Non-anglophone scientists and English

We often hear “English is the international language of science”. I’ve wondered what exactly that means. Would a scientist in Brussels or Tokyo only speak and read English at work? How much does the use of English differ in different fields? Can you work as a scientist without knowing any English?

As strange as it may seem to some people, when learning a foreign language, technical writing is usually one of the easiest things to learn, with vernacular the most difficult. Technical writing may use a lot of “big words”, but these usually have very precise meanings that have direct equivalents from language to language. Often, the words are the same or very similar. Sentence structures in technical writing is often very repetitive, with some idioms used over and over again. Furthermore, in many fields, most of the meat in a research paper is in the form of mathematical equations, or charts.

All this to say that there is a very large number of scientists who have absolutely no problem reading and writing papers in English but who are nevertheless almost completely incapable of having an every day conversation in English.

I know several Japanese researchers who regularly write papers in English and attend conferences all over the world, and who, in some cases, have actually translated English works in Japanese. Some of them will prefer having an interpreter around if one is available. Their speaking/listening skills are just not that good.

In labs and workplaces that have more international teams, English does tend to be used in daily speech, although you’ll rarely if ever have two Japanese scientists converse in English if no one else is around.

In most fields you need to at least be able to read English, since a very large percentage of research is published in that language. If you want to get your papers published in major international journals, it’s best to write them in English. (Although some journals may accept French, Spanish, Portuguese, or German it’s rare to see these in many fields.) In general, you don’t need to be able to speak or understand spoken English, unless you want to attend international conferences.

It also helps that most countries use the SI measurement system, which makes the math part of the communication more consistent (yes, even the US has adopted SI/Metric, we just refuse to give up our miles and pounds because we’re thick-headed like that. If you don’t believe me, look at the rulers we’ve been using in school since I was a tot.)

Fun trivia on the side, English is also the global language of aviation, for the simple reason that it was safer if everyone flying around in the sky and in the towers on the ground trying to help them take off and land were speaking the same language. As to why English? I guess we had a bigger army (or Air Force, in this case). From what I understand, it is also used as a global trade language for reasons of practicality, and due to reasons that I’m sure have their roots in socio-political and economic things related to the British Empire.

I’d say that there is absolutely no way you can be a scientist without a more ore less thorough working knowledge of English. You wouldn’t even be able to enter university these days.

In the 19th and the early 20th century, everybody who took up the academic study of chemistry anywhere in the world had to learn German first (because all the journals were published in German). So things change over time.

:confused: In Spain at least, you would. It’s rare to meet someone who hasn’t chosen English as one of his second languages, but they do exist. Having a not-official-in-Spain language is a requirement, but that one of them be English is not.

Everyday work is done in whatever language is appropriate for the team: my research teams in the US worked mostly in English, but if the only people present were Hispanics we’d switch to Spanish; another team was almost-completely Chinese and that’s what they talked in all the time - the language used isn’t dependent on location, but on which languages the people present speak and on whether they consider it rude to speak a language someone present doesn’t understand. I’ve been in other international teams which switched between German, English and Spanish depending on who was speaking with whom, or where conversations were in Spanish but any documents had to be produced in English (including emails “Re. Party at our house on Friday”).

I assume there are good science textbooks in any of about a dozen languages (the dozen which are the most common native languages of scientists) up to (approximately) the early years of college. After that it’s hit and miss. If you want to be a high school science teacher, you can get by without knowing any English as long as you know one of those dozen languages. By the time you’re in grad school though, you need to know some English (and perhaps some other languages). You only need to know how to read technical papers in English though. Even in English-speaking countries, it’s standard to require any Ph.D. candidate to have a reading knowledge (for technical papers) of one or two other languages.

If you’re working at a laboratory with other scientists who speak your language natively, of course you speak that language with them. Occasionally you might have to use a technical term in English (or perhaps in one of the other dozen common languages that textbooks are written in) because there’s no standard translation for the term. Occasionally you will have to read a technical paper in English. Occasionally you will have to prepare a talk for a conference in English. I suspect that a lot of talks at conferences outside of English-speaking countries consist of the presenters flashing PowerPoint slides at the audiences which more or less make their point in English while speaking incomprehensible English as they talk to an audience that doesn’t understand much more English than they do. I presume that when you write a paper for a journal, you give your badly written draft to an editor at your university or company who rewrites it in acceptable English, and then you submit it to the journal where an editor does further rewriting.

The American university system depends very heavily on selling books, since they’re sold by the college itself. Spanish schools (or schools in Scotland, to name a third data point) do not; most of the “books” myself and my bros had available for purchase were self-published by the students’ union so of course in the local languages (the student’s union being our main source of books); both in Spain and in Scotland, any published book that’s in the list for a given class will be available in the university’s library. I actually got and used a book (published or from the union) for less than 10% of my college courses, and those published books which were recommended for purchase were so “only if you expect to specialize in this field” - they weren’t so much textbooks as reference books (the CRC of Chemistry and Physics, for example).

Not at all; neither universities nor private companies have any kind of editors. The person writing the paper is either the author whose English is best or, if the boss is too proud to accept that an underling’s English is better than his, the boss; when none of the authors can write in English and that’s the language the article needs to be in, they send it to a translator (who too often doesn’t understand the subject and massacres it, but that’s a rant for another day).

International conferences will usually have a quite specific notification that the language of the conference is English. Even when it is held in a non-English speaking country the locals will attend and deliver their papers in English. It can be excruciating for all concerned, but that is the way it is. National or regional conferences won’t bother so much, but you will still often find that published proceedings are in English. Especially if you want anyone to take any notice - and if you want your citation numbers to be anything other than zero, you have no choice. Many areas of science are parochial (even if they shouldn’t be) and not publishing in English pretty much assures you that neither you nor your work will never receive any notice.

This is more about what it means for the language of science to be English. Science isn’t what you get taught at university. You get taught how to do science, and you get taught scientific knowledge. In grad school you start to do science, because you have been taught enough to do so. When you finish grad school you have learnt enough (we hope) to do science for yourself. Science is a process, it is what you do. It is research, peer review, and dissemination of results. When you do that, peer review and dissemination is done in English.

In my field (Biblical Studies) essentially all publications are in English, German, or French. Scholars are expected to have a basic reading knowledge of those three languages (enough to read a text using a dictionary).

A friend of mine spent a sabbatical at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. He already spoke Norwegian (he is originally from Northfield, MN, where everyone does) and had little trouble picking up Danish. But he was sitting in on a seminar that another American was also sitting in on. But the other guy always came late. So the lectures always began in Danish and, the instant the other American arrived, the speaker switched smoothly into English.

So yes, virtually all papers are written in English. All papers that want serious distribution anyway. I can think of only one major exception. When a native German who’s a professor at Princeton proved an important conjecture that was at least 70 years old (Mordell’s conjecture), he published it in German.

But of course, when at home, they speak their own native language to each other. But I have lectured in countries all the world. In English. I have also lectured in French, but only because I could. And I cannot carry on an ordinary conversation in French.

What about graduate school though? I know in Japan, you can’t get into a science MS or Ph.D program without passing an English test.

Also, “textbooks” in specialized fields are usually in English. Most research papers are published in English, even in non-English speaking countries. International conferences are in English. So it’s impossible to get an advanced science degree without a basic ability to read/write in English. (Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can converse freely in English.)

OK, let me rephrase the long paragraph:

textbooks were not required in my college (ChemE), nor in my brothers’ colleges (Business School and MechE); they were required in my sister in law’s college but, being medical school, they were all in Spanish. When textbooks aren’t required, what language are textbooks available in is as relevant as the amount of hairs in Mariano Rajoy’s beard.
As for graduate school, no, English is not a requirement. Many don’t even require a foreign language per se, although one (or more) is often a requirement for getting the previous degree. Often, not always; my college required 2 languages since 1954, and made English one of them compulsorily in the mid-1980s, but many other schools don’t require, even now, a foreign language to get a degree. That doesn’t mean you don’t need English to work at that level, but it’s not an academic requirement; it falls under the búscate la vida listings (“you need to figure this out on your own, the school won’t do it for you”).

Nava writes:

> Not at all; neither universities nor private companies have any kind of editors.

