Friday, September 2, 2016

Science in many languages.

The lingua franca of biology is English, although through history it has variously been Latin, German, or French. Communication is fundamental to the modern scientific landscape, and English dominates the international ecological community. To be indexed by SCOPUS, a journal must be written at least in part in English. All major ecological journals are published in English, and clear, understandable writing is unquestionably an advantage in having work published. Large international conferences are usually conducted in English. Sometimes there is no translation for a key word and the English version is used directly, regardless of the language of the conversation. Even base commands in coding languages like R are in English. There is an undeniable but some times unmentioned advantage to being a native English speaker in science.

A common language is inevitable and necessary to communicate in a time of global connectivity, but it is also necessary to acknowledge that many scientists speak English as a second (or third, or fourth) language and barriers can arise as a result of this. The energy activation to move between languages is high for people, and it can take longer to read and write. But sometimes the costs are more subtle: for example, students may be less likely to give oral talks at conferences as a result of concerns about being understood. Even if they are relatively proficient, the question period after talks is difficult, since questions are often spoken quickly, are not clear, and are expressed in a variety of accents. That’s a difficult situation to address directly, but there are ways to facilitate communication across a variety of English proficiencies. And many of these are simply good practices for communication in any language.

First: slow down. Some of us are guiltier than others, but if you speak too fast, you lose listeners. This is another reason to consciously try to breath and relax during presentations and lectures. Some people speak so quickly that even the native English speakers have trouble following along. Now imagine listening to that talk while needing a little extra processing time.

When you give lectures and presentations, make sure that the slides and the verbal component both provide the overall message. I’ve followed talks in French and Spanish before, because the slides were well-composed (and in English). If someone misses something you say, it should be possible to follow the important points by the slides alone. And vice versa. This is good advice for any talk. Don’t be boring, but also be aware of when overuse of idioms or culture-specific references prevent understanding.

Sometimes fluent English speakers unknowingly dominate conversations because they speak faster and may be more confident in expressing themselves. In group activities like workshops and meetings, allow breaks in the conversation so that non-native speakers (or just less dominating personalities and quieter people) have a chance to express themselves as well.

An ear for accents comes from practice listening. Practice speaking improves accent. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

Also, remember that culture and language interact. English is interesting in that we have no pronouns differentiating between formal and informal relationships (we have ‘you’, not ‘tu’/‘vous’, etc.). This can make English speakers seem informal and friendly, or disrespectful, depending on the context. Keep this context in mind when interpreting interactions.

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