On Language and Power


Dana R. H. Doan


I walked into the Global Summit for Community Philanthropy breakout session on narrative and language a bit late and yet my heart started racing as soon as I overheard the inter-related issues the discussion sought to address…

How well do we really listen to each other?
The name of our organization is LIN, which stands for Listen – Inspire – Nurture.  We selected the name to remind us that, as a community resource center, we need to listen first. And, what we have learned is that listening is not a passive endeavor. Whomever is holding the power needs to find a way to ask the right questions if they truly hope to be able to listen well.

What other ‘signals’ are there beyond language?
I remember being told by a colleague to dress more casual for a site visit to a prospective nonprofit partner. He explained that it could help the representatives there to feel more comfortable during our visit. He was right about that and it is now something we suggest to many of our donor partners when they are scheduling visits through LIN.

How truly respectful are we of those who don’t speak our (or the predominant) language?
While many people in Vietnam speak beautiful English, I am surprised at how often English is used as the only form of communication in meetings among development workers.  When challenging this practice, I have heard an array of excuses, such as: “everyone in this room speaks English”, “it takes too long to translate”, or “it is too expensive to pay for a translator.”

Sometimes, the group agrees to offer Vietnamese translation but they do it without conviction by asking a bilingual participant to translate – who then loses her chance to participate fully in the meeting, hiring a less expensive translator – who is unfamiliar with the issues or terminology being used, or by translating some, but not all, of the content that is shared.

How often is language used (consciously or unconsciously) as a means of controlling the agenda?
As we are partnered with over 200 nonprofit organizations in Southern Vietnam, LIN is often asked to disseminate calls for proposals, from various donors. Typically, our first question is, “Do you have the call, or terms of reference, available in Vietnamese?” Regardless of the first answer, we ask, “Can they submit their proposal in Vietnamese?”  It has gotten to the point where I fall over backwards with appreciation to any donor that answers yes to either one of these questions.

I must assume the other donors feel the need to control the agenda, otherwise why wouldn’t the people with the money or the resources to allocate be willing to pay for, or at the very least support, translation.  As one donor at the Summit said to me, “I use Google Translate and it gives me sufficient information to make a decision.”

How easy is it to challenge the language being used?
A couple years ago, a handful of INGOs pitched the idea to establish a working group on climate change to be focused on the South of Vietnam. They invited local nonprofits to help establish the working group and scheduled the first meeting to draw up the mandate and select leaders. I asked the group if they could communicate in both Vietnamese and English so that more local nonprofit professionals could participate.

The expatriates in the room hemmed and hawed while the Vietnamese participants remained noticeably silent.  A half-hearted effort to translate, using working group members, ensued for less than three months before the effort was scrapped altogether for taking up too much time.

From the short introduction to the session, I knew the topic would be interesting but I had not realized the variety of ways in which language can enhance or undermine one’s power.

Dana R.H. Doan is founder & strategic advisor for the LIN Center for Community Development.

Tagged in: Global Summit on Community Philanthropy

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