In his article “Dumber in English” (“Dümmer auf Englisch”), German biophysicist and author Stefan Klein discusses the implications of a scientific lingua franca. In many European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden, English is the de facto language of academia and the sciences. Lectures and seminars are given in English, and international conferences are held in English even when it is not the language of the audience.
Klein mentions a conference on neuroscience held in Berlin where the six German and four international speakers gave presentations in English despite a primarily German audience. As Klein notes, the justification is that “[p]eople only take a conference seriously when English is the official language”. There is, of course, a pragmatic reason for the dominance of a foreign language over the local variety; Klein observes that “[f]or researchers, it’s all about influence, which is greatest when everyone uses the same Lingua franca.”
Sociolinguists, who study how social aspects affect language use, relate the preference of one language—or dialect—over another to social prestige. Within any given language, dialects or varieties are assigned prestige values linked to social class, gender and education. While all varieties of language are linguistically equivalent—Cockney is not inherently “worse” than Received Pronunciation, the Queen’s English—varieties are ascribed prestige due to correlating social factors. The same holds for languages. In a given community, different languages may serve different functions. This use of a vernacular, “low prestige” variety, alongside a “high prestige” variety is called diglossia and was seen in England, for instance, at the time of the Norman invasion when the language of the court was French and the common people spoke a Germanic variety. The use of the lingua franca, English, as the language of academia alongside vernacular languages such as German, Dutch and Swedish, can be considered a form of diglossia.
While English is accepted as international currency and publishing in international journals undoubtedly furthers a researcher’s academic reputation, the neglect of the vernacular in education can be disadvantageous to students. Klein’s observation that Dutch and Swedish students do worse on tests when taught in English is alarming. Students are less willing to ask and answer questions in a foreign language. How, then, do we achieve a balance between the accessibility of a language—how comfortable students are with a given language and how much it facilitates learning complex subject matter—with the prestige factor of a language—how much it will further a researcher’s international reputation? Klein’s answer is that “German should remain the language for seminars and lectures” in Germany. Why should students, still coming to grips with difficult material, have the added burden of doing so in a foreign language? The lingua franca is undoubtedly essential for international communication, conferences and publications, but using the vernacular at university lectures and seminars may ultimately best serve students learning the material.
Read the article in English at Sign and Sight; auf Deutsch von Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung