Tuesday, November 03, 2009

English at Work

The language of science in the west is English. (I specify west because there are more Chinese-language journals in the world than English-language journals.) About 95% of the articles published in my department are written in English. The proportion of English-language conference presentations given by my colleagues is probably the same. They can go to conferences in Japan, in France, in Finland....they are in English, English, and English. You can't go into science anymore and expect a certain level of success without knowledge of English. I didn't make it this way, it just is this way. I'm not being an arrogant native English speaker. I am only describing the state of things as they are. It just happens to be lucky for me that the language of science is my native language. Imagine what would happen to scientific progress if it were carried out only in the languages of the home countries, no communication between countries, no international collaboration.

As a result, science departments and labs all across Europe, usually filled with scientists from countries on every continent, conduct their seminars in English. The works are written in English, presented at conferences in English, the scientists in the departments and labs have mixed levels of knowledge of the local languages, and it's good practice to talk about the topics in the same language in which they are written and internationally presented. There are several terms in epidemiology for which many German epidemiologists barely know the German equivalent - the English is used.

My department is an exception. We have students from all over the world - MANY from China, and also representation from other Asian and African countries, not to mention me, so we are like other science labs and departments in that regard. But we also have a strong team of documentalists who aid in research and in many cases do not need to know much English. They all know quite a lot of it, but don't need it. So when it came to vote one day before I joined the department - should our department seminars be conducted in English only like so many other places are doing? - this didn't pass my department. Seminars are conducted in either English or German, the preference of the speaker - as long as slides are in English. They let it slip if they're not.

Imagine you got here from China a week ago. You have to work really hard to bone up on your English to write those 7 articles you'll have to get out over the next two years so you can get a job after your PhD. You took a quick German class in your minuscule bit of spare time before you arrived. Now you're in a warm, crowded room with the lights dimmed listening to your department seminar - you're supposed to be grasping this stuff - and it's all in German. Yeah, you're getting sleepy.

Many students from countries where English is not the native language already have to spend inordinate amounts of time on their English to survive in science and I think we ought to cut them some slack if their German is not up to snuff. If my English was sketchy and I moved to Germany to complete a PhD in two years, you can bet I'm not going to have a lot of free time to become some kind of German expert, when I know that English can get me by long enough to get my degree.

So I just wanted to say I think people are being dicks when they make unqualified comments like "When you are in country X you have to speak X-ese." Yeah. Next time you take vacation in Slovenia, hope you've spent years getting fluent in Slovene. If you visit the Faroe Islands, hope you boned up on months and months of Faroese. If you go to a conference in Japan, hope you know Japanese.

Cut people some fucking slack.

And I think the seminars should be in English. The documentalists never have to present anyway. They are the ones who make this "you should speak German in Germany" type of comment and they are the ones who send out department-wide emails in German only and write at the end "it would be nice if someone would translate this for the non-German speakers" (yeah, it would be nice, thanks for looking into that before sending it off to some poor Hungarian who just got here a month ago and doesn't even know the word for 'fire' yet) and they are the ones who make Betriebsausflug (work field trip) plans with the intention to exclude non-German speakers from some of the activities. Get with the times - at least a third of your department is now made up of foreigners who, for at least the duration of their training, have to focus on their English to survive, and that number is increasing quickly year by year. Excluding them just means Germany pays the money to help educate them (depending on their funding source, yes) and then they feel pushed away and don't stick around.


  1. Twice in the last month someone has said to me:We speak X here, This is X-land.

    Once in Barcelona, while I was trying to pick up a latte for Diana. The funny part there is- who would expect that type of reaction in a Starbucks? Also, I can understand a bit of Spanish, but frankly, expecting me to pick up Catalan in a day is a bit much. As I pointed out to the person who said that to me, the German, English, Frank, smattering of Spanish and Italian I know should really get me by in an American coffee place in Spain for the 36 hours I was visiting the country.
    The other time was here- a vocalization of an attitude I always get from the Beamted who exude disaffection, not the several nice ones I have dealt with- the majority , though.
    I am also grateful that English is the language of business and science because it really is one of the easiest languages around.

