Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lingua franca

I'm glad I was raised in English, because working in the scientific field is much more accommodating to Anglophones. Those who naturally speak another language typically have to learn English to work in the scientific field, even if they are in a country where everyone speaks a different language.

In my lab, general conversation goes on in German unless there is a particular reason to include me or one of the other native English-speakers. However, once a presentation is taking place, the default language becomes English. Everyone who works in the scientific field pretty much has to learn English to get by, and I guess I am just lucky that it is my mother tongue. Or unlucky, because while here it means there's less incentive to learn a different language, as I can mostly get by in English.

So I have mixed feelings. It makes a career as a scientist much easier from my end, but I feel like I got ahead without trying when compared to my international colleagues. And I may in fact be losing out on the benefits of learning another language, simply because additional languages always aids understanding of ideas and processes.

I also have to wonder why, exactly, English is the language of choice? Before coming to Germany I did not realize that there would be so much of a requirement for students and researchers to speak English. I remain quite surprised to keep finding so many people who speak English, when in a lab back home almost all other students are monolingual Anglophones. Perhaps the history of science with the British Royal Society? Or the American influence in science in the 20th century? Or just luck?

I seem to recall Dan Brown had some idea about English being the language of science, but I'm not going to go there. I hope to keep the conspiracy theories to a minimum, unless, of course, they are MY conspiracy theories.

Question of the day: If WWII or the Cold War had ended differently, would we all be learning German or Russian to work in science? Or French? Or Japanese?

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