Are British Scientists Language Dunces?

Are scientists in the UK lagging behind their European counterparts in taking advantage of the opportunities to study abroad and learn another language? Mr. John Reilly, director of the UK Socrates-Erasmus programme, has warned that students in the United Kingdom will be unable to compete with their European peers unless more is done to promote the benefits of time spent studying abroad. In 1999/2000 about 100,000 students throughout the European Union participated in Erasmus, of which only 10,000 were from the UK. Universities blame student poverty, the perceived need to get into the job market quickly, as well as a lack of language skills as primary reasons for the apathy toward such schemes--and scientists seem the most apathetic of all.

Socrates-Erasmus is an exchange scheme between European universities, which allows undergraduate students (usually in their 2nd or 3rd year) as well as postgraduates to study at a university in another European country as part of their degree. Under the scheme, the normal student awards operate and, in addition, the EU pays an extra grant toward travel and living expenses. Recent figures show a decline in the numbers of UK undergraduate students taking part in the Erasmus programme, and of those taking part in the scheme, the majority are from language (32%) or business studies (20%) backgrounds with relatively few from the medical (2.7%) or natural (4%) sciences. In 1998/1999 only 387 postgraduate students participated in Socrates/Erasmus, although 10% of those were natural scientists. There is also wide variation between individual institutions in the numbers of students who get involved.

It is unclear exactly why so few science students take part, but it may be more difficult at the undergraduate level to find a course that provides an appropriate reciprocal year of study. Lack of language skills may be another reason. The Nuffield Languages Inquiry, an independent inquiry funded by the Nuffield Foundation, recently published a number of recommendations that it would like to see implemented in order to improve the UK's capability in languages. It puts forward a number of proposals for improving the language curriculum in schools, but it also suggests that a language should be a requirement for university entry, with specific courses tailored for those 16- to 19-year-olds that do not wish to specialise in languages.

All good news for the future if implemented, but not particularly helpful to the current crop of linguistically challenged British scientists, who appear to eschew the allure of European science and head straight across the big pond to the United States. Maggie Harnett of Glasgow University's immunology department believes that there has long been a perception that the best science is carried out in the U.S. or UK. That, coupled with the language barrier, has traditionally deterred British scientists from working in Europe. However, Harnett thinks that some European labs are gaining better reputations and that there may be a shift away from the U.S. as first choice for foreign study. But it seems that most British scientists still don't see any great need to improve their language skills as English is used in many European labs and at all international meetings.

This is not a sentiment shared by Guy Ourisson, president of the Academie des Sciences and Strasbourg University. At a recent European Science Foundation Assembly, he suggested that "teaching should be done in three languages at university level and in research." He claimed that a vital component of pan-European collaboration was greater linguistic versatility, posing the rather controversial question, "Is the universal use of elementary English in science really the only solution?" At the moment it would appear so, though greater efforts could be made by British scientists, if only to narrow the cultural gaps and make discourse with our European counterparts a more productive experience.

Despite the poor numbers of undergraduate scientists heading for Europe, there are significant numbers of Ph.D. students and postdocs taking up the challenge of working abroad. Steven Reid, an immunologist from Glasgow, spent 18 months working in Milan for an academic lab within a pharmaceutical company. Unable to speak a word of Italian, he signed up for a crash course at the Hetherington Language Centre at Glasgow University. Although this proved helpful, he still felt as if he was struggling for the first 6 months. He explains: "Communication in the lab and at meetings was O.K. as English was spoken most of the time, but at coffee and lunch breaks it was difficult to follow the conversation." Luckily, there was another British person in the lab, which made him feel less isolated. His employer also arranged for a private tutor to teach him Italian twice a week, resulting in fluency by the time he headed home.

Steven feels that the challenge of learning a new language and experiencing another culture was ultimately rewarding, and one which could enhance his career prospects. Increasingly employers are looking beyond their immediate regional labour market to a wider European market. Many European students are spending part of their higher education in another European country and will be future competitors in the ever-widening job market. For those who are interested in a work placement in Europe, as opposed to study, help is available through the Leonardo programme, which offers support for work placements and exchanges in science and technology. An exchange under Leonardo is an exchange of experience or know-how between firms, universities, training organisations, instructors, or lecturers. These exchanges generally last between 2 and 12 weeks, but can be longer.

If you are interested in working in a European lab but are worried about lack of linguistic ability, most university language departments have language laboratories and self-teach facilities, so it is worth contacting them to find out what is available. And many universities run extramural adult education classes in languages, which is a good way to meet nonscientists and brush up your language skills at the same time.

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