A common language

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 ?

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11 Responses to “A common language”

  1. Cherish Says:

    At the very least, they should make sure the washers have instructions printed in English.

  2. ruchi aka arduous Says:

    Yes, I remember when the Euro was adopted, our econ professors were very negative about it, and pointed out that having a single currency works well when people have a good freedom of mobility over a region, but that the language barriers in the EU prevented such freedom of mobility.

    Which means that someone living in Alabama is more likely to relocate to Illinois for work than someone in Spain is likely to relocate to France for work.

    I think that people who work for international bodies, such as the UN, simply get used to living in little enclaves where everyone speaks English and sends their children to international school. I’m guessing that the same exists in scientific international communities.

    I don’t think it’s the ideal … but I also don’t see Europe adopting English anymore than they already do. I mean everyone, as you say, already speaks English anyway. But people in Denmark and Holland and Austria seem unlikely to speak English in their homes, which is what I think you’re getting at. But I think it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to get everyone all across Europe speaking English in the private sphere.

  3. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    But I think it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to get everyone all across Europe speaking English in the private sphere.

    Ruchi, I am not expecting this to happen anytime soon either, but will the rest of the world simply accept to remain permanently at a recruiting disadvantage with respect to anglophone countries ? It seems unlikely to me… at some point it will become a problem, something will have to be done.

  4. Schlupp Says:

    Most of the people I know do not learn the language of the country where they do a PhD or postdoc in. And, yes, most of their contact is with other (international) scientists. The same effect is even kind of proverbial for ERASMUS students: You get to know many other international students, but not many locals.

    Only, all this is pretty much the same for postdocs who do speak the country’s language. The postdocs and students here all speak English, and several of us spoke German at my previous place, and most of the people we have/had contact to still were other scientists. Moving to a different city every two or three years just does this to you.

    Getting into contact with “normal” people usually starts at the point where one gets either a longer-term job with some teaching or where one marries / starts a family. As you point out, language skills do become relevant for a fulfilling life at this point, but that means you just have to learn one or at most two new languages, not another one every three years. And in this case, it seems unlikely that the language “will never be spoken again once the appointment expires”, because the whole point for learning it is precisely the fact that people build stronger relations, which stand a chance of surviving a move.

    In my decision, language does play a role, but the role is certainly not larger than two other issues:
    (a) European academic systems are quite different on administrative levels, making some moves hard.
    (b) There is still more discrimination / “locals preferred” than in the US. Also, not all countries accept teaching in English.

    Oh, and Ruchi: The Euro is currently criticized, because different EU countries are differently affected

  5. Schlupp Says:

    Shit, didn’t want to hit submit: The point about the Euro is that I remember how many economic theorists claimed it couldn’t possibly work. And indeed, its value fell strongly after it was introduced. Only, it needed a global economic crisis to put any real pressure on it, so not bad for something that cannot work theoretically, isn’t it?

  6. Mad Hatter Says:

    “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).”

    I think you’re right that language barriers pose a problem for non-English speaking countries in terms of recruiting scientists, but it sounds like that’s not the only issue for Italy. I mean, they should at least be able to recruit Italian scientists who go abroad to train back to Italy, right? There’s no language problem there.

    As for living in foreign enclaves, I completely agree that it is a lesser experience compared to truly learning the local language and culture. But not everyone feels that way, I think. I attended an international school in a “foreign enclave” when I was a kid. I knew the local language, but there were definitely people who had lived in that country for over a decade and not learned more than a few words of the local language simply because they never needed to. I gotta say that based on my experience with academic scientists, I can see many of them being willing to hole up in lab all the time and not really caring all that much about integrating with the local fabric of society.

  7. Transient Reporter Says:

    야~, 무슨 소리 하는겨냐?

  8. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    Schlupp, MH — I do not mean to imply that language is the problem now, and certainly Italy has far more pressing issues to worry about, as far as its science goes, than language.
    But my point is that, even if and when each European country manages to bring itself to a level where it can offer attractive professional opportunities to scientists from other countries, the language barrier will still put it at a disadvantage with respect to the UK.
    Schlupp, I lived in four different US states as a graduate student, postdoc, assistant professor — in Europe this might have meant as many as four different languages. Many graduate students and postdocs are married, and while they themselves can probably get by with just English, their spouses and children cannot. One or two years in school for a child are a very long time.

  9. Successful Researcher Says:

    Apparently in the end of the day people indeed do make the effort of learning the language at least as far as permanent positions are concerned — e.g. there is a noticeable number of German researchers in France.

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