16 May 2021

Bilingualism or interaction?

 If a pandemic stops you from meeting in person, you can just meet online. I think the amount of familiarity and proficiency with software like Teams, Zoom and the likes has skyrocketed. But if you are bilingual, things can be a bit complicated.

The University is proudly bilingual. Our branch of the University and College Union is too. And that raises some issues. This is Wales, after all, where a majority of the population doesn't speak the language of the country. The majority of the union members doesn't either. And if there is a bilingual event at the University, we tend to get a translator who does synchronous translation into English in a corner, and everyone who needs that gets a headset through which that translation is conveyed. So how does that work online?

We started out having union meetings on Teams, but that platform does not allow for synchronous translation. So the last meeting I attended was done through Zoom. The problem with that is, that your meeting then has to be classified as a conference or symposium. And that means that the speaker/chairperson has all the power, and everybody else has their camera and microphone automatically switched off. Only panel members can switch people's microphones on, and only actual panellists can have their camera on.

A union meeting should be a place for discussion. And as it was now, most of us were voiceless. And that is not ideal! And I can fully understand why the Welsh-speaking union members (and especially members of the committee, as they lead these meetings) want to be able to contribute to such meetings in the language of the country. But I think that if technology dictates that you need to choose between interaction or bilingualism, and you are a union, interaction should weigh heavier. This opinion was strongly voiced by one of the members, and I think she is right. And I think that an actual solution to this issue would be that technology steps up its game; it should be possible, surely, to have synchronous translation in meetings? Of course, if people can just switch their microphones on at will, you can get a situation with people speaking through each other, and no translator could keep up with that, but hopefully efficient chairing could avoid that.

I suppose this is another example of technology starting out catering for the majorities. These big technologies tend to stem from the USA, where a big majority speaks only one language. And it is that majority that holds most of the money. So the technology works well for those! And now it is time for them to step up their game and cater for more of a variety of people. Bilingual meetings should be possible. But for now, before we get to that point, I suppose we need to accept that the union is monolingual for a while…

No comments: