Three and counting…*

One thing that I have noticed lately is how keen Germans are to switching the conversation back to German, as soon as an opportunity to do so arises. I thought my level of English would get me through my scientific career, but I was pretty wrong about that. At the moment, my English is slowly deteriorating, while my German is rapidly building up. The moment people realized I understood some German, there was no way back. I can’t escape it no more.

I now speak Dutch, English and German every day, in more or less equal parts.

There has been a lot of debate lately about how science almost forces people to use predominantly English, and how bad this supposedly is for inclusiveness, especially so for countries that are less privileged. Indeed, I have been privileged to receive excellent English education in The Netherlands, with parts of my examinations in high school being judged through English institutions. I have also benefited greatly from having a fast-speaking Canadian as a supervisor since my earliest days in science. I do realize that not everyone has this position and I fully understand that it is tough to pick up other languages.

German is a different story. It has little to do with education (I picked English and French, so only had very little German in school). I barely made the grades in my short German education and the only reason I passed it is that I accidentally got a re-exam for my final exams, and one that was a word-for-word copy of the example test that had been provided in the course material. My German level has nothing to do with formal education. It is the result of a decade-long struggle to understand my in-laws. My wife is a German that grew up in the Netherlands. I never spoke a word of German to her or her parents (they speak Dutch). My German developed out of a desire to understand what the extended family was trying to tell me.

So yes, it may be tough for academics to pick up the English language, and yes it may be a struggle and it may be determined by privilege. However, even fewer people have the privilege of picking up and speaking three languages, or even more. I am quite convinced that most academics handle English pretty well already. The reality is that, if academia will not have a common language (whichever that may be, but for now it seems that English is a reasonable choice), this unequivocally means that those that try to get that ‘foreign experience’ – which is apparently quite essential – have to go through the hassle of picking up a new language at professional level, simply to support their (short) stay abroad. I can now speak from experience in saying that picking up a third language professionally next to teaching load, research and other academic responsibilities is time-consuming and also drains your energy levels. I am inclined to think that this would divide, rather than unify academia at a global level. I think it will make the imbalance and inequality between different parts of the world an even bigger problem than it already is. What I do believe is very important, is that academia as a whole shifts towards an environment that enables those that are not native English speakers and creates opportunities for them to communicate their language in a language that is not their own.

After all, brilliance does not speak one language, but its communication requires a tool.

——————————————————————————————————————*In reality more like five. I also have a reasonable understanding of French and Spanish. Although they speak too fast for my brain to keep up, I can read and understand it reasonably well. I can order stuff in a shop, ask for directions, and make reservations in both. I like to pick up some language wherever I go.

By the way: I may have given up on the 200 word thing. It was always more important to me to write every day, rather than writing just 200 words. I happen to be a word vomiter, and sometimes keeping it in can make me feel really nauseous. What do you think? Less is more? Or let it all out…?

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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