Symposium on Classism and the International Legal Profession: The Multiple Lives (and Languages) of Non-Native Speaker International Lawyers

Symposium on Classism and the International Legal Profession: The Multiple Lives (and Languages) of Non-Native Speaker International Lawyers

[Dr Anna Dolidze (Twitter: @dolidze_anna) is Research Lead at Rabdan Academy, UAE]


‘My good friend Roosevelt I don’t know very English, but I know as much as write to you’, wrote a fourteen-year-old Fidel Castro to the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt.   The note carries the degree of cute naiveté, simplicity, and directness that characterize the writings of non-native speakers of English. 

The objective of the Symposium is to reflect on the idea of class among international lawyers.  The relationship between the diversity of experiences of people from different backgrounds and the class structure of the international law profession has been explored in scholarship. Critique of international law from the Global South, TWAIL, race, feminist, gender, and other perspectives has slowly permeated the legal academy. But how about the experiences of those aspiring academics whose native language is not English? What is the relationship between class and the adventures and struggles of aspiring international lawyers whose first language is other than the universal language in which most international law scholarship is published? 

This post puts forward the initial thoughts about non-native speakers of English and their position in the class structure within the world of international law. 

Non-Native Speakers of International Law and Class 

There is an intrinsic relationship between social class and language. William Labov’s seminal study on language and class in NYC Department Stores launched a field of research into the relationship between class and language. 

The issue of language bias in international law has been explored in contemporary international law scholarship. The most recent article by Odile Ammann notes the impact of the existing language bias in international legal scholarship. An article by Mathilde Cohen explores the disproportionate access of French-speaking lawyers to international courts. In 2017, German scholar Christian Tomushat wrote

The English language cannot be displaced from its position of number one in the world. Yet it should not be permitted to achieve a monopoly as the means of communication in international relations. 

Anthologist Leigh Swigart explored the ‘detrimental’ effects of the monopoly of the English language at the International Criminal Court.  

To take the discussion on the language and class in international law further, a couple of issues have to be taken into account. 

First, it is hard to pinpoint what role non-native speakers of English occupy in the class structure of international lawyers because the issue of language is closely intertwined with the issues of race, gender, social status, colonialism, etc. Language, fluency, and the lack thereof are not the only factor related to the place in the class structure. Language is another variable in intersectionality. 

Second, it can be said that in a nutshell, international law scholarship is continuously committing what philosopher Miranda Fricker calls ‘epistemic injustice’, i.e., injustice perpetuated in relation to someone specifically ‘in their capacity as a knower’. Fricker identifies two forms of epistemic injustices. Both of them are relevant here. Testimonial injustice is committed when a speaker receives an unfair deficit of credibility from a hearer owing to prejudice on the hearer’s part. According to Fricker, hermeneutic injustice occurs when testimonial injustices structurally affect what is included in a collective pool of knowledge. It leads to an underrepresentation of the experiences of marginalized individuals and groups, in turn affecting their ability to make sense of their experiences. Because of such injustices, some are given an unfair advantage by having their experiences represented in the collective body of knowledge.

Due to the overwhelming dominance of the English language in international legal scholarship, aspiring academics who do not speak English or do not speak it at the native-speaker level will be subject to epistemic injustice. Their ideas and contributions will not be given avenues for wide academic recognition. Yet, this is not an issue relevant only to legal academics. The dilemma of writing in the native language or publishing in English with the pragmatic objective of accessing the resources available in English has been bothering authors for many decades. Thus, throughout their careers, many writers have been moving back and forth between their native languages and English looking for the best modes of expression.

Third, those international lawyers who do persevere in the Western legal academia as they write in English fluently occupy a particular place in the class structure of the Western legal academe. There are some well-known and prominent examples, such as, for instance, Raphael Lemkin, one of the most well-known international lawyers, a polyglot, who wrote, ‘the brevity of the Hebrew language, the words loaded with meaning, made a lasting impression on my style of writing and speaking other languages’ (p. 15). However, future empirical studies are necessary to explore how these individuals navigate the class structure of international law and what role the issue of English as a dominant language of international law play in their journey.   

Multilingualism and International Law 

However, as much is already known about the disadvantageous effects of the dominance of English on non-native speakers, this post is an attempt to look at the silver lining, i.e., at the emancipatory potential that non-native speakers of English bring to academia. 

As sociolinguists explain, non-native speakers develop a unique ability to traverse multiple languages and cultures as they acquire a new language and master it to the level of writing. The linguistic competence of a multilingual speaker is richer than the repertoire of a monolingual native speaker. Multilingualism allows for code-switching between native and foreign languages and their corresponding worldviews, a process that is not accessible to monolingual speakers. The ability to switch codes in the same sentence and in the same speech grants freedom that is not available to monolingual speakers. The learners construct for themselves new linguistic and social identities that enable them to navigate the challenges posed by immersing themselves in a foreign language. The new subject acquires a sense of a new self. Immersion in a new language reveals the often untapped resources of language learners, who take intense physical pleasure in acquiring a language, thriving in trespassing someone else’s territory, becoming a foreigner on their own turf, becoming both invisible and differently visible

Pulitzer Prize winner Jumpa Lahiri explains her decision to write in Italian, a language acquired later in life; ‘I can demolish myself, I can reconstruct myself,’ she said in an interview with NPR. Writing in Italian signals ‘the first time I really feel the freedom to express myself as I want to.’ 

Therefore, multilingual speakers have a unique freedom to play with languages and code-switching, to experiment with the translation and construction of meaning, and to draw on the sources of inspiration and creativity unavailable in the confines of one language only. Hans Castorp, the German soldier in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, captures the feeling of a non-native speaker communicating in a foreign language (p. 401):

As you have surely noticed, I barely speak French. All the same, I would rather speak with you in it than in my own language, since for me speaking French is like speaking without saying anything somehow – with no responsibilities. The way we speak in a dream. Do you understand?

Metaphorically speaking, in the multilingual world of a non-native speaker of English, the native language is like a sleeping volcano, boiling with untamed energy. While this is not an empirical claim, a superficial overview of multilingual international lawyers whose first language was/is not English suggests an interesting observation. Numerous influential international legal scholars have been prolific in a foreign language whose first language was different. These scholars, from Hersch Lauterpacht to Martti Koskenniemi, have made breakthroughs in international law thinking and lawmaking. Behind active speaking and writing in English, there must have been shadows of the workings of their native languages. Perhaps there is a new research agenda hidden here, highlighting multilingualism and exploring the role of native non-dominant languages in the careers of impactful international lawyers. 


It is clear that for every multilingual international law scholar, who has achieved recognition on the international plane, there are myriads who have remained in the frameworks of their own non-dominant languages. We need to know more about those whose names will never appear in the prestigious English language international law publications. We also need to explore and study those who do achieve the recognition of their ideas, even though they speak English –the dominant language of international law– with an accent. Finally, if this discussion can have any practical impact, we should discuss creating the right circumstances to fully embrace the unique creative potential of multilingual international lawyers. International law, with its numerous problems, can only benefit.

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