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Foreign Languages Are Useful in Science

By Yan B. Linhart | Published: March 19, 2019

It is often said that English is the language of science. Indeed, scientists from all over the world receive their training in English-speaking countries and publish their work in high-profile journals, most of which are English or American. But many of us also travel to foreign countries to study phenomena or organisms specific to those countries and to meet local colleagues working on the same questions. From a practical viewpoint, speaking a colleague’s language helps make interactions and exchanges of ideas freer and more focused. And when applying for grants, familiarity with multiple languages makes those applications more competitive. As an educator, I have also been able to mentor foreign students, and to this day, I enjoy my connections with former students, from France to Morocco and all the way to Patagonia.

Advantages beyond Scientific Gains

Due to the complexities of my life, I have become multilingual. I think of myself as having multiple personalities. I am able to enter brand new worlds, thereby transforming myself into another person. It is really a magical feeling, and anyone with imagination will appreciate this.

Yan studying penguins. Penguins 
can't talk, but their human neighbors
in Patagonia appreciated Yan's skill in 
Spanish. 

Thanks to my fluency in Spanish, for example, I have had very interesting interactions with local people. Decades ago, I was working in Baja California with colleagues, studying local pine forests. We were camping on a remote beach near a small village of fishermen. Soon after we set up our tents, a few locals came by and asked why we were there. I explained that we studying the local forests. They asked me if we liked seafood, and I said that we most certainly did, as we had packed mostly canned food. Soon we were enjoying fresh fish and abalone, and establishing a good rapport with the fishermen. Before we left, one of the abalone divers, to whom I had given some antibiotic paste to cover a cut on his hand, came up to me and asked if I was married. I said no, so he asked if I had a novia, i.e. a serious girlfriend. I smiled and shook my head.  He then said, "Well, at some point, you will, and I have something for her." Then he gave me three abalone pearls.

Moving Beyond Monolingualism

Language skills allow scientists to 
connect with colleagues, both as 
fellow researchers and as friends.

When you speak a local language you are instantly accepted and appreciated. In contrast, when you show up in foreign country and are obviously unable to communicate, you can be perceived as rude because you did not take the trouble to learn the basics. Indeed, our monolingual tendencies make us and by extension our country, more isolated at a time when the world is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. A joke frequently made at our expense goes as follows: If someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, and someone who speaks two is bilingual, what do you call someone who speaks only one? American.

Two major factors contributing to monolingualism in the United States are a lack of language education courses and a nationwide lack of demand for such education. In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle by Dan Hamilton and Stacie Nevandomski-Berdan, they provide distressing statistics: only one in five American students takes K–12 coursework in a foreign language, and within the past three years, colleges and universities have shut down 651 language programs. This is so nearsighted that it should be considered a national emergency. How can we enter into commercial and political partnerships with other countries when we cannot communicate with foreign diplomats and business leaders?

We ALSO must recognize that from the beginning of our country, we have received multilingual and multiethnic inputs into our society. Currently, there are 573 Native American federally recognized tribes. In addition, at least 350 foreign languages are spoken within the United States by over 65 million Americans. Our history also reflects this multilingual past, with the name America coming from the Italian geographer Amerigo Vespucci. One of our most sacred symbols, the Statue of Liberty, was built and given to us by the French. Of the 50 names we have given to our states, only 10 or so have an English background, such as North Carolina, New York, or Virginia. The others reflect a diverse array of linguistic and cultural references.

As we go forward as a nation, let us recognize our multilingual diversity, develop it, and reap its benefits. 

About the Author

Yan Linhart was born in Prague, Czech Republic, and migrated through several countries before landing in the US. He is a biologist with specialties in genetics, ecology and evolution. He has taught these subjects for over 40 years, mostly at the University of Colorado, Boulder, but also as field courses in Colorado and the tropics. His research has taken him to Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, Chile, Patagonia and France.

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