I am spending the first half of 2009 in Europe, doing research and teaching (here and here). I have been doing this quite a bit over the past few years, after previously taking a 10-year hiatus during which I had not set foot on this side of the pond. There is no question that the scientific scene in Europe looks nothing like it did some twenty odds years ago, when I had just finished my undergraduate studies and was contemplating graduate education away from my home country.
The one thing that struck me right away is the much increased mobility of researchers across the continent. It is now fairly common, if not quite the norm yet, to find in a university department, laboratory or research institute situated in one of the countries in European Union, graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty who are not originally from that country, or even from Europe. This happens to very different degrees in the various countries, as some of them (e.g., the UK) offer substantially greater opportunities to foreign researchers than do others (e.g., Italy, which by and large simply exports manpower — I suppose that that is a contribution too). It would certainly be desirable if every country did its fair share, much as it is clear that those which do not, which send their best and brightest youngsters abroad (in most cases with a one-way ticket) without replacing them with their counterparts from other countries, are headed toward inexorable decline (not just scientific).
Mobility is a good thing. There are many reasons for encouraging it. However, there is no question that it is not as easy in Europe for a person to relocate as it is in the United States, for example. There exists a significant hurdle, namely language.
It is easy to think that for a scientist this should not be an issue. After all, worldwide scientific communication has taken place in English for centuries, and the scientific enterprise has been a global one long before the term globalization was coined.
I can work and teach in Austria without speaking a word of German, in fact only realizing that English is not the local language when I have to buy groceries (or operate a washer — OK, let’s not go there).
But I am here for few months only. If I were to move here for a few years, or even permanently, would I be able to lead a normal, fulfilling existence without speaking the language ? Hardly. And the issue has nothing to do with how proficient in English the average person is all over Europe — even in a country like Holland, where virtually everyone can speak English, in order to learn and appreciate the culture of the host country, entertain meaningful intellectual exchanges with its citizens, make friends, become part of the human fabric (living abroad in a foreign enclave is never pleasant, and makes for a much poorer life experience), one simply must be able to communicate in the language of the country.
Obviously, this becomes all the more imperative if one is accompanied by a spouse and children, who do not necessarily share the professional goals of the researcher, who will be spending most of their time at places (e.g., school) where essentially only one language is spoken, and for whom whether to learn it or not will hardly be a matter of choice.
But how many different languages can a person be reasonably expected to learn during the 10, 15, 20 years that go from completion of undergraduate studies to the point where one no longer contemplates a further move ? One hardly has the time to do all the work that is required to build a strong scientific CV, and learning a new language every three or four years may be intellectually gratifying, but hardly seems like a wise use of one’s time (a language that in all likelihood will never be spoken again once the appointment expires)
This issue certainly plays a significant role in the decision of a scientist to accept a post-doctoral offer, or a tenure-track assistant professorship. There is no question that English-speaking countries are at an advantage in terms of recruiting, everything else being equal, for they typically require the least amount of effort on the part of everyone — English is most of the time a language that one already speaks, or is willing and eager to learn anyway.
I cannot help wondering whether this issue may have broader repercussions in the long term, especially as mobility increasingly becomes a way of life not just for scientists but for everyone. Specifically, what will the non-English=speaking countries do, should this at some point pose significant recruiting problems ? Offer better pay ? Switch all to English ? Is there anything that they can or should do ? Is this the beginning of a process of assimilation which may well lead to the concomitant, de facto adoption of English as the one and only language ?