This is a question I have been asked a couple of times since I moved to Romania and started writing in English. The answer I give is that now that I’m abroad I’d be excluding too many friends and potential new readers by writing in Portuguese. But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Globalization and the internet
Almost everything I read online, I read in English. Most content on the internet is in English (most probably). The only topics that are better covered in Portuguese are the ones that relate specifically to Brazil, Portugal and other Portuguese-speaking territories. When I started questioning religion and reading about science, atheism and philosophy, all things that contributed to me eventually starting this blog, I learned most from English content.
Non-English content is local
They say the internet gives you access to almost all knowledge in the world, but that’s only if you speak English. If you only speak, say, Portuguese, you’ll only have access to what Brazilians, Portuguese etc found relevant to translate or write about.
English content is local
One would be tempted to conclude that, in the globalized world, texts written in the lingua franca concern all of us, regardless of where we come from. This unfortunately is only true to a very limited extent. English news around the world are localized and strongly biased towards an audience of native speakers. I actually believe this is one of the main ways by which anglophone culture (especially U.S. American) manages to remain so disproportionally dominant around the world. We all know too much about U.S. celebrities, TV shows, movies, music etc. Even when it comes to contemporary intellectual and academic subjects, we know too many anglophones and too few of different origins. We know too much about U.S. and British specific legal cases, social issues, news, authors etc.
As a secular-humanist and science enthusiast, off the top of my head I can think of: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Pinker, Carl Sagan, etc. As someone moderately interested in politics and ideology, I remember George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Noam Chomsky, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, etc. The only internationally famous contemporary intellectual I can think of who’s not a native English speaker is Slavoj Žižek, whose ideas don’t particularly resonate with my worldview, but who I nevertheless admire for having conquered such a large audience and popularizing otherwise exclusively academic debates. Of course, I know influential voices in Brazil, but they write in Portuguese and nobody knows about them outside the country.
In science there are recent non-anglophone thinkers who are known in certain circles such as Karl Popper and of course there’s the iconic figure of Albert Einstein, but if I’m inflexible and demand living ones, I can only think of Frans de Waal, who does quite interesting work but, let’s be honest, is only known to a small number of biology geeks. Oh, and to illustrate my point even better: he’s migrated to the United States and is a professor at the Emory University, in Atlanta. Same for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who also lives in the United States.
To be clear, I don’t want to discredit the Anglophone world for its achievements. Indeed, the British empire was very rich and powerful and this allowed contemporary UK and some of its more fortunate former colonies to actually provide a fertile environment for many genuinely great minds. But I just can’t believe that this alone explains the gap between the English-speaking world and the rest. France was also a powerful empire, along with Portugal and Spain. Yes, their golden age is long gone, but they’re still quite developed countries and their languages are widely spoken. And what about Scandinavian countries? They are currently the richest and most developed in the world, and still most of us can’t think of any important public figures of Scandinavian origin.
I want to know more about the non-Anglophone world
Of course, language is a large aspect of culture and I will inevitably miss a lot by not speaking the language, specially when it comes to literature, poetry, etc. But are we really in an all-or-nothing situation? I think there is a lot we could learn about different cultures even though we don’t understand their language. Learning about the sociopolitical conditions and hearing the opinions and perspectives of people from different cultural backgrounds can be deeply insightful, yet it is something that is still rare even in this so-called “age of globalization”.
I started flirting with the idea of writing in English in 2007, when I first spent a significant amount of time abroad. Still, due to the unfriendly attitude towards English in Brazil, a misconceived sense of modesty, peer pressure and a fear of losing the few readers I had in a potentially futile attempt to target people who would most likely never become readers anyway, I kept writing in Portuguese. But as I kept travelling and writing in Portuguese, I just kept feeling more and more like I was isolating myself from the rest of the world. It didn’t matter that my permanent residence was in Brazil, it’s an online blog, not a local magazine, anyone in the world can read it. Now that I’m living abroad indefinitely, I finally managed to let go of my excuses and make the switch to English.
Of course, this is not to say that everyone who can should always write in English. There’s still many countries where the majority of the population doesn’t speak any foreign language and if you want to make an impact you have to use the local language. I myself would like to keep writing in Portuguese, and I still occasionally do. The only reason I don’t use both languages equally is lack of time. All I’m saying is that a cosmopolitan world where communication isn’t limited by geographical borders is much more interesting then a world tightly shaped under the grip of British/American cultural imperialism, and in a world with a tragic history of inter-cultural tensions, dialogue is not only intellectually interesting but fundamental for fighting tribalism and promoting an inclusive global identity. I’m also fully aware that my individual actions have an almost negligible effect on the status quo, but the symbolism of it still matters to me. It’s like refusing to throw garbage on the floor on a dirty street. Will it make any difference? Barely. But at least I know I’m doing my part.
Originally published in January 5, 2016, at ghostlessmachine.com.