I recently started studying Japanese. It is super fun, and I highly recommend it. Every time I pick up my books, however, I am momentarily stopped by the realization that I am quite spoiled to be able to do this ‘for fun,’ whereas a huge number of scientists (chemists and otherwise) are effectively required to learn English to communicate with other scientists. This topic has come up before, and in fact our September editorial touched on the problems involved in writing English (but made the case that unclear writing, due in part to unclear thinking, is equally prevalent with native English speakers). I just don’t think the topic is brought up enough, though, given the tremendous amount of work required to become conversant in a second language (or third, or fourth…).
So, the point of this blog, basically, is to say: I am amazed at and grateful for the outstanding efforts of all the non-native English speaking chemists, biologists, physicists, etc., that allow a united scientific language.
There are more things I could say, but I will (mostly) leave it at that. In the interest of improving scientific interchanges, however, I have a few questions: how can we improve our ability to communicate between languages, be they Japanese or French or Finnish, or the language of chemists and biologists (where I would argue that a mention of vinyl benzene or TUNNEL assays is almost equally incomprehensible)? When should we be expanding our communication skills? Should universities in the United States go back to their requirement of proficiency in a second language, and how do schools in other countries handle this?
I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts. I bet they’re good – in fact, I really think so.
Catherine (associate editor, Nature Chemical Biology)