  2. I am also grateful that English is the language of business and science because it really is one of the easiest languages around.

    I'm sorry, I can't let that one go. Please cite some sources — your own research or others' would be fine.

  3. I'm reading this before I go to another planning meeting for the "Scientific English Writing Lab" I'm helping instruct. Guess which students comprise my class? Mostly native-speaking Germans. I believe one reason is the fact that our Uni actually does do all the upper seminars in English, especially the Allgemeinmedizin department.

    However, this is not to say they are who my other 2 instructors expected to sign up for the class. I heard a lot of negativity from them about certain international student groups while we were waiting for the Teilnehmer list to come in. There was visible surprise when they realized almost everybody was a native German speaker. I was inwardly shaking my head.

  4. G: Expecting a tourist to speak a local language is pretty crazy. :/ Catalan, seriously?! Now I can put off going to Barcelona even longer (I was just coming off the 1-2 years I put it off after a German friend got systematically robbed by people who were operating the place where she stayed).

    Cliff: It wasn't my comment to respond to but English is often regarded as easy because it lacks genders, formal/familiar, relatively not-complex grammar, mistakes often are still very understandable, and is all over media in many places in the world for general background absorption. But looking around the internet you also get tons of hits saying its hard to learn because of spelling/non-obvious pronunciations and gigantic vocabulary. Can there really be one universal measure of how easy a language is, considering how many native languages learners would be coming from? Probably not.
    Damon does have anecdotal evidence that English is easier than German at least...people coming to his lab from other languages (not Eng/Ger) come in speaking equal levels of both languages, and end up progressing in English while stalling in German, even though they're actually in Germany in a lab where more than half speaking German around the lab. Some say English is easy to progress in right away and harder later, whereas those of us who have tried know the hump in German comes relatively early (end of Grundstufe/start of Mittelstufe). Of course their quicker English progress could also be for the same reasons I mentioned in my post, which is that these students coming in have a very real need to focus on their English for publications, conferences, etc. and German understandably falls by the wayside.

    Juliette: I admit this post was partly driven by starting to get really distressed at how some foreign student friends of mine have recently been treated at work (not just my workplace, others as well). :( I hate seemingly-unfounded bad attitudes toward foreigners; unfortunately, I'm not sure these attitudes can be escaped in any country in the world.

  5. Gosh Cliff- I didn't cite any sources because this was my opinion. If I had wanted to base this on a study, I would have cited the study. Colloquially, the Israelis, Italians, French, Egyptians, (native) Turkish, Croatians and Poles with whom I have taken German courses all consider English the easiest language that they have learned. They consider Polish one of the most difficult and German quite hard (although not as hard as Russian). The Koreans and Japanese with whom I have had classes also consider English far easier than German, although I think their languages are quite hard. In my own opinion, although I don't speak it, I consider modern Hebrew relatively easiest when it was constructed but it is now such a mess of acquired words I think it is more difficult.

    But Cliff, since you would like to cite studies and appear to know something about philology, have you read any studies about what are difficult and what are hard languages? My guess would be that the lack of all but vestigial case and declination in English would make it one of the easiest languages to use, but I am always up for a study.

  6. I agree, it's really frustrating to witness unfair treatment to internationals. I often felt like there were 'classes' of internationals when I first moved here and was hanging out a lot with a heavily international crowd. The closer your home country was to Germany, the better treatment you got. The US was the exception - I always felt I was treated with more understanding and friendliness than my friends from Romania, Iraq, Morocco, or Taiwan. =(

  7. I can only agree.
    If there is only one person who doesn't speak a certain language, it is only polite to not use that language (instead of demanding that the person learns that language in a matter of minutes).

    I do believe that when someone lives in a country, they should be able to hold conversations in that language, *after a certain time* (read: several years). Not when they arrive, and certainly not on a scientific level.
    Resorting to German, even if international students/co-workers are present, is just plain, ignorant laziness.

