Research globalisation and language matters

A few months ago, while waiting for a reception to begin, I was chatting to a young man who was registered as a PhD student in one of our universities and who was telling me with great energy and enthusiasm about his research topic. Or at least I think that is what he was doing, because to be honest, his English was not really fluent. He was enormously likeable, and in fact I am sure that his academic and intellectual credentials were impeccable, but his English was not.

Does this matter? Well, there is no doubt that we need to encourage the mobility of researchers, including those doing PhDs. We need to ensure that people have the opportunity to benefit from the exchange of information and ideas, and that they learn to work in international, multicultural teams. But what if there is no real common language? Should that be a barrier? Or perhaps we might also ask that if there is to be a shared language, can we always insist (or even expect) that it is English?

This question is likely to receive further attention as a result of the admission by the University of Derby that 60 per cent of its doctoral students fail to complete their their research and do not proceed to the degree. One of the reasons identified by the university for this state of affairs is that too many of their students do not have sufficient English language proficiency to complete the work.

In fact this has the potential to be a rather complex and sensitive topic, because wrapped up in the language issue there could be subtle points of a racist nature – which is what I am always tempted to expect when the Daily Telegraph climbs on to the bandwagon. But equally we have to take seriously the potential problems caused by an inability to communicate in the language of the research institution.

One unusual take on this issue that I came across recently was the suggestion by an Asian professor that English should be the accepted lingua franca of all global research, and that researchers simply needed to accept that they have to learn English. Is that fair, I asked. Research is a form of language anyway, he replied, and there is no point disseminating it in a form that cannot be read and therefore used and developed by the international community of scholars.

It’s an approach that makes me uneasy. But it may well win out. And maybe it should, I suppose. Perhaps.

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14 Comments on “Research globalisation and language matters”

  1. Andy Says:

    A very dear friend of mine had to ask me to proofread some essays for her. Being Singaporean, she also wrote in Singlish, with obvious consequences – a few years later, and having since taught British English, she writes more accurate English than I do!

  2. anna notaro Says:

    These are very complex issues, debated both in the media and in academic contexts, recently a BBC radio 4 programme aptly entitled ‘Word of Mouth’ (unfortunate not available on iPlayer anymore) investigated whether English is too dominant in academic work around the world by visiting universities in Sweden and asking staff and students how much they are able to debate, write and publish in their native language. Some honestly admitted that they couldn’t use Sweden for writing scientific papers anymore, they lacked the right ‘terminology’, (as a personal aside I’ll add that this is something I also experience, importantly though I’m not losing the ability to ‘read’ research published in my native language). Other academics though lamented what they considered the linguistic loss of Swedish used in an academic context.
    It might be useful to remember that the term lingua franca is not a modern one, brought about by the development of digital technologies (as some argue), it actually originated in the Mediterranean region in the Middle Ages among crusaders and traders of different language backgrounds. Languages are malleable, functional tools, this does not mean however that they are not exempt from politics and ideologies, the Roman and the British empire are excellent examples as far as the use of Latin or English are concerned. These days, as the post mentions, English seems to have become the dominant lingua franca of global research, personally I have a lot of sympathy for the Asian professor’s stance, ‘what is the point of research if it cannot be communicated?’ At this historical moment English serves the purpose, in the future it might be Mandarin, what matters is to retain and cultivate a multi-lingual proficiency adaptable to different contexts.
    When it comes to PhDs in particular, the issues involved regard the purpose and nature of the work, in other words the linguistic proficiency expected of an English literature thesis might be different from the one in a scientific subject, again what is important is to adapt the language to the purposes it needs to serve, i.e. communicating effectively while upholding and supporting (by not cutting academic writing skills services!) minimum standards of grammar and syntax.

    • Vincent Says:

      Within your comment Anna is a very dangerous series of assumptions. Why exactly is English better than Swedish or Mongolian. So what if the original concept was developed in English or Latin when what matters is that it be understood. And if they need to dream up some new word like that committee in Paris so be it.
      In this what’s very worrisome is that the Uni’s invited people to stand as candidates for PhD without any assessment of their capacity to communicate adequately within that language. And while I don’t know the stats, I expect 10% might be high for dropout/non-completion at that level. 60% is so far into Mrs Bracknell’s carelessness country that we shouldn’t even be discussing it.

