English and Science in China and Japan

« previous post | next post »

Yesterday I had the opportunity for an eye-opening talk with a man who for 20 years has been the director of a world-renowned biochemistry and physiology research institute.  His job frequently takes him to key labs in China and Japan, and he always has scores of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean staff scientists and postdocs working in his own labs.  Here are some of the mind-boggling things the director told me:


1. In their labs, when Chinese and Japanese scientists are engaged in discussions on research topics, they often speak in English or heavily lace their Chinese and Japanese with English.

2. Chinese and Japanese scientists regularly write to each other in English, often even on non-research topics.

3. There is an extremely strong imperative in the scientific culture of China and Japan to publish in English language journals.  In China, there is even a fixed award schedule for researchers who get published in top English language journals, from very large monetary bonuses to individuals whose work makes it into the pages of Science and Nature, on down through lesser, but still substantial, rewards for work in less prestigious, specialized journals.

4. English is the de facto language of scientific culture in China and Japan.

5. The Chinese government and Chinese business interests offer scientists who have landed coveted positions in American universities and industry extremely lucrative packages to buy them back to the motherland.  So great are the financial inducements that American institutions simply cannot match them.

6. Many labs in China are now state-of-the-art with world-class equipment purchased abroad; the best labs in China are even better equipped than the general run of labs in America.

7. Despite all of these manifest attractions, Chinese scientists often hesitate to return to the motherland because of the political, social, and economic climate.

8. Finally, and this is a very delicate subject, the FBI frequently contacts the director and sometimes comes to the director's institute to discuss sensitive matters concerning espionage carried out by Chinese scientists working in his labs.  One woman scientist who had worked at the director's institute was actually caught red-handed acquiring classified, high-technology equipment through her position in the institute and sending it back to China with the help of her husband (she apparently had been doing this for years before she was apprehended).  Astonishingly, this female Chinese scientist was neither imprisoned nor deported from the United States; she merely lost her job at the research institute.

Some of what the distinguished director told me I had heard or seen previously for myself, but I had never before received such a complete and coherent account from such an authoritative source.  Everything he says offers confirmation for what William C. Hannas wrote in his prescient books, The Writing on the Wall and Asia's Orthographic Dilemma.  If anyone were systematically to gather information from scientists in positions of authority at scores of major research institutes in academia, industry, and business, as well as investigate what really goes on in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean research institutes in terms of organized acquisition of high-technology equipment, sensitive databases, proprietary designs and processes, patented engineering blueprints, and so forth, I am sure that their findings would provide even more devastating confirmation for Hannas's pathbreaking volumes.

I only wish to add that there are signs that the surge toward English in East Asia is also encroaching upon the social sciences and even the humanities in certain sectors.  I will here only give one small example by way of evidence, but could cite many more instances from my own experience.

Two weeks ago, a well-known Chinese historian, who has been my friend for about twenty years and who is the head of a research institute in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), wrote to me saying that the powers-that-be in CASS had issued an urgently-worded directive that research units under their administration should go all out to publish their individual work in English, that journals from CASS should have English versions, and, moreover, that adequate financial support would be provided to pay for skilled English translators from outside of China at going rates.

Thirty years ago, I predicted that all of this (the rapid shift to English) would happen IF East Asian countries did not aggressively expand the applications of Romanization for their own languages.  To my mind at the time, this was simply a foregone conclusion due to the archaic nature of sinographic writing and the relatively inflexible phonetic representational ability of syllabic writing in comparison with alphabetic scripts.

A last footnote:  Several astute, impartial observers (both in East Asia and in the West) have mentioned to me that China is fast becoming (albeit still somewhat clandestinely) the world's largest Christian nation, and we already know how important a role Christianity plays in Korea and among the Korean diaspora (the anomaly is Japan, where Christianity has made little headway since its severe persecution several centuries ago, shortly after it arrived there; this is probably due to the overwhelming role that Buddhism [and to a lesser extent Shinto] plays in all areas of public and private life).  It seems to me rather curious that the Englishization, as it were, of language usage in China is taking place in tandem with the Christianization of belief.  (Please note that I am a complete agnostic and that I have long since been thoroughly Sinicized in terms of my own language usage, so I have absolutely no stake in the Englishization or Christianization of China; I am only reporting what I have witnessed — as we might say in Chinese, this is a brief JIAN4WEN2 JI4 見聞記 ["a record of things seen and heard"].)



61 Comments

  1. John Cowan said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

    The details are doubtless different, but I think that the anglicization of published science (and indeed scholarship in general) is pretty much ongoing in every country and every field, though of course not all to the same degree. So I find it quite unlikely that the absence of high-quality romanization plays a large role here. After all, the "romanization" of English is well-known to be awful, and yet English has become dominant anyway!

    The situation in computer science, at least, is unmistakable: the notion of not publishing in English, no matter where you come from, what your home language is, or where the journal is, is practically unthinkable.

  2. Nathan Myers said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    I wonder if this is an example of a common historical phenomenon: a language is abandoned without coercion, wholesale, when it is perceived as too complicated and unwieldy, and a usable alternative presents itself. A recent LL comment noted that Danish was on its way to this condition. Wholesale adoption of Romance in place of Gaulish must have happened this way in many places.

    Of course language is not the only area where this may occur. Horses aren't used much for transportation any more, nor rocks for tools.

  3. Sky Onosson said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

    One might wonder what the corresponding situation is like in Vietnam, or any other Asian country where romanization of the official national language is firmly in place (I pick Vietnam as an obvious example of a language that used to be written with a Chinese-based orthography, but there are of course other examples like Malaysia, Indonesia etc.). I would venture to guess that John Cowan's suspicion is on the mark in regards to English dominance in many fields of scholarship, though I have no actual evidence to back that up.

  4. bianca steele said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

    In my experience, Chinese engineers (living in the US) do use English for words they might not have had reason to use before they came to the US. As for emails, this isn't exactly on-topic, but what happens to a language when it is used for email and IMing more than any other use?

  5. marie-lucie said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

    Wholesale adoption of Romance in place of Gaulish…

    From what I know about Gaulish, it seems to me that structurally it was not widely different from Latin, so it would not have been too difficult for Gauls to learn Latin, but it took several centuries for romanization to be more or less complete, and it never was completed in Brittany (where there was a new influx of Celtic speakers from Britain) and parts of the Basque Country.

  6. Bryn LaFollette said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 7:34 pm

    I would agree with John Cowan's impression as well. Anglicisation of journal publication from just about any given country is the norm of the day just by virtue of the fact that it's the current lingua franca that will be understood by the widest cross-section of the world-wide scientific community. I don't see how there is any possible connection to the orthography involved, and as Sky Onosson points out, Vietnam is a perfect control case. Can anyone say that Vietnamese scientists are sticking to publishing only in Vietnamese? I wouldn't expect it. Plenty of the countries of Europe, including that of the origin of the Roman Alphabet itself, Italy, routinely publishes in English Journals in parallel with Italian.

    Further, in my experience, among the Japanese there is absolutely zero interest in Romanizing the writing of their language, nor is there any sense that this is in the least bit likely to ever occur. There is enormous whole-sale borrowing of English vocabulary to be sure, but all of it is rendered in phonetic approximation using Katakana. While any adult Japanese person is able to read and write in the Roman script, the preference is still to use Katakana in normal writing, not Roman characters. As for why a Japanese researcher would be likely to use English to interact with Chinese colleagues, from the Japanese professionals with whom I've worked, when the subject of Chinese came up they were generally of the mind that they were more interested in learning English, and that knowledge of spoken Chinese is relatively minimal even among highly-educated Japanese.

    Four hundred years ago in Europe, virtually all scientific publication was done in Latin, and obviously no one abandoned their native language in its favor for anything other than scientific publication. Sure, in most all European languages today the vast majority of scientific technical terminology was borrowed from Latin or Greek, directly, even in languages descending from those languages. But in Japanese today, most technical scientific terminology is of Chinese origin, and Sino-Japanese is still extremely productive in the coining of new technical terminology (although in computer science and some other areas, borrowed English is becoming fairly widespread as well). I guess my overall point is that I don't see how the current prominence of English in the scientific community is anything special or new, nor do I see how the age or orthography plays any role in it. If Latin vocabulary can be productively used to coin ultra-modern scientific terms, and Sino-Japanese can do the same in Japanese, where does the "archaism" of the Chinese writing system come into play? Just in the ability to borrow English terms into Chinese writing?

    Ultimately, English isn't going to be so central forever. And, if Chinese geo-political influence grew a little stronger such that Chinese were more prominant in usage between non-Chinese, I am highly skeptical that Chinese-language scientific journals (which would surely grow in prominence) would be written in a Romanized script rather than a Sino-logographic one, for the same reason that internationally English is still written in traditional English orthography, not a simlified, phonetically transparent variant.

  7. Jacinta said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 7:38 pm

    "One woman scientist", "this female Chinese scientist". Why not "One scientist", "this Chinese scientist"? It would read much better and "scientist" isn't a gendered term needing disambiguation. The pronoun "her" later in the sentence conveys gender for the reader, so far as it's needed.

    You'd never write "One man scientist", "this male Chinese scientist" because it sounds awkward. So should what you wrote, it certainly does to me.

  8. bulbul said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 8:09 pm

    What John Cowan said. I am no programmer (though I play one in front of my coworkers), but whenever I talk to my coder friends (TALK-talk or IM-talk) about my/their work, our language becomes super-anglicized. In one such conversation, about 30% of nouns and 25% of verbs were English loans. And it's not just those which have become a part of standard Slovak vocabulary (server, link, …) – English terms are used for concepts with commonly used native equivalents (download, ping, boot, refresh, task, list, slot, flag, bugfix) and for concepts with less known native equivalents (parse, tag, join, patch). Slavic verbal affixes can do wonders.
    Yet the most interesting part is the way existing native words with a phonetic resemblance but no semantic link to the English term are used for that English word. For example, the archaic/obsolescent "fičúr" = "dandy" + the feminine suffix "-a" gives you "fičúra" = "feature".

  9. Ray Girvan said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    3. There is an extremely strong imperative in the scientific culture of China and Japan to publish in English language journals. In China, there is even a fixed award schedule for researchers

    Of related, and perhaps conected, interest: Do Certain Countries Produce Only Positive Results? A Systematic Review of Controlled Trials.

  10. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 8:58 pm

    Much of the impetus toward English in China and many other places derives from the economics of the textbook industry. China is populous enough to support a low-overhead textbook market in many subjects, but for advanced courses the production costs per copy will be high. This has been a problem in Europe for years — how many copies of a high-level Danish quantum physics text can you sell, even in Copenhagen? About 50, I'd guess.

    I translated a book about the economics of Greenland by Martin Paldam some years ago and he estimated there that it absorbs about 4% of Denmark's GDP to afford the luxury of textbooks printed in Danish.

    (@ Nathan Myers: I looked back in LL for a discussion of Danish and found only a reference to a Politiken article about the sad state of Danish pronunciation. Stop the presses!)

  11. Stephen Jones said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    I doubt it's the lack of Romanization. The French also publish in English, and it's not because they think English spelling is more logical.

  12. Dave Malinowski said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 9:41 pm

    It seems to me that a force that would drive many engineers in China and Japan to use English when they communicate with each other is not so much about what English IS as what it ISN'T: namely, Chinese or Japanese. The political costs of using a third language, while not insignificant in the least, might in many cases be smaller than deciding whose language is to serve as a common medium of communication.

    I find the ranking of English-language academic journals to be a fascinating topic. Has anyone seen a list, or know what criteria are used to decide prestige?

  13. Fluxor said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

    I concur with those that say that orthography is not the cause for valuing English in science and engineering. I regularly trade e-mails with my Chinese engineering colleagues and I gave them the option of communicating with me in either Chinese or English with the understanding that while my Chinese sucks, it may still be better than their English. All of them chose to communicate in Chinese. Their e-mails contain plenty of technical jargon, but it is interesting to see which terms they decide to use English and which they chose to stick with Chinese. It seems that they prefer Chinese jargon over English ones. Their manager, however, prefers to e-mail exclusively in English. The difference is that the manager got his university education in the US (up to Ph.D.), learned all of the technical jargon in English, and had lived in the US for 20 plus years.

    I also agree with Dan Lufkin on his point regarding text books. This situation is no different in China. While some widely used introductory textbooks have been translated, more advanced topics remain solely available in English.

  14. TB said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

    I like Language Log a lot, except for the bizarre fixation on the "necessity" of romanizing Chinese and Japanese, which comes up occasionally. I'm not a linguist, I barely know anything about linguistics (which is one reason I find this place so interesting), but it seems so arbitrary and weird to me. The evidence in favor of romanization always strikes me as really really weak, and more than that a case of seeing what you want to see rather than what's there. This post seems exactly like concern trolling, to me.

    I admit that I'm not impartial, and would be bummed to see Japanese change from their tripartite writing system (I love how the same word written in kanji, hiragana, and katakana will have three different shades of feeling) to boring ol' roman characters, but I could accept it if it was actually changing organically, which I see no sign of whatever.

    But what do I know. I think kids who send each other five hundred text messages a day are literate, even if they can't write every single character by hand.

  15. A-gu said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

    I don't at all follow your argument that the shift to English has anything to do with lack of Romanization. First, there's no evidence to suggest Sinographic writing — which the Koreans aren't even using — reduces literacy (and in what sense is Sinographic writing archaic?).

    Secondly, the main issue is the dominance of English-language journals & textbooks, and the Chinese desire to get more of their scientists peer-reviewed by the international community and to make their own journals internationally prominent. Third, the expansion of Christianity in China, while impressively fast, seems unlikely to outdo native religions in the long run.

  16. KYL said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

    Victor's observations are undoubtedly correct in some respects, and I've made similar observations in China, but I don't draw the same conclusions that he does.

    There's a great deal of prestige attached to English in China (unclear to me if this is still true in Japan), and working in English is perceived as the only way to be considered a serious scholar. In important ways, this is true as an objective matter. As everyone else has echoed, I can hardly conceive of an area of science scholarship where you can work on really advanced, cutting-edge material without English. The fact that English is pushed so hard here really doesn't surprise me.

    However, there's a great deal of prestige attached to the writing system with hanzi as well. The Chinese Communist Party itself spend a lot of energy to attack this prestige in the early days in preparation for wholesale romanization, but they ultimately backed down. I don't see them trying again.

    Moreover, with the increasing use of computers and phonetic/stroke-based input methods, hanzi-literacy is now more a matter of character recognition, which is much easier than being able to produce the characters by hand. This means that the cognitive and economic cost of having characters survive has been lowered.

    I wonder why people haven't suggested that China could go down a route similar to Japanese, and adopt a system where pinyin and hanzi are both used for writing. I think that's probably more likely to happen than complete abandonment of characters. Pinyin will be used for writing phrases and words where no ambiguity is possible, and hanzi used for names, 成语, fixed expressions, Classical Chinese allusions, poetry, and any expressions where the pinyin would cause ambiguity. You could write everything in pinyin if you wanted to, but sprinkle as much hanzi in as possible to demonstrate literary refinement. Overtime the use of characters will likely decline but stabilize at some level.

    Personally, I would like such a system. It would make learning to write and read much easier for children, and truly raise the level of literacy in China. John DeFrancis would probably like such a system: it's a compromise between wholesale pinyin-ization and sticking to characters only, improve literacy and maintain a connection with China's past. The Chinese like compromises.

    I'm not convinced that under such a bi-literate system, hanzi will not survive for a long time to come.

  17. E. T.-B. said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 12:14 am

    Like Jacinta, I was struck by the clunky gendered language. It's nice to write in a language that doesn't relentlessly gender every noun in sight—if you actually take advantage of it! This male scientist expects better from Language Log, which has treated singular "they" so lucidly.

