English is the Language of Science

By Shelly Tannenbaum

SET1One look is all it takes for people to decide if you are trustworthy or competent (Wood 2018). You may drape yourself with jewelry, wear cool hats or suits, dab yourself with aftershave or carry the latest handbag or cell phone. However, the moment you open your mouth, you give yourself away. The way you speak and how you convey it says much about your confidence level (Sarchet 2015). If your voice is pitched too high, too soft or too hesitant, you broadcast insecurity and fear. One thing is for certain, though: to communicate in the scientific community today, you should speak in English (Akst 2020). 

According to a news article entitled, “Want to influence the world? Map reveals the best languages to speak,” talk or write in English, and the world will listen. Speak in another language, and the world will have a harder time hearing you (Erard 2014). English has taken over as the international spoken and written common language, and that has certainly not made it easy for everyone, especially if English is not the mother tongue. English is spoken in international conferences and seminars, written in posters, letters, laboratory product advertisements and scientific meeting promotional materials. English is the language of science, and is spoken in science laboratories all over the world. 

Don’t Speak That

So controversial is this subject, that a Duke University professor made headlines last year when she warned Chinese students in the Biostatistics department not to speak Chinese even in their social gatherings, and to speak only English (Kaur 2019). It would have been understandable if the request had been to have students speak English only in class or in the laboratory setting; however, to request that the students not speak their native language outside of these venues seems inexplicable. The subject line of the e-mail she wrote was entitled, “Something to think about,” and Megan Neely, the head of the Master of Biostatistics program at Duke University urged the students to “commit to using English 100% of the time” (Kaur 2019, par. 4). 

This mail caused outrage at the university, and Duke’s international students immediately called for an investigation into the e-mail. But this wasn’t the first time that Neely sent out such an e-mail. She had previously sent out the same request the previous year, in February 2018. Since then, Ms. Neely has apologized and stepped down as director of the program, although she continues in her role as an assistant professor of biostatistics and bioinformatics at Duke University. Mary Klotman, dean of the university’s School of Medicine later apologized for Neely’s e-mail in a letter to the program’s students. She wrote:

To be clear: There is absolutely no restriction or limitation on the language you use to converse and communicate with each other. Your career opportunities and recommendations will not in any way be influenced by the language you use outside the classroom (Kaur 2019, par.2).

Few universities regulate the language that is spoken on campus or issue advice on the subject, leaving staff and students to decide on their own how to handle the situation. In some laboratories and places of work in the United States, researchers claim not to be bothered by overhearing languages other than English. At Duke University, Ms. Neely wrote that the faculty who complained to her about the students who spoke in their native languages said they weren’t “using the opportunities given to improve their English, and were being impolite by speaking in languages that not everyone could understand” (Williams 2019, par. 2). 

English Only?

Duke is not alone in this thinking. Another US university in the northeast has an English-only policy (Ibid, par. 3), stating that this policy further helps their students with their science careers. (The university is maintaining anonymity in fear of backlash similar to what happened at Duke.)

Notwithstanding the subject of language uniformity at work, safety in the laboratory is a key issue, and instructions and safety protocols are generally written in English. So, reading and speaking English in the United States is a top priority. Discussions should take place about how to support students who are weaker in English and how best to master the language. It is essential for staff and faculty to be flexible and not demand that students speak English outside of the work environment. Demanding that English be spoken can also be seen as a power dynamic (Williams, par. 2), and those who are less comfortable in English may need assistance in expressing their ideas and thoughts. Anything less may be seen as inhibitive or discriminatory. 

An article in Nature (Woolston & Osório 2019) reports the following opinions from interviews with scientists from international laboratories: Certain Asian languages lack the correct vocabulary to transmit scientific terms, and therefore speaking in English is more appropriate. If someone doesn’t speak English, they are perceived as someone who will take a long time to train. In India, scientists often look down on people who cannot speak English. Lack of ability to speak English is seen as a lack of ability to think clearly. All the scientists agree – if students don’t speak English it is a competitive disadvantage. 

English-Language Bias

The dominance of English has created bias in the scientific record, according to Woolston and Osório. In 2013, biodiversity databases, information systems storing details on the distribution of biological and environmental diversity, were more complete in English-speaking countries and were scanter in countries where English is spoken less. English is now so prevalent that in some non-English speaking countries, English-language academic papers outnumber any other language publication (Huttner-Koros 2015). Scientists who want to influence, on a global scale, need to publish in English, attend English language conferences, read English papers, and have English-language discussions. However, the article claims that as long as English remains the gatekeeper of scientific discourse, other cultural backgrounds are in danger of losing their unique way of communicating ideas. “In other words, other ways of understanding the world may simply fade away” (Ibid, par. 3).    

unnamed (4)Students arriving as international students to the United States all arrive with at least some basic knowledge of English. It wouldn’t be practical to arrive without a rudimentary command of English. Almost all foreign primary and secondary educational programs teach English as a second language, and anyone intending to come to the United States or, in fact, to learn the sciences, must be able to read and speak English at a basic level. Students interviewing for masters, doctoral and post-doctoral studies in the United States, Europe, Scandinavia, or Asia should expect that scientific discussions will take place in English. 

I wondered how people felt about the language they speak in the workplace. I work at the Hadassah Human Embryonic Stem Cell (hESC) Research Center, part of the Goldyne Savad Institute of Gene Therapy at Hadassah Medical Center, Jerusalem, Israel. I spoke with Dr. Malkiel Cohen, now Head of Research at EggXYt, an Israeli biotechnology company.  Malkiel did his PhD at my institute, and then did his post-doctoral studies at the Whitehead Institute at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He agreed to be interviewed, to provide an example of what he experienced when he lived in the United States. A disclaimer: Malkiel’s English is nearly perfect now and has improved significantly since his PhD days. I asked him to try to remember how it was for him when he first went to Cambridge. 

ME: When you first arrived in your post-doctoral position, was it difficult for you to understand English?

MALKIEL: Yes, to some extent. I was not fluent enough in English, so it was difficult to keep up with the appropriate “professional level.” I remember, in the first months, practicing ahead of my lab meetings to be able to present fluently. I also lacked the confidence to speak fluently and was worried about making stupid language mistakes, which obviously I did. Over time, it became like second nature.

ME: Were you expected to speak English fluently?

MALKIEL: No, I joined an international community (lab and institute) and it was obvious from the get-go that not everyone had the same English level.

ME: Did the lab-members encourage you to speak only in English?

MALKIEL: Yes, it was expected to speak English when other people were around.

ME: Were there other Israelis there? If so, did you speak in Hebrew to them?

MALKIEL: Yes, there were other Israelis and we indeed spoke Hebrew, but we really tried to keep it only to private conversations, and if we were in a room with others, we made the effort to speak English.

ME: Over time, did you become better in English?

MALKIEL: Well…yes. If not only better speaking but also gaining confidence (and embracing my accent and mistakes). Part of my self-approval was the fact that I started to teach English students at MIT. This gave me confidence that I was good at English.

ME: Did the Whitehead Institute at MIT have a rule about only speaking in English (like Duke)?

MALKIEL: No, we had our closed Israeli meetings and these were held in Hebrew. We had enough English time elsewhere. 

At the Goldyne Savad Institute of Gene Therapy at the Hadassah Medical Center, Jerusalem, directed by Professor Eithan Galun, the researchers, students, doctoral students and post-docs speak Hebrew on a day-to-day basis. At the Institute, we have international and non-Hebrew-speaking personnel, and therefore English is also spoken. Professor Galun reiterates the fact that English is an international language, and that the use of English by students and researchers is important because they read scientific publications, and need to understand and present in meetings. Conversing with others at international conferences and colleagues over posters and lectures is also very important. 

Respect: A Two-Way Street

Although we are located in Israel, the Institute collaborates with international universities. We host visitors and colleagues who don’t speak Hebrew. The Institute also has some new immigrants who work there, who are not fluent in Hebrew, and therefore, English is spoken as an alternative to Hebrew. As a new immigrant many years ago, I remember my own battle with Hebrew, and can sympathize with those who struggle with English. I asked Professor Galun what would happen if someone is not fluent in English and needs to present, to the Institute in English. Professor Galun answered, “Difficult means it is possible”. 

One thing people need to remember is that just because students speak languages other than English, doesn’t mean that they don’t understand and speak English. Just as people need to respect cultural and religious differences, people should also appreciate their students’ ethnic diversities. As long as people can understand the hypotheses, assertions, publications and work that their students put forth, it is also important that people appreciate and honor the cultural variety, perceptions, and experiences that international students bring to their host environments. It is therefore a delicate balance between appreciating cultural norms and respecting the traditions of the hosts and students. It goes both ways.  


Akst, Jef. (2020, March 10) Publishing in English presents challenges for international authors. The Scientist. https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/publishing-in-english-presents-challenges-for-international-authors-67241

Erard, Michael. (2014, December 15) Want to influence the world? Map reveals the best languages to speak. Science Magazine. https://www.sciencemag.org/new/2014/12/want-influence-world-map-reveals-best-languages-speak

Huttner-Koros, Adam. (2020). The hidden bias of science’s universal language. The Atlantic. https://www.the atlantic.com/science/archive/2015/08/english-universal-language-science-research/400919/ 

Kaur, Harmeet. (2019, January 29). A Duke professor warned Chinese students to speak English. CNN Health. https://edition.cnn.com/2019/01/28/health/duke-professor-warns-chinese-students-speak-english-trnd/index.html 

Sarchet, Penny. (2015, March 6). Confident? Your voice gives you away in milliseconds. Cortex. https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27107-confident-your-voice-gives-you-away-in-milliseconds/. DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.02.002

Williams, Shauna. (2019, December 1). Do English only policies foster or damage inclusivity in science. The Scientist. https://www.the-scientist.com/careers/do-english-only-policies-foster-or-damage-inclusivity-in-science–66734. Accessed 29 December 2019

Wood, Janice. (2018, August 8).  Faces Can Look More Trustworthy, But Not More Competent. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/news/2015/06/21/faces-can-look-more-trustworthy-but-not-more-competent/85903.html

Woolston, C. & Osório, J. (2019). When English is not your mother tongue. Nature, (570) 265-267. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01797-0


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