Dumber in English

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Jul 24 15:26:12 UTC 2007

Dumber in English

Biophysicist and author Stefan Klein wants to ensure the future of
German as a language of science. Our academic language is on the verge
of atrophy, he says.
Recently, a conference took place in Berlin with the lovely title,
"Thought Researchers". It dealt with the issue of whether and how one
can read thoughts and feelings directly from the brain with new
techniques of neuroscience. Gathered in the auditorium were
scientists, representatives of foundations and the German National
Ethics Council – even the Federal Criminal Police Office had sent a
delegate. All the speakers – six Germans, plus three from the United
States and one from Great Britain – were outstanding. And they all
spoke either English or, in the case of a German speaker, now and then
something similar. Unusual word-choices and serpentine sentences can
make a speech seem more brilliant than it actually is.

But who in the audience spoke English? No one. And even the four
foreign guest speakers could easily have understood a lecture in
German, because simultaneous translation was available over headsets
that were readily on hand. As someone from the sponsoring foundation
told me, of course it would be better if the local guests would simply
speak German. This would increase the public resonance. But the
professors had another idea. Their argument: People only take a
conference seriously when English is the official language. Now, one
could muse over the confidence of researchers who think their
credibility is enhanced in a foreign language. Or fume over the
contempt for the public, if all that the organizers care about is
their standing among peers. After all, the "Thought Researchers" had
received funds for a public event, not for an experts' forum.

Five hundred hears ago, Luca Pacioli, a pioneer of modern mathematics
and accounting, bade farewell to Latin as the language of contemporary
science. Galileo Galilei followed suit, 100 years later. They wrote in
Italian, and a significant part of their contribution was in creating
new terminologies for their new ideas, in the vernacular. Knowledge
was to be accessible for all. Today, scientists are headed towards a
reversal of Pacioli's revolution. But how do they expect to win the
sympathy of a public with which they no longer even have language in
common? And will we soon reach a point where we no longer can discuss
the results of new research in German because we can't find the
vocabulary? Society is threatening to split: On one side will be those
who employ an elite language, and on the other, all those who miss out
on the latest developments. So the issue of whether German remains a
language for science is not merely a question of national pride. It
has to do with something far more momentous: democracy.

Anyone who only encounters scientific research in a foreign language
pays a heavy price, even if he is a master of the idiom. "We are
dumber in English" – this was the conclusion that researchers came to
in Sweden and the Netherlands, where children were introduced to
English on their first day of school. Lectures in English are part of
every subject, but nevertheless, the test results are about ten
percent lower on average than in courses taught in the mother tongue.
In English seminars, students ask and answer fewer questions; they
give the overall impression of being somewhat more helpless. Neither
students nor teachers are generally aware of the problem, because they
all overestimate their expertise in English.

By now, English is the sole language used in lectures in 250 out of
1,976 advanced educational fields in Germany ("master's degree"
programmes). Should this development continue, it would mean certain
death for German as a language of research. In Sweden's most renowned
university, in Uppsala, they already are considering offering more
programmes in Swedish or returning completely to the mother tongue for
basic studies. Students and their instructors don't only face
comprehension problems. Language also transmits an emotional
connection with a subject. And the more abstract a discipline, the
more important this relationship. I remember well my enthusiasm when I
heard the wonderfully catchy algebraic terms like kernels (amounts
added to zero) and rings (amounts of numbers with specific links). I
could immediately picture these concepts.

In the utterly abstract field of quantum physics, Erwin Schrödinger
coined the term of "Verschränkung" – most closely translated into
English as entanglement – for little parts that, though far from one
another, always keep the exact same distance from each other. But
unlike the English term, the German word tells me right away what is
meant. Einstein described the confusion of "Verschränkung" succinctly:
It must have to do with a "spukhafte Fernwirkung," most closely
translated as "long-distance ghostly effect" – a puzzle that
preoccupied physicists to this day. Such clarity is lost forever, if
the concepts only are known by the closest English equivalent. So what
can be done? German should remain the language for seminars and
lectures. The counter-development – that people in the natural
sciences, and increasingly also in the arts, only conduct
international communication in English – is irreversible. For
researchers, it's all about influence, which is greatest when everyone
uses the same Lingua franca.

It shouldn't hurt German scientific language if, in the course of
everyday research, publications appear in English. Such articles
almost always deal with tiny advances in knowledge – like the question
of whether or not gene X is expressed under the influence of protein
Y. They are oriented towards a small audience, they seldom influence
scientific concepts and they are, even if composed by native speakers,
usually linguistically as outstanding as a manual for a DVD player.

But a pile of puzzle pieces is still not science. Every discipline
needs publications that show connections, transmit inspiring ideas and
sketch out new concepts. Such work is intended for colleagues beyond
the narrow realms of one's own field and broaden the circles of
knowledge. They are nourished by their use of language, because the
author wants to lead the public through a distant and foreign
territory, and thus wishes to be as convincing as possible. In order
to preserve German as the language of science, we should make an
effort along these lines.

A little initiative is needed. These days, researchers get prestige
and money for publication in the most renowned possible international
journal or for an appearance at an international conference of
experts. But they don't get that for an elegantly formulated essay
about the intellectual concepts underlying their work, or for a book
that puts their own work in its context, and certainly not for a
lecture in a joint lecture series. Not only that, the preparation of
such an article takes more effort than a hurriedly slapped-together
piece in a trade journal. And no one in our universities teaches how
best to accomplish this task.

Yet scientists thrive on their ability to learn, and are receptive to
rewards, just like any of us. So you have to offer them incentives to
work on their use of language, and also to mix with the general

Two measures could be taken immediately to induce a change in mood:
First of all, in the future, final papers in all departments should
contain a multi-page summary in an easily understandable German. This
summary would be included in the exam grade. In addition, applications
for public funding must include an extensive synopsis that any
interested layperson could understand. Every researcher owes this to

Secondly, in the future there should be a generous prize to encourage
the best scientists to write. One could recognize German-language
texts in various categories: The best collection of academic writing;
the best essay; the best research report; the best textbook and then a
best specialized book in both the natural sciences and the humanities.
The Sigmund Freud Prize of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und
Dichtung (the German Academy for Language and Composition) cannot
deliver what is needed. One could ask a jury to select the best German
academic texts and complie these in a year book - the USA has been
doing this for ages.

In the final analysis, the question of whether and how to nurture
language in the sciences depends on how we perceive the business of
science as a whole. It is easy to forget that research is far more
than posing hypotheses, collecting data and disproving theories. That
is the daily work. But there is a much bigger picture produced by this
collective effort: Science is also a narration by people who want to
better understand and improve the world. That is why the works of
Darwin, Galileo and Einstein fascinate us to this day. If we re-learn
how to tell the story of science, then German will have a future as a
language of science.

Stefan Klein is a biophysicist and writer on technology. His book,
"The Happiness Formula," has been translated into 24 languages. His
latest work, "Time. The fabric of life," is with the S. Fischer

This article originally appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
on July 6, 2007

Translation: Toby Axelrod

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