    That being said, cutting slack goes in both directions. There may be some people (as in our lab) who are not (yet) cofident enough in English, so you'd have to find an arrangment. Defaulting to one language is always bad, I think.

    As to English being easy: Sure, spelling (and going along, pronounciation) is anything but simple, but the grammar is pretty straightforward. As a native speaker, I must say that I consider myself lucky not having to learn German. (Although, to be fair, spelling/pronounciation is pretty straightforward).

  8. I admit, I am one of those people who generally believes that if you're going to actually live and work in a country, you need to have a basic grasp of the language and not expect everyone to speak your native tongue. You should be able to do basic daily tasks--i.e. grocery shopping, driving, etc., and not need everything translated for you. Then again, as a US citizen living in the US, I don't expect everyone to speak English when I'm in Germany. It is very nice (and occasionally, a great relief) when they do, but I don't assume.

    That said, when another language is predominant someplace, like work, people need to accommidate it. If most people speak English, then things need to be in English, regardless.

    That said, the Germans can be particularly... strident when demanding their language. There's an old airline joke to that effect: A Lufthansa pilot is coming in to land at Frankfurt, and he makes the necessary radio call in German, despite English being the internationally-prescribed language for all communications. The ATC, of course, requests he repeat everything in English.

    The Lufthansa pilot replies, "I am a German pilot, with a German flight crew on a German plane belonging to a German airline with a cabin full of German passengers, landing at a German airport. Why on earth must I speak English?"

    At which point an unknown voice with a thick British acccent replies, " Because you lost the bloody war!!" :P

  9. My mistake, G. When you said "it really is one of the easiest languages around" I didn't catch that that was your opinion. It read to me like you were passing that off as fact.

    Which language is the easiest? The hardest? Blunt, unqualified, blanket answers to these kinds of questions are a hot button for me (thus my apology in my original comment).

    I'm not a trained linguist — I'm just a hobbyist who muses about word connections between languages and the processes by which language skills are acquired and developed.

    I'll believe with very little convincing required that Danish is the world's easiest language to learn — if you have Danish parents and are immersed in it as a child. Or that Czech is a fantastically easy foreign language to learn for Poles. Or that Mandarin is not much of a challenge to read for Cantonese-readers, but speaking it brings its own challenges. Or that native speakers of Language X can can hit the ground running as foreign learners of Language Y but plateau. Or whatever.

    But I really have a hard time accepting that English really is one of the easiest languages around without further qualification — most likely to the point where the statement ceases to have value.

  10. In conversation, Cliff, every Auslander with whom I have spoken has told me they found English easier to learn than German (and than their own language). Has anyone ever said to you that they found English harder than another language to learn? And I'll agree with CN that at higher levels English may become harder, but since most English native speakers speak it incorrectly, no one much cares. I have no access to scholarly philological journals and I assume that you don't either, so let's speak from personal experience. What have you heard from your acquaintances, friends and colleagues?

  11. Wow, I don't have anything more profound to say other than that really sucks.

  12. I recently found your site, and I have to say it was very helpful! You see, i'm moving to Germany soon as a student and while I was super excited, I was also really scared. I can't even begin to fathom what life must be like, not being able to say what you want because you can't and how different it must be like. Is it really like they say? That you will be able to catch on to the language very fast if you live there? On top of that, i'm even more scared out of my mind because i'm going by myself and I just feel so unprepared! but reading your blog did comfort me more than you could possibly know. Thank you!

    Oh and at G in Berlin, I'm a korean and I have to say English is considered much easier despite the fact that Korean is also considered a "difficult" language because when it comes to Germanic languages, Korean grammar is "backwards" from English or German, if you will. But at least with English the grammar is much more straightforward than with German. So in other words, they're still difficult to learn for most asians but German is one up a level than English in terms of difficulty. Or at least thats my reasoning for why english may appear to be easier to Koreans.