      • Vincent Says:

        Ooops. I dropped Lady Bracknell a substantial number of ranks with my error in title. She would have been scandalized.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        I was not making a qualitative assessment, Vincent (English better than Swedish), there are very good reasons which explain why English is at the moment the lingua franca of global research, some relate to the fact that at the top of universities league tables you find anglophone institutions. As I hinted when I mentioned the empires of the past, languages are linked to issues of power, when it comes to academic power *for the time being* it still lies in the Harvards and Oxfords of this world.

        • Vincent Says:

          Yes, true enough as far as it goes. But I would contend that language while a method of delivering thought is in and of itself impinging on the process of that thought. And if we drift from accepting the power language of yesterday through todays into tomorrows with a blight lack of awareness that they are laying tracks within our minds. I hardly think a Doctorate in Philosophy is the correct recognition.


  3. “Why exactly is English better than Swedish or Mongolian?” Well I can think of one answer. Let’s have a vote. Here’s mine: 1. Esperanto, 2. English, 3. Chinese, 4. Spanish.

  4. jfryar Says:

    Academics in ye olde days had exactly the same problem. They solved it by writing everything in Latin as the universal language. All we’ve done is replace Latin with English.

    Why English? Off the top of my head: the TV, radio (yes, the radio), telephone, laser, computer, car, train, hovercraft, particle accelerator, nuclear reactor, jet engine, fibre optic, diabetes monitor, etc were invented in either the US or UK. Most of our theories are the result of US or UK scientists. Whether people like it or not, the legacy of invention and discovery is predominantly from the English speaking world.

    As a physicist I could go and have a paper translated into Swedish and it might be read by the four or five groups doing similar stuff. If I write it in English, it reaches a wider audience. Is it fair? Who cares. It’s not about political correctness but about disseminating information to the widest possible audience. And in science, the biggest player is the US. In a few years it might be China, in which case, we’ll all seek out Chinese collegues to do the translations for us!

    Is it fair on PhD students from non-English speaking nations? Of course not. But their option is to publish papers in their native language and have it read by two people. Until our computational linguistic experts build better translation machines, or we want to pay even more for journals to do the translations for us, we’re stuck with English for now.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      *Whether people like it or not, the legacy of invention and discovery is predominantly from the English speaking world.*

      sorry Jfrar but this is a bit of a generalization, to say the least…

      • jfryar Says:

        Anna, I’m specifically talking about science in the 20th century at a time when there was a massive expansion in the number of journals and when most of our modern technology was developed.

        The top two nations for Nobel Prizes are the US (270) and the UK (110). Germany, in third, has a rather meagre 76. So I stand by the point!šŸ™‚

  5. Ned Costello Says:

    @jfryar, I’m surprised that as a physicist you would assert the primacy of the UK and US so strongly. The geographical location of the technologies you mention might be correct, but is it not a little misleading given that twentieth century physics rests more firmly on the shoulders of Scandanavians and central and Eastern Europeans, albeit many of them forced emigres to the US? Enrico Fermi and CP1 springs to mind on relation to your nuclear reactor example.

    • jfryar Says:

      Ned, I think you’re taking the point I was making out of context. In the 20th century there has been one major powerhouse of technology, and that was the US. They spend more money, have had more people, have the best research infrastructure, have the best universities, publish more papers, and win more Nobel prizes. As for the primacy of the US – well I hold that truth to be self-evident.šŸ™‚

      You use the phrase CP1 to hide the fact Fermi’s reactor was built in Chicago. Why did he become president of the American Physical Society after the war and not head back to Rome? Because all the best people ended up in the US. Why did Niels Bohr go to Cambridge and Manchester universities for his postdoc? Because the best people, Tompson and Rutherford were there, not in Copenhagan. Why did Tesla become a US citizen?

      People around the world have made contributions to science, but the US was largely the sponsor in the 20th century. If you wanted to get your ideas across, you needed to get to the States. Hence we had European physicists treking across the Atlantic to give lectures in Princeton rather than Prague.


  6. “But I would contend that language while a method of delivering thought is in and of itself impinging on the process of that thought.”

    I thought that this idea, which I believe is common in the humanities, has been refuted through scientific research by the likes of Steven Pinker (MIT, USA – I think he’s a neuro-linguist or something like that).

    This is a practical problem. If I were giving advice to a colleague who spoke a minority language on which language to learn to access the most and best papers in e-Learning (which is the field from which I consume the most research), I would have to go against my vote above and suggest English as opposed to Esperanto.

    Now if it were post-modern philosophy, I would be unsure on whether to recommend French or English as the little I have read in English I have found to be unintelligible. (Although the Physycist Sokal suggests that this is no impediment to getting published in that domain)


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