Our website uses cookies! You can disable them by changing your browser settings but if you carry on using the site we'll assume you don't mind! Read our privacy policy for more details.

A colonial hang-up: how the need to speak English is gatekeeping the climate movement

It's time to create spaces for all people to participate

Illustration by Sabrina Gevaerd @sabrinagevaerd

When it comes to participating in international decision-making spaces, the representation of youth from the so-called ‘Global South’ is confronted with many obstacles. Funding is hard to access, free time to attend these events is scarce and our governments don’t often see our participation as a priority. But it is perhaps the largest barrier that is often overlooked:the need to speak English fluently. Learning and being able to speak English fluently is a great privilege that very few people have, especially young people, and especially those from the Global South. While this fact may seem obvious, for many people it is not. And I was one of those people until recently.

In 2019 I had my first opportunity to participate in an international event: the Youth20,a summit which gives young people the opportunity to voice their opinions about the G20 discussions. Although for me this event was a holistic learning experience, it was there that I began to notice that the only language spoken was English, meaning that it could only be accessed by the most privileged from our regions.

During that year, I was lucky enough to attend several more international events, and the situation was exactly the same. There was no place for people who weren’t bilingual. Either because receiving a scholarship was one of the conditions of attendance, or because from the event’s conception, it was thought about in English. Some of you might think that, given this is an age-old colonial hangover, that people might just have to grin, bear it and learn English. The thing is, it’s just not that simple.

Illustration by Sabrina Gevaerd @sabrinagevaerd

Currently in Latin America and the Caribbean, 33.7% of people are living below the poverty line. This means that approximately a third of the population in my region do not make enough money to survive. How can we think that in this context, fluently learning a language other than one’s own is a possibility? To be clear, in order to participate in these events it is not only necessary to know the language, but also to deliver it with enough nuance that the message you are trying to convey is not just understood, but impactful. These voices, the ones of the most marginalised, are the ones that do not reach the international ‘table’. . And ironically it is these people precisely who are the most affected by the agreements that are negotiated in these spaces. 

Taking the climate crisis as an example, it is during the COPs where the world’s climate policy is debated. ‘How will the world mitigate and adapt to climate change?’ and ‘How will finances be mobilised on this issue?’ are just some of the major questions that are addressed -yet people from historically marginalised groups often don’t even make it to these spaces. Money for flights and accommodation, the ability to enter certain countries or  to secure a visa, and having two weeks at your disposal to attend a summit are resources that are not often at hand for people in the Global South. And yet, even if these voices do reach COPs, the language problem arises: how can people be expected to  raise their voices if they cannot speak in their native tongue? The answer is simple, they cannot. English is still the universal language currency. 

The fact that COP attendees need to understand and speak fluent English is essentially a form of Global North colonialism but just wearing a different hat. Charles Baldaias, a climate activist from Brazil, shows this clearly: “In our regions, being fluent in a language other than your mother tongue is highly unusual. I had to learn English all by myself, this while studying and working to make enough money to last me until the end of the month”.

A little over a year ago, I was organising a project with young activists from the LAC region. We spoke three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese. We did not have money for interpreters, so those of us who were bilingual provided rough translations. During a day of reflection, one of the participants highlighted a key point: the language barrier is another form of oppression and violence. In our effort to translate everyone’s words, we often oversimplified the message while translating. While this was partly due to the fact that we weren’t professional interpreters, it was also because we were failing to see the true value in delivering all the content of the message. In this way, we accidentally became gatekeepers of knowledge. Therefore, when a message needs to be translated, it is very important that it is done verbatim, with the utmost respect and attention. Professional interpretation, which is often overlooked when organising a project or event because of its high price, is key in the push for true inclusivity. But even if we can pay for this service, there are still limitations.

In this regard, I spoke with Ati Viviam Villafaña Izquierdo, a young climate activist from the Arhuaco community in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. 

“Language barriers are considered among the factors that hinder communication between actors and this is one of the great challenges when it comes to generating consensus between dissimilar worlds. Translation as a means of bringing them closer together and generating parallels, implies great challenges, since language draws possible worlds conditioned by individual and collective experience. Considering the above, when trying to have participation from Indigenous communities, even if interpretation services are in place, this does not suppose a substantial improvement in the efforts of being fully understood. Is there a concrete solution for this problem? Not directly, but being aware that differences exist and continuing to seek possible ways to bring them closer are efforts that must be made, especially in powerful participation scenarios.”

