Advancing transformations to more sustainable and equitable futures. Read more.

Unpacking language and power

“Una mañana colombiana, un grupo de gente hablaba del lenguaje, que es language y significa idioma. En fin, hablaban de hablar.” (Almendra Cremaschi, from a forthcoming ‘tiny book’)

This blog was written by Anna James and generated by the Living Aulas collective, June 2018.

At the Living Aulas in Colombia we took some time to translate – into as many languages as we could – the phrase “Research worthy of our longing”. This phrase was the title of a workshop facilitated by Injairu Kulundu and myself, using language, movement and the elements – earth, fire, water, air – to orient our research work. Kicking off with this short exercise in translation brought about an exciting discussion and explosion of new meaning.

Bringing together people from across the world, and therefore across language, is an important opportunity to work as planetary citizens in the struggle for deep and just sustainability. Part of gathering our similar interests is about working carefully and sensitively with what is different. Amongst those present at Living Aulas, in Quindio, Colombia, there were at least 15 languages known. In what follows I describe the collective exercise we did in order to explore our assumptions and expand our understandings of the phrase “Research Worthy of our Longing”. I drew on a language exercise that I had experienced in popular education circles in South Africa. The exercise begins with the translation of words relevant to the matter concerning those who have gathered, in this case, our research. I would like to acknowledge the contradiction of writing about this exercise in the language of English. However, I am unlucky to have had English as a mother tongue language and a school system that did not challenge me to learn another language seriously: maths was considered far more important.

Translation-inspired discussions of ‘research worthy of our longing’.

As a co-facilitator I was unable to get all the words down and remember every detail. What I present in the following is just the tip of the iceberg in an attempt to illustrate what the translations opened up.

One group decided they found the Spanish word ‘investigación’, the direct translation of ‘research’, was too technical a word for how they understood their research practice. The co-researchers and the researchers in the Colombian T-learning network also agreed that ‘investigación’ was often done for an institution or a grade and was not meaningful for oneself. They felt envious of the English word ‘research’ which implies something like you look… and then you look again (re-look). They were looking for a word that fitted better with the final part of the phrase “worthy of our longing” and put forward the word ‘escarbando’. ‘Escarbando’ holds the meaning of digging with one’s hands in the earth and can be used in the sense of searching within the soul. It immediately invokes the sense of connecting people with the earth which is the idea that connects members of the Colombian T-learning research network.

Exploring the concept of ‘worthy’ brought up questions of ‘worth’ and in particular, a tension between measurable worth and other forms of value. For example, we visited the idea of ‘valer la pena’ or ‘Merecedor’ which spoke to the ways our work involves pain and sacrifice. This could have been discussed further however, they might resonate with notions of being, deserving and merit.

In Dinka, a language of South Sudan, the translation of ‘longing’ is ‘Takda’. ‘Takda’ has a collective connotation to it reminding us of the tensions and resonances between individual and collective. The concept of longing brought up questions such as: Are we longing for something that was or for something that has not yet been realised? In addition, is longing ever achieved? Or are we working towards something that we will always be working towards? Perhaps it is the enactment of working towards longing rather than the fact of reaching the desirable point: home, hope, land? Instead it is about a desirable mode in which to be, to research, to dig.

Our discussion took us to interpretations and experiences beyond the direct translation of the original phrase (Research worthy of our longing). ‘Yumartan’, an indigenous concept from Colombia, carried the meaning of being and working inside and outside the system simultaneously. The researcher/change makers, hearing about the concept from the elders, illustrated it for themselves the inner and outer loop (see image above). This notion was a powerful one as, throughout Living Aulas, we continued to discuss the tension between alternatives and the structures that lock us into unsustainable ways of being.  Flowing from discussion came a small and powerful sentence  “The past is alive in our territory. Relation in time is not linear”.  This reminded us of the concept ‘Sankofa’, (see image below) a concept from Ghana that carries the meaning of something like ‘it is not taboo to go back and fetch what has been left behind’ and also suggests that we should walk into the future with the past at our side.

This exercise was followed by part of the workshop that took us beyond the spoken, written language. Using our bodies as language we made body sculptures of our research in pairs. We also took some time to explore our work by orienting ourselves between the four elements of earth, air, water and fire. Working with what is resourcing our research practice as it stands but also thinking carefully about what is missing, what is needed for its sustenance if it is going to continue to be worthy of its longing, to think about how to resource that. As can be seen in the experiences and concepts that emerged during the translation, the associations that come with our work are strenuous. This comes with research of this nature that is action-oriented and purposeful in its grappling. Here the idea of how to keep ourselves resourced and maintain balance was facilitated by what was driving us and what was missing in the language of the four elements.


Attempts to work with multiple languages are not only about translating for some exact meaning. It is about understanding the multiple interpretations, knowledges and ways of being that are offered across different languages. It is about reflecting on how meanings can change across language as well as how language is connected to power and domination. I asked some fellow Living Aula change-drivers for feedback on the workshop in terms of comments and critiques. One response was:

“It was like walking through different galaxies of what that concept meant. It lived in such a different way for me.”

This quote related to the way the act of translation not only expanded the concept’s meaning but brought different experiences to the concept “laminating the idea with stories of people from the world”.

One comment was that it was too short and we needed more time for “going deeper into the discussion that was gaining momentum and crying for depth”. This resonated with my own feeling that we should have perhaps entered into a deeper dialogue about the implications of these different languages and how they were or were not being used.

In my opinion we might have spent more time entering into the power that language wields and less time discovering new exciting meanings. Nevertheless, these reflections brought into the broader conversation an awareness of the tool of language. It provided a platform on which to meet each other with how we understood and located our work. It fostered reflections about how intentions can be misrepresented working across language in our research work. I think the exercise was referred back to once or twice later on in the Living Aulas sessions as a reference for interrogating the assumptions behind what learning or engagement spaces look, sound or feel like.

Given the fact that only a few languages dominate the ‘sustainability space’ and that our own international networks straddle many different languages, I thought we should harness this opportunity provided by the Living Aulas to experiment with working across language and I hope this sows a seed for learning-oriented sustainability actions in the future.

Postscript: The roots of this exercise that travelled from South Africa

There is not enough space but I feel it important to include the first time I got to understand the value of bringing translation into learning spaces. We have a particular challenge in this regard in South Africa, as English has been the historic colonial language of power and is maintained as such today. Given that English is the mother tongue of 10% of South Africans this has profound implications for the 90% of people living in the country who are often asked to work, research, learn in a language different from their home language. Neville Alexander1 argued, in the context of post-apartheid South Africa, that it can be seen that language is not separate from other axes but intersects with race, class, gender etc. The challenge of languages that hold power is not just a problem of exclusion or inclusion, it is also a problem of oppression and violence.

Thinking about transformative radical pedagogies in the context of teaching African History in Cape Town, South Africa, Benson et al. (2017) explain how different languages are an important part of realising such a learning space. They note it is about reaching to other languages “as resources and sites of knowledge in ways that are impossible if everything functions in English”. This is an important example of how powerful language can be challenged.


  1. Alexander, N. Language, power and class in post-apartheid South Africa, Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust open dialogue event, 27 October 2005, Cape Town


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *