Bad English is the lingua franca of science
It is often said that mathematics is the universal language of science.* Indeed, it is thought that if we are ever able to make contact with extraterrestrial lifeforms, this will be best communicated in the form of mathematics. But what about when it comes to scientists here on Earth actually, if reluctantly, using words themselves? Writing and speaking? Before even getting in to the question of the academic style of writing and presentations, with debates over the use of the passive voice, jargon, and comic sans, we must consider the umbrella question of what language to use in the first place.
English, worldwide, is becoming the lingua franca of science, as well as in other fields, such as business (provocation: is science just a subset of business?). Indeed, research shows that non-English-language publications of scientific research have trouble reaching their target audiences in any significant fashion. This very same mechanism caused a considerable delay in the spread of the Russian psychologist Pavlov’s now famous work on conditioning in dogs, putting back the development of behaviourism by several years. With English set to dominate the world’s conversations in the 21st century, albeit in a complex way (pdf), it is no surprise to find journals such as Angewandte Chemie (“Applied Chemistry” in German) now publishing in English, despite the historical dominance of Germans in that field.
Some hope for multilingualism in science may yet be found. A 2010 study concluded that linguistic difficulties were less of a problem than methodological issues in medical papers submitted to English-language journals by Italian researchers. Yet this still suggests the process of publication is slowed by language, and serves as a reminder that language plays a key role in science communication. For instance, there is an undeniable trend worldwide for Universities to increasingly offer postgraduate courses in English, in order to attract foreign students, mostly from countries where English is not the first language. The rise of this global second language seems inexorable.
In my brief career in science so far, I have had the opportunity to discuss this question with as many people for whom English is not a foreign language, as those for whom it is.
I would love to be able to tell you that this was due to my spending loads of time during my years as an undergraduate at the University of Bath. Unfortunately, despite its student body being about 25% “non-UK” , I spent the vast majority of my time at Bath with Brits, trying to wrestle my ears around West Country and Welsh accents, whilst shielding my eyes from what little sun was being reflected by the sheer pasty whiteness of everyone around. This was not through lack of trying; but “internationals” tend to stick together, especially when there are lots of them from a single country.
I am equally guilty of this from the other side. I saw this phenomenon of foreign students clumping together, and not integrating with their local counterparts at all, during my study year abroad in Germany. Although, for my part, I made an effort to make friends, it was clear that I could have survived just as well without speaking a word of German, nevermind Pfälzisch.
However, despite the huge number of Spaniards (who seem to be the dominant national group on Erasmus programmes everywhere), some English was inevitably spoken at the occasional (cough) Erasmus parties. It was fascinating to me to find that the Spanish, Ukrainians and Turks could understand each other better than they could understand me, with my slightly posh, received pronunciation, BBCesque, non-geographical “OMG you’re Briddish? That’s so cute!” accent, let alone the Americans.
It seemed that the lingua franca was not English. Rather, it was Bad English.** Because they were all making the same mistakes, their departure from “correct” speech was not a problem, because they were still using the same code. This led to me to realise that, beyond a certain threshold, if I can’t understand what a foreigner is saying, it’s just as likely to be because my English isn’t good enough, either. Communication is not a one-way process.
In my current position at CERN, this phenomenon is all the more obvious. My office mates and immediate corridor neighbours include: 1 German, 2 Italians, 2 Portugueseseses, 1 Norwegian, 2 Brits (including me), 1 Swiss and 1 Dutch. Next week, we will be welcoming a Greek and a Spaniard to the team. Even before getting into meetings, emails and documents, saying “hello” of a morning gets confusing enough.
It is also quaint to notice how people with different accents pronounce the very name of our organization. give-or-take the “urr” versus “air” versions of “ER”, speakers of both of CERN’s official languages – namely, English and French – pronounce it roughly the same (at least, to my, but I might be biased). Certainly, it is easily identifiable as the same word. But where it gets interesting is with the letter C in CERN, which doesn’t even stand for anything any more.
Germans, for instance, use a Z and say “tsairn”. Italians go for a hard “ch” sound and roll the R slightly (“chaiRn”). Spaniards have a soft “th” sound, as in the word “theory”, which sounds to me to be most of the way to an “f” sound – “f/thairn”. With a Dutch akshent, it can shound like “shurn”. Of course, it is this very diversity which makes CERN’s strength. But it can take a little getting used to.
The communication materials I am involved in creating and editing (also known as “stuff I help write”) at work have to reflect this. It’s all well and good being able to write well for native speakers of a language, but even that requires making assumptions about one’s audience, such as reading level, and what counts as jargon or not. Writing well for a foreign audience is even trickier.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very cosmopolitan environment. I have also taught English, French and German to children in both formal (ie school) and informal (ie summer camp) situations. Although this is anecdotal, it seems to me that of the three, English is the much harder language to learn. Being such a hybrid language, it is difficult to classify whether it is truly Germanic or Romantic, and it is tricky to think of a biological analogy for the phenomenon that is English in the metaphor of the evolution of language.
So there is clearly nothing inherent to the English language itself that makes it so widespread. Where, then does this ubiquity come from? The British Empire, and subsequent American globalisation, seem like obvious candidates, but that’s just a guess.
*This post contains a chunk of my final year project, which was about the effect of bilingualism in scientific thought. Can you tell which bits? I’m certainly not entirely happy with the sudden change in style about a third of the way in, but I wonder whether anyone else will notice/mind.]
** When I use the term “Bad English” (capital “B”), I’m being intentionally provocative, to get people to think about how they use English and what they may take for granted when communicating science. Perhaps I should have explained that better in the first place. To be clear: I am making no value judgement about the ideas being expressed by those using “Bad” English. Indeed, I would guess that most of the best ideas humanity has these days are not in “Proper” English, whatever that even is. I have huge respect for anyone using a foreign language on a daily basis and I know how difficult can be. [This footnote was triggered by Jess, who tweeted: "I wouldn't call it "bad English"-- language always changing, it's adapting to the given situation. Happens a lot." - I will write more soon about how language evolves and adapts over time.]