Languages of science

Special report : science career issues and alternative jobs for scientists : Naturejobs

“The nervous Japanese postdoc spent two weeks creating slides, 30 hours drafting a script and 44 hours rehearsing. Altogether, she spent one month away from the bench so that she would not disappoint her supervisors and colleagues during a short informal presentation, in English, before co-workers. Yet they remembered only the mistakes, she says.

Seasoned scientists also feel under pressure when speaking in English. Masahiko Takada at the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute for Neuroscience admits that, even after years of working in English, “I sometimes feel frustrated when I have to discuss research data with foreign scientists.”

Language mastery, be it of one’s native or adopted tongue, provides the communicative ease that says: “I am capable.” In science, weak English hinders a successful career. Improve your English proficiency, and confidence will follow — or so the people of many non-English-speaking nations believe.

Concerns about the dominance of the English language in science are being raised around the world. Researchers in Germany and France, for example, are grumbling about the frustration of working and publishing in English — and, perhaps more surprisingly, so are those in nations that have typically been viewed as consumers of basic science, rather than contributors."

So writes Bonnie Lee La Madeleine of the RIKEN Brain Research Institute. Read the rest of this special report on the Nature website (subscription or site licence required).

Please let us know your own experiences and views, via the comments to this post.


  1. Report this comment

    R. Mocikat, W. Thielmann and K. Ehlich said:

    Lost in translation – or worse

    In response to the Special Report “Lost in Translation” (Nature 445, 454; 2007) that addresses concerns raised in non-English-speaking countries about the dominance of the English language in science, we would like to share with your readers some observations concerning – and putting into a larger context – the recent situation in Germany.

    In Germany, English is no longer just used for international publications. In many disciplines, English is also used in internal meetings among – exclusively German – scientists, in their everyday conversation, and, increasingly, by science administration. German is pushed back to an extent where foreign scientists are often actively discouraged by their supervisors from learning the language of their host country, even though they have been staying there for many years. This loss of its scientific variety is eroding the German language with major consequences for intra-societal science transfer, as Germans are about to lose the capability of rendering reality in their own words.

    Is there any rationale to these counterproductive processes? We believe there is. Institutions such as the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and university administrations also think in economic terms, and are highly influenced by “globalisation” discourse. Administrators who see themselves as reformers try to force universities into the conceptual and organisational framework of neoliberalism, and consider linguistic uniformity as a prerequisite for the advancement of science.

    These advocates of “economic rationalism” and its monocultures know very little about the crucial role language plays in science. Language is one of the most powerful devices and resources for constituting new knowledge. Thought is formed by language, as language is formed by thought. Hence, the development of science did not only coincide with, but was also considerably fostered by, plurilingualism: Scientists such as Galileo, Newton and Lagrange abandoned scholarly Latin, the universal language of Scholasticism, in favour of their respective vernacular. They did so because scientists not only have to find words for new ideas, they also need language for heuristic reasons – purposes that require ordinary language. Ordinary language is science’s prime resource. To tap this resource, science became plurilingual.

    The re-introduction of linguistic monoculture will throw global science back to the days of Scholasticism. Many German scientists seem to believe, that the lingua franca they use to share their findings with the international scientific community can also serve as a tool for constituting new knowledge in their own laboratories. However, this lingua franca is no tool for innovation, but a hindrance to new insights and an impediment to the advancement of science in Germany. The German situation is but one example of how the variety of intellectual approaches is being damaged by the attrition of scientific languages beyond American English.

    Ralph Mocikat, Arbeitskreis Deutsch als Wissenschaftssprache (ADAWIS), Frühlingstr. 28, 82131 Gauting, Germany

    Winfried Thielmann and Konrad Ehlich, Institut für Deutsch als Fremdsprache / Transnationale Germanistik, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Ludwigstr. 27, 80539 München, Germany

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    Andrew Davis said:

    Dear Colleagues,

    Two points on this topic.

    First, the English used for scientific communication is not the native language of anyone. It is a distinct variety. Speaking or writing a native English variety to the international scientific audience irritates our colleagues by its arrogance and makes communication harder not easier. (In Japan and elsewhere, i’ve often had to deflect the annoyance of colleagues faced with a native Englsh speaker who speaks to them as if they were, for example only, also culturally from deepest London or Sydney).

    Second, science may be communicated in English but it is not carried out, dreamed, or imagined in English but in languages closer to the real life of our scientific colleagues. I have seen in several non-English speaking countries the varied negative effects on science of trying to make science entirely English. Enforced use of English alone in work groups or for internal discussions separates science from the scientists’ real life.

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