“Las barreras idiomáticas se consideran entre los factores que dificultan la comunicación entre actores y este es uno de los grandes desafíos a la hora de generar consensos entre mundos disímiles. La traducción como medio para acercarlos y generar paralelismos, implica grandes desafíos, ya que el lenguaje dibuja mundos posibles condicionados por la experiencia individual y colectiva. Teniendo en cuenta lo anterior, al pensar la participación de las comunidades indígenas si bien los servicios de interpretación son útiles, esto no supone una mejora sustancial en los esfuerzos de comprensión integral. ¿Existe una solución concreta para esta problemática? No directamente, pero ser conscientes de que las diferencias existen y seguir buscando vías posibles de acercarlos, son esfuerzos que hay que hacer, sobre todo en escenarios de participación poderosos.”

Trying to navigate a way forward

Although the international community is not particularly receptive to the conversation around language accessibility, there are spaces of resistance that are beginning to show us that it is possible to generate more inclusive environments.

In November last year I was part of the organising team of Building Bridges for Climate action, a project that sought to raise the voices of 25 young climate experts from Latin America and the Caribbean. This was done through a five week online program where participants shared their knowledge and experiences on the climate crisis with high level authorities, politicians, international organisations and other activists from the Global North. During these five weeks, there was interpretation available from English to Spanish and, on some occasions, from French and Portuguese.

Even though these languages are related to our colonial history, having interpretation allowed participants to express themselves in the language they wanted, and the usual requirement to “be fluent in English” was not necessary for them. Thanks to the amazing interpreters, we were able to hear the voices of young people who otherwise would not have been able to participate. While we  had our failures, I think it was a great first attempt at navigating this complicated path to linguistic inclusiveness. In addition to this, the young experts today continue their work within the framework of an organisation called Unite for Climate Action and some wonderful interpreters from Interpretandum are now donating hours of work so that in U4CA meetings there is simultaneous interpretation.

On this experience, I spoke to one of the climate experts that participated last year, Elenita Saes, a climate and anti-racist activist from Brazil.

“Being an activist in Brazil is almost an automatic process, you end up being, without even knowing what it is to be an activist, because the system simply imposes this condition on you. Every day you learn a different way to survive in a society that wants you to die.

We Brazilians are plural, minorities who are the majority and due to lack of opportunity or access, end up living an endless cycle of inequality. We have had centuries of struggles and revolution that need to be shared, but the language barrier completely hinders the dissemination of our ancestral experience and knowledge. I was recently part of a project, Building Bridges for Climate Action, and it made all the difference when it came to sharing our perspectives and experiences. It was one of the first times I really felt heard, especially as part of the only country that has the Portuguese language as an official language in Latin America.”

“Ser ativista no Brasil é quase um processo automático, você acaba sendo, sem ao menos saber o que é ser ativista, pois o sistema simplesmente te impõe essa condição. Todo dia você aprende uma maneira diferente para sobreviver em uma sociedade que quer sua morte. Nós brasileiros somos plurais, minorias que são maioria e por falta de oportunidade ou acesso, acaba vivendo um ciclo sem fim de desigualdade. Temos séculos de lutas e revolução que precisam ser compartilhados, e fariam toda diferença, mas a barreira linguística atrapalha completamente a disseminação de nossa vivência e saber ancestral. Recentemente fiz parte de um projeto, Construindo Pontes Pela Ação Climática, e fez toda diferença na hora de compartilhar nossas perspectivas e vivências. Foi uma das primeiras vezes que realmente me senti ouvida, principalmente fazendo parte do único país que possui a Língua Portuguesa como língua oficial na América Latina.”

Language is one of the tools at our disposal to conceptualise how we perceive the world. Reclaiming the right of people to express themselves in their mother tongue must be taken into account as one of the key components to achieve true inclusiveness in international decision-making spaces. We have to push so that the results of these conversations reflect the interests of all people, and not of the privileged few who can express themselves in English.

Illustration by Sabrina Gevaerd @sabrinagevaerd

See more of Sabrina’s work on instagram




What occupying a University building taught me about life Turning waste into beauty Artist Spotlights As a survivor, I need TV to do better Dismantling green colonialism in the belly of the beast The future is a promise that cannot be foreseen The future is a promise that cannot be foreseen Help, I feel depressed because my house is rotting. Can tech fix this? Rise of the war crime influencers Top surgery is just the beginning An old house, and the hole I’m in