Logic’s Language Barrier

May 28 2013 @ 9:28am

Jessica Love worries about the challenges facing non-native scientists working in the US:

[A]rguments themselves are constructed differently in English than in other languages. “In Spanish, it is much more typical to talk around the topic and only get to the point by the end of the text, whereas in English there is a bigger pressure to put the topic right up front and then make the arguments after the fact,” says [PhD grad] Kanayet. [Korean doctoral student] S notes something similar: “English writing is extremely deductive—you put the topic sentence at the beginning and your supporting evidence follows. … In East Asia the order is opposite. You need to read the whole thing” before the thesis is revealed.

Finally, and most disturbingly, conducting research solely in a non-native language can leave scientists—even ones who are by all accounts smart and successful—feeling as though their very thoughts are at risk. Says S, “you start ‘thinking’ in English. All terms are in English and you talk about your research in English. If your English is still not fluent enough, it means that you don’t have great tools to think.”