  13. Mo/Msnovtue - I think you have good points. I think what we are seeing here is sort of a clash of expectations. The Germans come into a workplace expecting that it is a German workplace and aren't told otherwise, while up at the higher levels their bosses are trying to establish international workplaces - and advertising their departments to foreigners as such. The foreigners are assured not knowing German is not a problem, they come here expecting an international workplace, while the Germans are coming in expecting a German workplace and don't understand what people are doing here with no plan to get fluent. I always thought diversity training was kind of a lame concept (ie do we really have to train people not to be dicks?) but I'm starting to see where the idea comes from now. There should be some kind of communication about realistic expectations for each group of the other.

    Cliff: I don't suppose you have any comments about the content of the original post? ;)

    Bratwurst: Welcome! :) I'm really glad to have been helpful and that was why I originally started this blog! (Although it might have gotten off topic since then!) I think learning the language is not as easy as people would have had me believe. I think a lot of Americans love to be so positive and people with no second language were all telling me I was going to be so instantly fluent. It does take work and time to learn. For you it may be easier since you already are (I presume) fluent in two languages. Even though German is hard, Germany isn't scary at all. I was pretty anxious before we came here and now I would do it again a thousand times. Good luck!!

  14. Cliff: I don't suppose you have any comments about the content of the original post?

    Well, I have nothing particularly new to offer, except a "yeah, that sucks" kind of sentiment. I personally am a man caught between (at least) two languages at work. I've been working in German with the people in and near my office for the last five years. But I've been working in English with everyone outside of Germany — the French, the Italians, the Chinese, Koreans, Mexicans, Canadians and Americans for the same amount of time. For the last three years I've been working intensely with Romanians in English as a group leader in a customer service center.

    I get annoyed when I have to write documentation more than once, so we do it all non-email written stuff (slides, user guides, process descriptions, etc.) in English. But the language of email and verbal discussion varies widely with the audience, and it happens over and over again - an email chain starts in one language, usually among common native speakers, and somewhere along the way, a native speaker of another language has to get involved. And then someone has to bring them up-to-speed, recapping the entire conversation, or at least gleaning the important bits of it, in our supposedly official business language: English.

    But that's pure corporate B.S. And I'll admit guilt here too: if I am pretty sure there's no chance of involving non-German speakers/readers in a conversation, I prefer to interact with Germans in German. It makes my ears bleed sometimes to hear their half-British butchery of my fair native language, and (back then) I was damned if I were going to let them use any kind of English with me in a business setting where not absolutely necessary. I'm also not big on being the token English language sounding-board / punching bag; they're supposed to know how to say what they want to say, or find another way to get the point across. And playing translator for the lone English speaker in the room, on the tour, or whatever makes me see red. I hate that.

    So while I am sure that a strict adherence to what we profess is our common, international business language at work would lead to greater efficiency, I know it's a pride thing for me to do my work in German — at least for those instances where it's not obviously counterproductive.

    Damn, that was long. I apologize a (record?) third time for my comments in this post. Good Denkanstöße though!

  15. Let's get back to university, if you don't mind. There has been a step forward as far as courses being taught in English is concerned. I think there are great international graduate programs, MSc and PhD, that have been established in the last couple of years and run successfully ever since. All courses related to one or another of those programs have to be taught in English (even as a formal requirement), which may some students find a bit difficult (i.e. ‘regular’ German students who are not associated to an international program).

    I am, in a way, jealous that English has finally reached teaching at university that much. Because I would have loved it back then! Others probably not. All the papers, and books, too, I read to prepare a talk for a seminar were, of course, written in English. So, even back then, you couldn't survive without being able to (at least) read stuff written in English. Needless to mention that, sometimes, it was difficult to switch between usual (English) terminology and regular German expressions. I think it had been easier to give a talk entirely in English, sometimes.

    Yes, English is and has been for quite some time the language of science. That it has partly, at least, already reached teaching at university is a good thing for some disciplines. This doesn't necessarily work well for all disciplines, and perhaps not for courses. But if you were talking about PhD or post-graduate seminars or colloquia, you are so right.

    Briefly on learning foreign languages: I wouldn't want to learn German, too difficult, if you ask me... ;-)


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