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German as a language of science: What kind of experience have Germany alumni had?

Do you use an English dictionary too when you’re reading specialised journals? English is the dominant language of scientific communication, and the popularity of German as a language of science appears to be on the decline. We asked our Germany-Alumni about the kind of experience they have had.

Smog is an environmental problem in every city in the world – from Beijing to Berlin to Bogotà – and is detrimental to human health. When an international conference is held in one of these cities on the impact of smog, participants from across the globe have the opportunity to exchange views, and they usually do so in English. German is not necessarily used as a language of science even if the majority of the audience are native German speakers.

Some of our Germany-Alumni, who have mastered German as a language of science in addition to their native tongue, talk about their experience here. Most of them agree that having an international language is an advantage: researchers of different native tongues can make themselves understood and exchange views on a topic. But they also see the disadvantages.

Is the popularity of German as a language of science on the decline?

‘...the disadvantages of having a universal language of science are a drop in the quality of content and also limited participation in scientific debate as result of it being conducted in a language other than a participant’s native tongue,’ commented Tang Xiaodan , Alumni Officer at the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Beijing.

Ms Xiaodan is an education scientist and would like to see more multilingualism in science. She believes that ‘English is a suitable language for communication at international level, but at regional level the native language or a language that most of the participants find easy to communicate in, such as German, is more appropriate.’ Some of the people attending international conferences cannot speak English at native level, so their paper may be limited by the language barrier and there may be a loss of academic depth.

Deutschlandfunk: German as a language of science (in German only)

Multilingualism reflects the diversity of scientific discourse

Luciana Câmara, a professor at the University of Pernambuco’s Department of Music in Recife, Brazil, points out one of the crucial advantages of multilingualism. Professor Câmara, a native Portuguese speaker, studied in Freiburg, Germany before doing a master’s degree in Scotland. ‘During my doctorate, I noticed how limited research can be if students and professors stick to English. It means that they rarely come into contact with other ways of performing musicological research or indeed research in general.’

Linguists are convinced that each language offers a different way of looking at reality and provides its own patterns of argumentation. Restricting teaching and research to a single language of science narrows our mental horizons. By learning other languages, Luciana Câmara was thus able to learn different ways of thinking too. ‘It was beneficial for my research to be able to speak German, French, Spanish and of course Portuguese. I was able to read a large number of source texts in the original language and discuss the ideas of a great many researchers.’

A scientific language grows and develops

‘Forestry is still in the early stages in Argentina. There are still relatively few English forestry terms that experts ‘need’ to know,’ explained Pedro Pantaenius, a forestry engineer and lecturer in the Department of Forest Utilisation and Research at the Andean Patagonian Forestry Research and Advisory Centre (CIEFAP) in Chubut, Argentina. He has observed how the current state of research and scientific discourse are reflected in language development and can make direct comparisons between his native language Spanish, English and German.

‘There are established forestry terms in German such as ‘Plenterwald‘ that are difficult to translate into English. That is because the protection of forests and animals is so important in Germany.’ Thus as scientific knowledge accumulates, new terms and expressions are developed in the language, allowing the research subject to be described more precisely. This process can be clearly observed in Pedro Pantaenius, who says he turns the German terms in his head into Spanish ones and ‘adapts’ them to the conditions that prevail in the Patagonian Andes.

Discussion in the Community

Aníbal Gärtner Tobón also found German useful as a language of science after returning to Colombia after his stay in Germany, even though English is the dominant language at Colombian universities. And German is the academic language of choice for Tokuichiro Ohno, a professor of philosophy in Japan, because he can read the works of German philosophers in the original.

Read about the experiences of these and other alumni in the Community and join our discussion: What kind of experience have you had with English or German as a scientific language at conferences, in university seminars and in publications? Join the discussion in the Community group ‘Deutsch als Fremdsprache’ (German as a foreign language)!


Author: Sabine Müller

August 2013

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