Tongue-tied Science?

Back to Contents of Issue: October 2005

Scientifically speaking who wins and who loses if English becomes the language of the laboratory in Japan?

by Bonnie Lee La Madeleine

Three thousand Japanese scientists gathered in Yokohama for the annual meeting of the Japan Society of Neuroscience, held in the last week of July. The sessions took place in English. On the first day of the meeting I walked to work in Saitama with a researcher undecided about whether he would go. A powerful typhoon was forecast to strike Kanto, and he seemed reluctant to travel to Yokohama. But I suspected that he was more worried about the sessions in English with his Japanese colleagues than the weather; the typhoon was perhaps a convenient pretext.

My colleague is not alone in his anxiety over the lava-like spread of English in scientific circles in Japan. What would seem to be a welcome development -- the adoption of the international language in this globalizing age -- has a downside its official proponents seem not to have anticipated.

English began encroaching on Japanese in science when RIKEN Brain Science Institute was established in 1997. English was the working language of the institute from the start. Since then several institutes have followed RIKEN's lead. And three years ago, when the Japan Society for Neuroscience went English only, other large science societies in Japan jumped on the bandwagon, instilling panic at home, but eliciting praise overseas. The shift to English is intended to help Japanese researchers be more competitive internationally in science.

Before 1997, RIKEN was solely a Japanese language organization. The Brain Science Institute was the first of its research centers to make English its official operation language in an effort to become more international. That means that all science-related meetings, seminars and reviews are conducted in English, although this is not strictly enforced within individual laboratories. Japanese remains the language for administration, however. RIKEN as a whole opted for a bilingual environment only in 2004.

Non-Japanese investors, businesses and researchers have welcomed the shift to English. They should. English gives them a window on Japanese technological, pharmacological, and basic scientific advances. Japan ranks third in scientific output, after the United States and the European Union, and should remain strong in nanotechnology and robotics for years to come. Venture opportunities beckon for eager English-competent nations. The diligent few in Japan who have mastered English while becoming scientists, professionals and executives have reason to celebrate. And yet, there are significant costs that will affect labor, research, and strategic positioning in Japan if English becomes the language of science.

Japan is not the first nation to have science go English. Europeans teach and discuss science in English. Korean universities and science societies have also adopted English for science. Japan is a late entrant.

"All science used to be one hundred percent translated into Japanese," Dr. Hiroshi Okamoto of RIKEN and project leader of the National BioResource Project for zebrafish explained. "This made it easy for line workers and manufacturers to talk with the researchers." The result was an efficient means of transferring ideas into practical tools and products. Okamoto worries this means will be lost if the current trend continues, and "would make colonization complete." He is right to worry.

The adoption of English for science in Korea suggests Japan may have been wise to have bucked the trend for so long. Science Communication, a quarterly journal focused on research in science and communication, published a preliminary study on the impact of English on Korean science. The author, Kumju Hwang, argues "English use systemically reduces Korea's international competitive ability because of the time and energy that English study requires, preventing concentration on scientific activities."

Okamoto concurs, but makes the distinction between scientific and general science discourse in English. "My technicians can read papers in English related to their work, and reinforce their understanding with Japanese-language research reviews that are published about one year behind." However, the informal, network-building English-language conversations are missing, making it hard to develop deeper ties internationally.

The downside gets even downer for those national science programs where English is not the dominant language but where success is evaluated by ability to navigate in the international arena in English. Scientists competent in English have an advantage even if their research is less impressive than their monolingual peers'. Hwang and other researchers interviewed for this article cite a certain cachet that attends Anglo-competent scientists. The aura surrounding them positively influences perceptions of their research. "Good science used to speak for itself," one laboratory head reported, "but scientific papers are becoming less clear." So those who can schmooze in English have better opportunities to build networks. Science loses.

Furthermore, as science becomes English, it becomes increasingly isolated from the policymakers, journalists, younger generations of scientists and the Japanese public. These groups can no longer access primary results or early debates among the researchers -- who, by the way, are largely funded by Japanese tax revenues. Scientists can, of course, summarize trends and developments, but their reports will be limited to issues that best serve their interests, or will hide controversy from the public. With trust already strained, the role of English to help raise the international profile of Japanese science could trigger problems down the road.

"Working in English slows down discussion in the lab," lamented a young non-Japanese post-doc who asked his name not be published. In English he is unable to communicate ideas and concerns with clarity or depth to his technical staff and colleagues, and has found Japanese is often easier because it also exposes cultural differences. The same researcher also said that while graduate students accept the need for English, they are not happy about it its imposition. Indeed English has a chilling effect on research because promising young scientists hesitate to explore new areas of inquiry from fear they will be asked to introduce their work in English. Insecurities about English ability de-motivate many promising students of science, creating more of a brain drain than migration overseas.

In a bilingual city like Montreal etiquette dictates that the language of conversation should be the language in which the majority of the group is the most comfortable. Should new people arrive, and the preference shift from, say, English to French, the language shifts too. This seems natural and explains why the sight of Japanese scientists discussing science in English is cause for wonder. If the goal is communication and not English practice, why do these researchers sacrifice clarity and precise expression by adding a barrier to communication? JI

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