Too many languages

Ask Alice

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Alice and her friends answer questions that you don’t want to ask your preceptor, peer, or colleagues regarding your career in science. Send your questions to Alice’s attention via SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

Dear Alice,

"I already spoke my mind, so I don’t want to complain again. What can I do?" —Lang

Q: I recently joined a lab that just relocated from Germany to the United States. My mentor and the German group that followed him are very nice and fun to be around. But they speak their native language most of the time—unintentionally I’m sure. I kept quiet for a couple of weeks, thinking they would soon get used to conversing in English, but things got worse instead. 

I brought up the issue during a lab meeting and things improved for a while, but they slowly regressed to the original point. Now the lab is slightly bigger and more diverse, but because of the language, a sort of hierarchy has developed; there is a distinction between German- and non-German speakers that makes me (and probably others) uncomfortable. 

I already spoke my mind, so I don’t want to complain again. What can I do? 

Please, don’t take me wrong; it’s not that I don’t like their language, but because all of us are making an effort to speak English to integrate into the group—we are all from non-English-speaking countries—I find it rude when they, especially the boss, don’t make the same effort.

Thank you.

—Lang

Dear Lang,

A: Language problems in the laboratory are common. The decision about what language should be used in the lab needs to come from the leader of the group. Your mentor or group leader may not be paying enough attention to this, so mention it again during a private conversation. It may help to invite a fellow lab mate to join you. Let your mentor know that you enjoy the work and the group camaraderie, but you and other members of the lab who are non-native German speakers feel left out when discussions are held in German. Make it clear that the success of the social dynamic in the lab depends on making all of its members feel included and part of a common effort. Have this talk soon so that German does not become entrenched.

Your mentor should realize that it is important to use English, because it is the lingua franca of science. It is especially worrisome when students from other countries are not receiving the necessary training in English, which is so central to becoming successful international communicators for their own science. Luckily, your lab is in the United States, so in time English will likely become the dominant language; otherwise the lab will become isolated, scientifically and socially. I can understand that you might not want to wait for that transition.

Other laboratories have successfully negotiated similar situations. Often a compromise is made where English is required for all scientific discussions and presentations, whether formal or informal, while another language is permitted in social and personal interactions. This works when only a few people in the lab have another language preference, but it is not ideal when a language cohort is large enough to exclude others socially.

It may take a little persistence, but polite reminders will likely do the trick.

Good luck,

—Alice

doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1500114

Alice Huang

Dr. Huang is one of the pioneering researchers in molecular animal virology. She trained at Wellesley College and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. She has worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard Medical School, New York University (NYU), and California Institute of Technology. She has served on the boards of the University of Massachusetts, Johns Hopkins University, and the Keck Graduate Institute at the Claremont Colleges, in addition to many other nonprofit organizations. She introduced vesicular stomatitis virus as an experimental model in virology. She carried out many of the initial investigations on the molecular biology of virion structure, replication, macromolecular synthesis, viral spread, and virulence. Her work on the virion-associated RNA-dependent RNA polymerase led to the grouping of many viruses as negative-strand viruses. Her studies on pseudotypes, especially between RNA and DNA viruses, demonstrate the spread of viruses to new host cells and provide important tools for genetic engineering.

As a teacher, Dr. Huang has taught and mentored undergraduates, graduate students, medical students, postdoctoral research fellows, and clinical fellows. She has guided junior faculty members and department chairs. As an administrator, Dr. Huang provided the vision and obtained support for beginning what is now known as “Silicon Alley” around the NYU neighborhood. She is a past president of both the American Society for Microbiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science Careers), two of the largest scientific societies in the world. She also dedicated 18 years to shepherding the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, together with Sydney Brenner and Chris Tan, into a successful center of research in what is now known as the Biopolis in Singapore. She continues to consult with research institutions and governments, sharing her expertise and practicing science diplomacy and policy.

Throughout her career, Dr. Huang has advocated for women in science. She encourages thoughtful approaches to reforms in teaching, to attract students with diverse backgrounds and interests to become interested in and committed to careers in science. She has been honored for her advocacy as well for her research accomplishments. Her wealth of experience as a leader and team player in research, administration, and advocacy prepares her well to provide advice to those pursuing careers in science.

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