Thanks, Nava. I’m surprised to learn this. It sure would make more sense if they did get some English editors though. (I know that in federal government agencies in the U.S. anything that goes outside your own office gets edited, sometimes at several levels.) Recently I had to read a paper which I finally realized wasn’t a published paper at all but the transcript of a talk at a conference. The authors barely understood English. I suspect that the audience (who mostly weren’t native English speakers either) understood nothing of the talk except the vague ideas in the PowerPoint presentation. If that talk ever gets published, the editors of the journal are going to have to do some major editing on it.

This really is not true, either of what the word “science” means today, or of what it has meant traditionally. “Science” is simply an Englished version of the Latin scientia, which simply meant (well established) knowledge. It is still very commonly used today to mean knowledge (usually, but not always, knowledge of some aspect of the natural world). Thus from both a descriptivist and a prescriptivist perspective, “science” means knowledge, and it is indeed what you get taught as an undergraduate at university, and even at high school.

The use of the word “science” to mean the process and methodology through which certain sorts of knowledge (particularly of the natural world) are acquired is much more recent, probably not dating back much before the mid nineteenth century. (The old word for this process, incidentally, was “philosophy”, which is why people like Newton, Galileo, Lavoisier and Dalton called themselves philosophers. They would not have understood the notion of “doing” science, and would not have called themselves scientists: that word was not even coined until about 1840.) Of course it is now common, and certainly not wrong, to use “science” to mean the process and methodology of research, but there is no justification for thinking that this new meaning of the word should trump the old one, which is still in very widespread use itself (including amongst scientists).

I would humbly disagree in that in terms of the OP this is exactly what science means. I do agree that the more traditional form of the word remains, but increasingly scientists are leaning toward the more modern version. The loss of the term philosopher as scientist is precisely why the term’s use had changed. We see a lot of discussion about such things as “what science tells us” and “science works” neither of which work if you only adopt the traditional use of the word. This is especially true of “what science tells us” which is a subtle but critical difference. It is also worth noting that the modern understanding of science even is, is only about a hundred years old. Maybe a different word should have been chosen to name the current process of science, but there was no different word chosen.

FWIW, I spent some time teaching English in Japan and many of my students were engineers at the local chemical plant. A number of them told me that they were interested in improving their English so they could more easily talk to other engineers at international conferences or with foreign engineers in their own company. I was told that these foreign engineers were actually mostly Germans, so English was being used as a lingua franca.

The editors of academic journals don’t rewrite articles. At least, they don’t in the US and I’ve never heard that they do anywhere else in the world. If the peer-reviewers think the article needs to be rewritten then the editor can send it back to the original author(s) for revision (I’ve been on both sides of this), but neither the editor nor the reviewers would normally revise the article themselves.

Thanks, Lamia. Again, I’m surprised to learn this. What does a journal editor do if some scientists whose English is terrible submit a paper that’s a ground-breaking discovery but which is so terribly written that it’s nearly unreadable? Do they just send it back and tell the authors, “Rewrite this yourself. It’s important but unreadable. It’s your job to get it into shape”? Wouldn’t the authors be tempted to submit it to another journal?

My partner is involved in helping edit maths journals and may sometimes suggest better phrasing, etc. for some of the foreign submissions - but the authors don’t always agree that her version is better and refuse to amend it.
As I understand it, if the referee of the paper thinks it’s understandable anyway, they’ll accept it, if not, they’ll reject it but suggest a re-write might be acepted.

It may be the meaning most relevant to the OP (and I have no objection to you, or anyone, using it in that sense in this context), but it is certainly not, as you asserted, the only, or primary, correct meaning of the word “science”.

I am pretty sure that scientists, like other people, commonly use the word in both its senses. In any case, scientists do not get to decree who what a word (a non-technical word in general circulation) should mean to English speakers as a whole.

Yes they do. I would venture to say that these phrases are used to mean “established knowledge that we can find in scientific texts”, and “the application of scientific knowledge is effective”, more often then they are used to mean “this is what the scientific research process tells us” or “the scientific research process is effective”. In most circumstances, if someone wants to know “what science tells us” about something, they look it up in a suitable text; only rarely do they hurry off to the lab to do some new research.

That is a pretty radical claim. Are you asserting that people like Planck, or Liebig, or Berzelius, or Kelvin, or Darwin come to that, were not really doing science in the modern sense of the word?

I am not saying we need a different word. I am just challenging your claim that the use of the word to mean the research process is its only proper use. That cannot be justified either in terms of current usage or history.