Science

English May Be Science’s Native Language, but It’s Not Native to All Scientists

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When I (Nakamura) first arrived in the U.S. for a postdoctoral fellowship, the anxiety of speaking English struck the first moment I put my feet in the immigration hall at Miami International Airport.

“What’s your name?” said a not-very-friendly immigration agent. Despite all the English-language movies I had seen and the dialogues I had practiced in English, I couldn’t understand him. My answer was a frustrating, “Sorry. What? Can you repeat that please?” Despite all the exciting things waiting for me as a scientist in the U.S., it made me think, “If I can’t even understand a simple question, how am I supposed to work as a researcher in a university?”

Despite English being the lingua franca of science, getting an excellent level of English is a privilege of few, restricted to high-income countries or those who can pay for intense language training in Global South countries. Yet, most of the hiring calls from Global North research institutes urging inclusion conflate being a good scientist with being good (or excellent) at English. This isn’t true.

Recently, a team of researchers led by Tatsuya Amano of the University of Queensland tried to quantify the time and career costs of lower English proficiency. Whether needing nearly twice as many minutes to read in English and up to 51 percent more time to write in English than native English speakers or being about 2.5 times more likely than a native English speaker to have journal editors reject their work on a basis of language, not having the advantage of English language in education unfairly punishes good scientists doing good research.

As researchers who have worked in English-speaking countries, we urge academic institutions that truly believe in creating an inclusive environment to acknowledge language barriers and help non-native speakers become better English speakers. We also urge those scientists who have experienced our situation to openly share their difficulties. Knowing this can help unburden scientists new to the English-speaking world from the expectation that we should already be native speakers by the time we arrive.

This is how hard it can be to learn English: In Brazil, where we come from, English education is superficial, especially in public schools. Most people only interact with English through songs or movies. Expensive private courses are beyond the possibilities of most of the population, but they are the only way to achieve proficiency without leaving the country.

To prove our English-language abilities, public universities in Brazil offer free tests that give us a proficiency score. However, universities from the Global North do not usually accept these tests, and the ones they do accept can cost up to one third of a Ph.D.’s monthly salary in Brazil.

And even for those with high proficiency in the language, speaking in English can be more complicated than writing and reading. Our Brazilian friends share with us this feeling of a persistent headache in the first months of working in a foreign country. We associate this with the huge effort of communicating in another language.

This “headache” is a hidden cost for non-native English researchers. We believe our supervisors hired us because of our excellent research skills and our lists of publications (almost all in English). The work we do reflects those skills. But there is always the feeling that the language barrier keeps our colleagues from fully recognizing what we know; we have recurrent thoughts, “Did we say what we actually meant to say?”

Speaking can be especially challenging in situations like informal lab gatherings or daily tasks, because they require vocabulary we are not used to. Now, add to this scenario an environment in which great talks or lectures are one of the highest indicators of performance and a critical part of hiring. We think this pressure discourages researchers from countries where English is not the first language from applying for jobs in developed countries.

We understand that English proficiency is required to work in an English-speaking country, but science loses talent when it dismisses people who lack the expected “excellence” just because they lack practice. We believe that search committees must stop requiring candidates to have excellent communication skills in English. This statement in job listings makes most of us second-guess our skills. In addition, adding more non-native English speakers to search committees will help promote a better understanding that a language barrier is not a scientific expertise barrier.

Once hired, institutions and research groups can facilitate the transition from communicating in English to being fluent. The University of Toronto, for example, supports numerous English training and practice activities such as a Thanksgiving dinner and (academic or nonacademic) clubs. One of our former supervisors always stimulates engagement through weekly meetings to discuss scientific and personal issues that might be influencing our academic performance. Those examples provide less-demanding opportunities for non-native speakers to develop their speaking skills.

And our fields of science can help. For example, during the yearly Evolution meeting, one of the most important research meetings in evolution, systematics and ecology, the organizing committee included the option of presenting talks in either English or Spanish with captions for all virtual attendees. Further, they started a mentoring program to help non-native English speakers prepare their abstracts and slides, and to practice for other regular activities that can be stressful for them during the in-person meeting. Other societies or research departments could easily adopt this example.

Finally, there is our responsibility to each other, the scientists who are not yet proficient in English. Being far from home and speaking a different language all day is tough. It may take time to feel comfortable. We have different learning curves for different skills, so we should be patient with ourselves. Knowing that people we admire have faced similar problems can be helpful in the long process to English fluency. Excellence in English, however you define it, will come with time.

Things got better after one year of working as postdoctoral researchers in the U.S. and Canada, but we still struggled to understand nuances in written English. We stumbled in finding words, and when we found them, they might not have been the right ones for the complexity we wished to convey. One of us, Nakamura, returned to Brazil. The other, Soares, remains in Canada. When it comes to language, we often think of Gloria Pritchett, a character in the popular American television show Modern Family. Gloria is a native Spanish speaker living in a fast-paced English-speaking family.

“Do you even know how smart I am in Spanish?” she says in one episode, frustrated over having to translate words in her head before saying them, and angry that people laugh when she struggles to find words. “Of course, you don’t.”

We sometimes feel the same way.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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