traditionally favour certain groups of people with particular backgrounds above others. This power play includes the ascription of identities to participants who may be designated ‘Home’ or ‘International’, ‘Native-speaker’ or ‘Non-native speaker’ and treated differently accordingly. My position, for instance, is that a so-called ‘home’ student can have a very ‘international’ experience, and a so-called ‘international’ student may simply have crossed one border in order to study but never have been outside their country of origin before. A passport is not a determinant of linguistic or intercultural experience. The point I am making is that while language is very much at the core of our identities within academia, if language is ascribed uncritically as a major determinant of our identity – for instance when we are called a ‘native speaker’ or ‘non-native speaker’ – another valuable part of our identity may be underplayed or lost completely. After all, to take this example to its logical conclusion, we are all ‘native-speakers’ of something, aren’t we, so we all have the capacity to communicate as a native speaker somewhere?

What does this mean for the professional practitioners who teach and research in universities? You and me. Well, we may participate knowingly or unknowingly in a process of acculturation or assimilation of students, in our desire to help our students succeed by making adjustments which are not only linguistic but also focused on their academic or disciplinary development – AND also on their identity. The danger is that our students often feel the need to “check their identities in at the door”, and that they are compliant because, as one student told us, they “don’t want to interrupt the tradition” (Haines et al, 2020, p. 197). Students and academics may therefore be encouraged to become insiders, but they may feel like surrogate insiders, or ‘imposters’, or even ‘foreigners’.

So what I am proposing here is that the cultural and linguistic identities of students and staff at universities is a resource which we can use as an asset for the benefit of all. I am proposing that we support academics in a quest to step away from implicit and explicit cultural assimilation processes, and that we encourage students, while mastering the language they will need to succeed in their academic and disciplinary context, to bring their cultural and linguistic (and other) identities with them into the educational arena, and feel welcome(d), not as a temporary guest (or as an ‘international’), but rather as a fully-fledged member of the academic community. Let’s put away the ‘polarised realities’ and engage in the more complex tangled processes of interaction that underlie the co-production and communication of knowledge within our academic disciplines. In this way, let’s enable students to build and communicate international and intercultural identities which will provide them with a platform for their professional futures – as global citizens able to function in and across diverse communities.

Just as the curator of an art exhibition needs to make precise choices regarding where and how to position paintings in a given exhibition space, so with language we need to position it purposefully within the curriculum so that it works in relation to all participants. There is a need to curate the context, the conditions and the circumstances within our academic endeavours through which language and academic communicative competences can prosper to the benefit of all parties in the learning process.

For further information please contact Dr Kevin Haines, Deputy Director, Centre for Academic Language and Development


Haines, K., Kroese, M. & Guo, D. 2020. Language usage and learning communities in the informal curriculum: the student as protagonist in EMI? In H. Bowles and A.C. Murphy (Eds.), English-Medium Instruction and the Internationalization of Universities (pp. 181–203). London: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Haines, K. & Tarusarira, J. 2021. Inside Out? Individual agency and professional identity in the era of internationalization in HE. In M. Kumar and T. Welikala (Eds.), The Context of Being, Interculturality and New Knowledge Systems for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (pp. 197–208). Bingley: Emerald Publishing.

Kumar, M. & Welikala, T. (Eds.), The Context of Being, Interculturality and New Knowledge Systems for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. Bingley: Emerald Publishing.


This text is based on a talk given at the 5th International Symposium “Language for International Communication”, at University of Latvia in April 2022. My thanks to the scientific committee for their kind invitation.

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