Sunday, January 16, 2011

Linguistic injustice; it's good to be a native Anglophone

The English language is good to me. Much of my success in science to date can be attributed to my English skills. The quality of my writing and my speaking attract the praise of my peers at least as frequently as the originality or soundness of my ideas. (I am not such a good speller, but at this point that has very little effect on me.) Further, my wife’s work is very much based on her English skills; she teaches English as a second language and edits scientific articles to improve their English.

All this came to mind when I saw this letter
“Awkward wording. Rephrase”: linguistic injustice in ecological journals

and this response
‘Linguistic injustice’ is not black and white

in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE).

TREE is a high profile journal, publishing mostly excellent review articles, but unfortunately most of its content is not free to the public.

I will quote; the letter’s author, Miguel Clavero, begins,

International scientific communication is monolithically dominated by English, particularly within natural sciences. The professional career of individual scientists relies on their ability to publish in internationally relevant journals, and writing in English is the only way to achieve this. Non-native English speakers (NoNES) seem to be clearly disadvantaged with respect to native English speakers (NES) when trying to get their work published. In fact, English language proficiency has been shown to be a strong predictor of scientific output...

This argument makes sense to me. I have colleagues who are both smarter and harder working than I, who are quite fluent in conversational English, who take much longer to write a paper than I do. Writing crisp, clear, precise, flowing science while staying within word limits is hard, and frankly I’ll never learn a second language well enough to pull it off in anything but English. If Greek, Latin, French, Chinese, Arabic or German were the dominant language of science, I would be in deep trouble.

The response published in TREE points out that other disadvantages (e.g., being from a developing country) are vastly harder to overcome than being NoNES. A Swede has a much better chance to succeed in international science than an Anglophone African. A Swede may even come to speak and write English which is better than that of some Anglophones. It also points out that most English language journals won’t reject a paper because of language problems, so long as the science is sound and the writing is comprehensible and reparable. Both of these things are surely true, but don’t negate Clavero’s point. Bad English may not be a huge disadvantage, but skilled beautiful English is, it seems to me, a big advantage, and native speakers are much more likely to speak a language beautifully. This is particularly true, I think, when it comes to job applications. When one is being evaluated not only on the quality of one’s work, but also on one’s presentation skills, ability to answer complex questions clearly and leadership potential, language skills are important. I have seen application talks at the Institute given in such poor English that I had trouble following them; these people were not hired. The graduate students and post-docs I work with are mostly NoNES; a larger portion of the Research Scientist and lab heads are NES or have lived for extended periods in English speaking countries. This is not because of hiring decisions beeing made inappropriately. Rather, those fluent in English tend to be more successful in those tasks on which hiring decisions are legitimately based.

I doubt that English will cease to be the dominant language of science in my lifetime, and for this I am glad. That said, I take Clavero’s point, and I suppose we should add NoNES to the list of groups disadvantaged in scientific careers (females, underrepresented minorities, the disabled, citizens of developing nations, etc.). I am not sure what is to be done about it. Clavero argues that journals should cover the costs of language editing by charging a fee to all authors, whether they need language editing or not, spreading the costs. They would have to waive this fee for those without sufficient funding to cover them. Some journals in fact already do this, paying in-house language editors from author fees. This has not obviated the linguistic injustice. I am not sure what will, short of sci-fi quality automatic simultanious translation technology. I would love to have this technology, if for no other reason than because then I could stop struggling to learn German.

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