  18. Neuroscientist said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 1:12 am

    @Dave Malinowski
    In the life sciences, journals are ranked by impact factor (based on the average number of citations of a given journal in a two-year period): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_factor

    Impact factors are at the core of scientific publishing in the field that I work in. Everyone tries to get their work accepted by high-impact journals. If you meet someone new, you look up their publication list – if there are high-impact papers, that makes their name stick in your mind. It would not surprise me in the least if Chinese biologists were paid based on the impact factor of the journals that they publish in. Basically, we are all paid on the basis of our impact factors – we get academic jobs because we publish well (i.e. high-impact), we get grant funding because we publish well, etc.

    Back to the main topic: Of course Chinese and Japanese scientists publish in English! As other people have pointed out, science is based on a communal effort to understand the world around us. Science advances because of many little steps taken by individual researchers. If no-one can understand the contributions of Chinese scientists because they publish in Chinese, other labs will have to do the exact same experiments all over again. We need a lingua franca (currently English in most fields of science) in order to communicate our results to other labs and to be able to use other labs' results to develop our projects.

  19. David said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 3:21 am

    KYL:

    There definitely still is a very great deal of prestige attached to English in Japan. In fact I think prestige is the main reason most people (attempt to) learn the language and the reason for the huge Eikaiwa industry of English conversation schools.

    By the way, the author seems to be saying that what he is describing is an undesirable situation. I don't see why it should be. That academic research in natural science is being published in the global lingua franca seems logical to me. It shouldn't have any big effect on the "survival" of Chinese and Japanese as languages. Much smaller nations have _always_ published their research in foreign languages (Latin -> German -> French -> English) and it hasn't threatened the survival of those languages.

  20. Achim said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 3:30 am

    A certain degree of Anglicization is going on in Germany, too. My institution is urged to hold a certain percentage of classes in English, we offer Master programs in English, etc. All this is an attempt to attract more international students, which in turn is looked upon as an indicator of academic renown. Needless to say, there are quite a few academics whose English is fine for presenting talks at international conferences or writing scholarly articles, but whom I doubt to be able to properly handle the classroom situation with its additional challenges. And it is an idea that becomes quite absurd if you think that a German academic is using BSE (no, not bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but "bad simple English") to teach German students (or international students whose native language isn't English, either).

    Of course, there are disciplines where anything beyond a textbook (and sometimes not even these) and the newspaper article for the general public is no longer written in German.

    Quite recently, in the Exzellenzwettbewerb, German institutions applying for German money distributed by a German funding body were obliged to submit their applications in English. My institution spent money on professional translators to brush up their documents.

  21. Stephen Jones said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 3:59 am

    I translated a book about the economics of Greenland by Martin Paldam some years ago and he estimated there that it absorbs about 4% of Denmark's GDP to afford the luxury of textbooks printed in Danish.

    This seems highly suspect to me. Is Paldam saying that one person in 25 is employed in translating textbooks, or is he simply pulling some made-up figures out of his hat on the deleterious effects of having textbooks in the native language.

    Countries that use native language for textbooks: Germany, Japan, France, Spain (and Catalonia), Russia.

    Countries that have English as the medium of much of their higher education: India, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait.

    Nuff said.

  22. peter said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 4:07 am

    "Thirty years ago, I predicted that all of this (the rapid shift to English) would happen IF East Asian countries did not aggressively expand the applications of Romanization for their own languages. To my mind at the time, this was simply a foregone conclusion due to the archaic nature of sinographic writing and the relatively inflexible phonetic representational ability of syllabic writing in comparison with alphabetic scripts."

    Sinographic writing "archaic"? Precisely how? Perhaps you really mean to write "ill-suited to contemporary western technological culture". But since contemporary western technological culture was primarily developed by people using romanized scripts, this would not be at all surprising. In fact, we should be surprised if it were otherwise. I think the use of the word "archaic" here is tendentious.

  23. Stephen Jones said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 4:08 am

    And it is an idea that becomes quite absurd if you think that a German academic is using BSE (no, not bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but "bad simple English") to teach German students (or international students whose native language isn't English, either).

