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Date: Mon, 31 Mar 2003 15:02:36 -0800
To: tomorrows-professor@lists.Stanford.EDU
From: Rick Reis 

"Almost any scientist will say that if you lack English fluency, your 
career will go nowhere. And that is probably true of those whose 
English skills stop at the conversational level. Some protest the 
dominance of English, but most accept the fact that it has become the 
de facto language of science."
	       "desk-top faculty development, one hundred times a year"


The posting below talks about the importance of English in scientific 
work and what non-native English speakers can do to improve their 
communication. It is by freelance writer Sam Jaffe, from The 
Scientist - The News Journal of the Life Scientist, 
[], Volume 17 | Issue 5 | 44 
| March 10, 2003.  Copyright 2003, The Scientist, Inc. All rights 
reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Approaching Diversity: Some Classroom Strategies for 
Learning Communities.

			                Tomorrow's Research


Written and spoken language skills are critical to careers
By Sam Jaffe

Kiyokazu Agata decided to stay in Japan for his postdoctoral 
fellowship, and that decision haunts him today. Not because he hasn't 
been able to do great science in Japan--he's now a group director of 
evolutionary regeneration at the prestigious Center for Developmental 
Biology in Kobe. But his decision to forgo study overseas means that 
he never got a chance to excel in English. "English is essential for 
scientists. Going abroad is the best way to learn it," Agata says. 
"In my case, I missed the chance to study in foreign countries. It's 
my regret."

The ironic part is that Agata can speak and write English. He has 
studied the language since grammar school, but that's not good enough 
anymore. His lack of fluency keeps him from getting invitations to 
speak or present papers at international functions. It also makes it 
difficult to do collaborative projects with American or European 
colleagues. Although he has published frequently in Japanese language 
journals, as well as in prominent English language journals (with a 
good dose of help in grammar and spelling correction from overseas 
colleagues), he says he would get much more international recognition 
if his English were better.

Agata isn't alone. Almost any scientist will say that if you lack 
English fluency, your career will go nowhere. And that is probably 
true of those whose English skills stop at the conversational level. 
Some protest the dominance of English, but most accept the fact that 
it has become the de facto language of science. It is hard to look 
past the statistics. Of the 40 most cited papers of the last five 
years in the database of the Institute for Scientific Information 
(ISI), not a single one was written in another language. The ISI 
database includes 938,004 scientific papers published in 2002; only 
3% are written in languages other than English.

In countries whose languages once competed with English for 
dominance, the battle is over. According to papers indexed by ISI, in 
1980, 53% of 28,000 papers written in France were in French. By 2000 
the proportion of French-language papers had dropped to 13%. 
Likewise, German- language papers fell from 47% of overall papers 
produced in Germany in 1980 to 11% by 2000.


Clearly, in order to get recognition scientists must publish results 
in English. However, there is more to it than that. Researchers also 
need to be able to speak fluent English in order to present papers at 
conferences, and in some cases just to be able to communicate with 

Of course it has not always been this way. Over the last two 
millennia, science has had several different linguae francae , each 
one handing the torch to the next after a few centuries. Latin 
assumed the role from Greek after the rise of Rome, and Arabic 
followed during Europe's dark ages. The language torch bounced from 
Italian to French to Spanish over the last few centuries, until 
German won out during the Enlightenment. German officially lost its 
dominance to English with the advent of Nazism and the flight from 
Germany of many of its best scientists.

Why has English become so important? The geopolitical influence of 
the United States and its position as the single largest source of 
scientific funding are two obvious reasons. But there are others. The 
advent of the Internet, dominated by English because much of the 
technology was developed in the United States, and its importance as 
a tool for scientific communication have also been influential. Some 
even argue that the very structure of English lends itself to 
adoption as the flagship scientific language. "English has a larger 
vocabulary than any other language besides ancient Greek and Latin," 
says Mary Barkley, a biology professor at Case Western Reserve 
University in Cleveland, Ohio, and also an associate editor of the 
journal Biochemistry. "It's easier to articulate on technical matters 
in English than in any other language."

Most scientists with poor English skills who often publish in English 
language journals rely heavily on English-speaking scientists who are 
also close friends. However the demands placed on the friendship can 
be excessive. "It's too time-consuming to work on someone else's 
English writing skills," says Robert Williams, chemistry professor at 
Colorado State University, who is a former editor of the journal 
Amino Acids. He stopped offering such help to colleagues when he 
discovered that he was spending more time on that than on doing 
actual science.

Helping colleagues with their English also isn't very rewarding. It 
would be unethical to pay a fellow scientist for editing a paper, and 
the submission rules of most journals make it impossible to grant 
authorship to someone just for fixing up the writing.

That leads many scientists to resort to paying specialty consultants 
just to rewrite their papers prior to submission. One such firm, 
Academic English, based in Japan, has edited more than 7,000 papers, 
in addition to thousands of other technical documents. Many American 
students studying in Japan, even on the undergraduate level, have 
paid their way by helping to write scientific papers in English. But 
such services cannot be expensed with institutional funds or grant 
money, so most often they are paid out of the scientist's pocket. And 
the fees, as much as $500 (US) per paper, are often too high for the 
average scientist.

The last hope of someone who submits a paper written in poor English 
is that a reviewer or the editor will take it on. "That just never 
happens anymore," says Barkley. "The editor doesn't really edit a 
paper, just assign referees and make decisions. And if every referee 
took it upon themselves to correct the writing of a paper, that's all 
they would spend their time on. If a paper comes in to me in poorly 
written English, I send it back. I don't want to waste anyone's time."


Even if researchers manage to publish in English, they may still run 
into problems at scientific meetings if their English is not perfect. 
"I still envy native English speakers for their presentation skills," 
says Wolfgang Voos, a molecular biologist at the University of 
Freiburg. Voos is often responsible for writing papers on 
collaborative research with his American colleagues, because they 
recognize his written English skills as being superior to their own. 
"I can communicate the basic science, but I can't entertain." 
Consequently, he gets fewer invitations to present or give keynote 

Without English, a scientist lacks a crucial tool for his career, and 
the future doesn't portend much change as English becomes even more 
dominant. The next generation of scientists in non-English speaking 
countries might have it better than their parents, though; most 
scientists agree that English education in Asia and Eastern Europe 
has improved dramatically over the last few decades.

Even more promising, though, is the advent of automatic translation 
software. Anyone who has used freely available web translators such 
as Babelfish ( or Google's translation 
services ( ) can see that the technology is in its 
infancy: good enough to get across the meaning of a simple 
conversation, but nowhere near accurate enough to translate technical 
documents. The field is quickly developing, however. The Defense 
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the US 
Department of Defense, recently delivered a device similar to a 
personal digital assistant (PDA) to special-forces soldiers serving 
in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. The device automatically 
translates basic questions into Dari, Pashto, and Arabic and then 
translates the answers back into English, all done entirely through 

Unfortunately, even such bleeding-edge machine-translation projects 
are severely limited by processing power. Although such programs are 
relatively ineffective now, the inevitable rise in computing power 
will make them more helpful. In the meantime, the best hope for most 
young scientists with poor English skills is to get a tutor.

Sam Jaffe ( is a freelance writer in Philadelphia.

2003, The Scientist Inc.
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