Psycho Babble

No English, No Career?

The new lingua franca of science

By Jessica Love | May 23, 2013


The academic profession has taken quite a bit of heat of late. Just don’t do your PhD, one regretful graduate advises. The jobs aren’t there, says The Washington Post. Don’t be a disposable academic, the Economist tells us. Meanwhile, thanks to sequestration, already dismal grant funding rates at agencies like the National Institutes of Health are even lower. It is not, in short, a promising time to begin an academic career.

But one group of unheralded young scholars has it even harder: non-native English speakers. They’ve entered a profession that is increasingly reliant on publishing, teaching, and even thinking in English. The trend is exacerbated in the sciences. According to a review by linguist Ranier Enrique Hamel, the percentage of scientific publications written in English skyrocketed from 36 percent in 1880 to 64 percent a century later. In the natural sciences, numbers are even higher: 75 percent of publications were written in English in 1980; by 1996 it was 91 percent. It is unlikely that the trend has reversed itself. Top-ranked journals such as Science, Nature, and Cell are still every bit as English as their titles would suggest. Science, it seems, requires a lingua franca, and English is currently it.

I asked five young scientists, born elsewhere but now living in the United States, whether they thought being a non-native English speaker had affected their careers. The pages I received in response can be boiled down to, well, yes.

Zhenghan Qi, a postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, tells me that “absolutely, non-native status is the most difficult barrier” she must overcome in order to make it as a researcher—a barrier that affects nearly every aspect of her research. As a result of being a slower reader in English than in her native Mandarin, she feels guilty for not having read, and therefore learned, more about her chosen field.

Speed is a common concern. A doctoral student from Korea, whom I will call S, explains that it takes her far more time to read, write, and prepare materials than it would take a native speaker. The result? “Sleep deprivation.”

Insecurity reigns. Frank Kanayet, a graduating PhD and native speaker of Spanish, is sometimes afflicted with “an uncomfortable feeling of inadequacy” when he speaks to students or colleagues. Qi is hyperconscious of every error she makes while speaking. Before presenting their research, M—a recent PhD from Turkey—and S memorize their slides and talking points. Says M, “I don’t want to be spontaneous.”

Both Qi and Kanayet mention that playful or figurative language gives them the most trouble: sarcasm, humor, metaphor. “Writing is a nightmare,” agrees M. “Not getting the words out, but polishing to make it cool. I think it is not a coincidence that my favorite section is Methods—no room for creativity!” (Anecdotally, in some fields like engineering, English itself seems to be changing in response to the influx of non-native researchers, with journals adopting an overall more formulaic style.)

Another quirk to master: arguments themselves are constructed differently in English than in other languages. “In Spanish, it is much more typical to talk around the topic and only get to the point by the end of the text, whereas in English there is a bigger pressure to put the topic right up front and then make the arguments after the fact,” says Kanayet. S notes something similar: “English writing is extremely deductive—you put the topic sentence at the beginning and your supporting evidence follows. … In East Asia the order is opposite. You need to read the whole thing” before the thesis is revealed.

Finally, and most disturbingly, conducting research solely in a non-native language can leave scientists—even ones who are by all accounts smart and successful—feeling as though their very thoughts are at risk. Says S, “you start ‘thinking’ in English. All terms are in English and you talk about your research in English. If your English is still not fluent enough, it means that you don’t have great tools to think.” Qi worries she is gradually losing her “vocabulary” for creative expression. It’s not that she fears not knowing how to express herself in English; it’s that she fears not being able to express herself—snappily, thoughtfully, eloquently—at all.

Only one of the scientists I contacted—Joachim Vandekerckhove, a native of Belgium and an assistant professor at University of California, Irvine—argues that the language barrier has not personally affected him. He even offers an upside to his non-native status: “access to a tiny but possibly relevant literature” that has never been translated into English.

But Vandekerckhove is the first to attribute his success to his fluency. “I doubt I would be where I am now if I struggled with English,” he says. It was a dislike or fear of English that discouraged some of his former classmates from pursuing their master’s degrees.

Indeed, I am learning, scientific instruction is increasingly occurring only in English—even when instructors and students share a common, different tongue. What, I wonder, is lost when an entire language is cut off from the scientific process?

I ask this from a position of astonishing privilege. As a psycholinguist I know a lot about languages. But despite my five years of Spanish, I remain firmly in the monolingual camp—the right monolingual camp, as luck would have it. Would I have had the ability or the gumption to pursue a doctorate in psycholinguistics—against the much-ballyhooed odds—had the language of instruction been Spanish? Mandarin?

How to put this? Probably not.

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