Higher EducationScience

Are English-only PhDs in the Sciences a Problem?

Following the general rule of headlines-posed-as-questions, you can probably guess my answer already: probably not.

That said, this recent cri du cœur (ha!) in Vitae deserves a bit more attention than just one sentence, so I’d like to flesh out that ‘probably not’ with a more thorough look at the principal questions raised by the issue of foreign-language requirements for PhDs in STEM fields, and also provide some perspective based on my experience as someone who went through a PhD programme in a non-STEM field that still enforces foreign language requirements for all students.

In his article, McGlynn states that the United States is losing its international research competitiveness, and ties this to the fact that American universities have, for the most part, abandoned their traditional foreign-language requirements for PhD students in the sciences. I probably don’t need to point out that this is a classic case of post hoc reasoning: even if both things are true, they are not necessarily connected. Indeed, in the very next paragraph McGlynn claims not to know the precise reasons for these requirements, giving only those he has ‘heard’: that students might need these languages for specific tasks or to engage with foundational scholarship in their disciplines. He leaves unenumerated the other ‘excellent reasons’ he can think of that he has not heard used to justify these requirements. This is almost certainly a rhetorical ploy (not to mention an evasion of responsibility for making a real argument), so I’ll try to steelman McGlynn’s case a bit by including here all the reasons I can think of that these requirements might be a good idea.

1. Science PhDs need foreign languages for discipline-specific tasks

The example McGlynn gives for this argument is botanists’ longstanding practice of describing new species in Latin, though this requirement was officially dropped in 2012 for the very reason that Latin is no longer the universally accessible language it once was. Even if it did still exist, it would not be an argument for making botanists proficient in Latin in any conventional sense: being able to read Cicero or scan hexameter would have little to no impact on a person’s ability to produce these formulaic descriptions. It might, however, make for a nice cottage industry for amateur Latinists who currently spend their leisure time keeping people from getting disastrously incorrect tattoos.

Arm tattoo that reads: 'Quin etiam, Sententia ego ingredior per valley of umbra of nex, Ego mos vereor hand malum vobis es me', a disastrous translation of Psalms 23:4

Remember kids, Google translate is not St. Jerome. Source

2. Science PhDs need foreign languages to engage with foundational literature in their disciplines.

This is definitely a better argument than the first one, but it seems more appropriate for historians or philosophers of science than it does for people engaging in contemporary cutting-edge research. Most high-profile scholarship in the last forty years or so has been published in English-language journals, and I’d be willing to bet that most foundational literature that continues to be relevant in its discipline has received an English translation by now. Furthermore, there will always be a portion of the scientific community able to engage with this literature even without across-the-board language requirements in English-speaking countries. Retaining language requirements on this basis is also very Eurocentric, and conflicts with the next argument on the list.

3. Science PhDs need foreign languages to communicate with colleagues and engage with scholarship in a global research environment.

As I mentioned before, most scientific publications are in English these days, as are most international research conferences. While it is true that a scientist can end up working with colleagues from anywhere in the world, it is also true that English is generally the working language of most international research groups. Any language requirement in graduate school is therefore mostly a gamble: someone could learn Mandarin only to find themselves working with a team based in Germany, or vice-versa. In the current environment, however, it is likely that both of those groups will be using English for international correspondence and publication.

4. Language requirements as traditionally instituted result in real working fluency in the target language.

This is the real weak point in the entire argument. Even those programmes that still have language requirements do not usually enforce very high standards of competence in the target language. Usually they require ‘reading knowledge’, which is proven by the ability to translate a few paragraphs of scholarly writing with the aid of a dictionary in the space of a few hours. Needless to say, this level of competence in the target language has little-to-no value in most real-world situations. Even given the comparative brevity of most scholarly articles in the sciences compared to the humanities, this works out to many hours (if not days) of work that could probably be better spent elsewhere. Furthermore, even students with reading knowledge of a language are highly unlikely to be able to understand a scientific talk in the target language, or to engage in conversation or correspondence with colleagues in that language.

But Dan, surely you don’t mean to say that foreign-language education is worthless? That seems awfully anglocentric of you.

I absolutely don’t mean this. I do, however, think that the traditional foreign-language requirements for certain kinds of professional degrees is probably not a good use of time or energy, given the current global research environment and the typical results that can be expected for students that pass those requirements simply to get their degrees. I think competence in a foreign language is an important part of what it means to have a solid liberal education, and if anything foreign-language requirements should be more stringent at the secondary and undergraduate levels than they are now. It seems absurd to me that, in North America at least, any person can make it through their entire education without gaining some real proficiency in Spanish and/or French, given the millions of people who speak those languages, often literally right next-door.

I also think that there is a much better argument for maintaining language requirements for PhDs in other disciplines, where access to historical scholarship or primary sources remains much more important than it does in STEM-type fields. My own programme in historical musicology required proficiency in two languages, normally German and another of the student’s choice (usually related to their own work), precisely because material in non-English languages will essentially always be relevant to the study of art music in the Euro-American tradition (Beethoven’s original conversation diaries will always be in German, after all). That said, there has always been a notable difference between those students who attained reading knowledge of those languages in order to pass the requirement and those students who came into the programme with significant study or other experience in the target language(s). If only the latter are really engaging with non-English material in their scholarship, perhaps even this seemingly sensible requirement is not really serving its purpose after all.

I think it’s also important to account for one last factor here, which is the fact that people’s natural ability for language acquisition varies considerably after childhood, and continues to diminish with age. Even I–the annoying kind of person who takes foreign language classes for fun and really gets off on minutiae of grammar–find my ability to learn and remember new vocabulary has really declined over the years, and the process of acquiring new languages has accordingly become much more difficult and time-consuming compared to when I was a teenager. Graduate school is almost certainly too late for most people to start learning a language they expect to become really good at, barring extreme measures like moving to a country where the target language is spoken for an extended period of time (something most graduate students don’t have the luxury to do).

Those of us who are native English speakers should absolutely be thankful for the comparative advantage that gives us compared to our colleagues who have no choice but to learn English in order to succeed in the global research environment. We should also remember the (often ugly and imperialist) reasons that this state of affairs has come about. At the same time, it’s undeniable that there is simply not as strong an argument for anglophone scientists to learn any other single language as there is for non-anglophone scientists to learn English. That may not be fair, but it is true–at least for the time being. That may change within our lifetimes, or it may not. But let it be known that, if I am ever Emperor of the World, scholatici nos omnes latine loquemur.


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Dan holds a PhD in Music History from a major Canadian university and is now pursuing a M.Ed in Higher Education at another one, because he likes to collect very expensive paper. He performs stand-up comedy at venues all over Toronto when he's not busy playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. You can follow him at @incontrariomotu, but he isn't going anywhere. You can also send him a tip on PayPal (paypal.me/dandonnelly) if you like his work!

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