    I can cap that. In Jubail they decided that they wanted a technical institute to provide electricians and welders for the workers in the industrial zone (The Industrial College provided the foremen and lower managers, and the University in Dhahran (KFUPM) provided the managers and scientists).

    For some absurd reason the managers of the local factories persuaded the Royal Commission that ran the show that it was imperative these welders and electricians spoke English. So it was decided they would have a one year preparatory year to get up to scratch in English followed by one year's training in their specialty.

    To add to the fun they recruited the better graduates at the Industrial College to be the instructors in the technical subjects. Now these students, although capable (more or less) of following a course in English, obviously weren't up to teaching in English so they sent them off to Canada for a year to learn English so they could teach their fellow Saudis in English.

    At least when the oil money was wasted on whisky, whores and Rolls-Royces somebody got some fun out of it.

  24. Stephen Jones said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 4:10 am

    Incidentally didn't Needham write about a dozen hefty tomes on how Sinographic script did not prevent the spreading of Science and Civilization in China?

  25. peter said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:18 am

    As long as ago as 1991, I worked for a major German company whose business planning department had earlier decided to use English for all internal communications, both written and spoken.

  26. Florence said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    I am no linguist, but I am always amazed when anyone suggest that the importance of a language has any root in the language itself. Do you really think European people spoke Latin for centuries because Latin was a "better" language than others, or because the people who spoke it originally conquered most of Europe? It would seem the answer is obvious, but apparently it's not, and this baffles me.

    I have often heard, as is suggested in the first comment, that English is better suited as an international language because it is simpler and easier to learn than others. This seems totally ridiculous to me. On the contrary, I strongly believe that English, or at least some flavors of it (especially the international lingua franca) has BECOME a much simpler language BECAUSE of the huge number of non-native speakers who use it. Not the other way around.

  27. language hat said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 8:08 am

    I like Language Log a lot

    That's hard to reconcile with your proceeding to this nasty, uncalled-for comment: "This post seems exactly like concern trolling, to me." The fact that someone has different attitudes from yours does not make them a troll.

    The topic of international use of English is an extremely interesting (as well as contentious) one, and I hope to see more studies of it.

  28. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    @ Stephen Jones — I can't locate the exact Paldam citation just now (the book shows up on Amazon as "unobtainable"), but I recall that his point was that the tiny press runs for Danish books and magazines added overhead to the consumer price that amounted to 4% factored into the GDP. Translators are at the bottom of the literary food-chain so the actual cost of translation can't contribute all that much. The cost of getting any book ready for press is pretty much independent of language, so the size of the press run plays a big role in the publisher's profit.

    Topic B — Some years ago I spent a rainy week in Ulm waiting for someone to show up and whiled away the time in a library learning to use a Chinese dictionary by radical and stroke-count. This is a skill I exercise very rarely nowadays and I wonder how much the intrinsic difficulty of ordering Chinese ideograms in an index or glossary affects the use of Chinese in textbooks and the like. I also have only a vague idea of how a Chinese keyboard works, but it's gotta be harder than QWERTY.

    Could some of LL's Sinologists comment?

  29. KYL said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:44 am

    @Dan Lufkin

    I'm not a sinologist, but I'll share my experience.

    Looking up characters by radical/stroke is not, to my mind, as simple as alphabetic indexing, and there's no doubt some additional cost to using a glossary/index with characters than alphabets. I doubt that this is the main force driving the adoption of English in college-level textbooks and courses though. The much more relevant reason seems to me the need to be exposed to the lingua franca of scientific research.

    As for typing Chinese, there are many input methods. Most people who are proficient in Standard Mandarin use a pinyin-based input method, which can be very fast if your IME's dictionary is good so that you spend little time picking between homophones. Some, especially users who aren't great at Standard Mandarin, use component-based input methods which essentially assign components of characters to different keys on the keyboard and allow you to break a character down and enter the components. These have a much higher learning curve, but with some training you can get very fast.

  30. Gavin Wraith said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Surprised to see no mention, unless I have missed it, of Nicholas Ostler's Empires of the Word, ISBN 0-00-711871-6.

  31. William Ockham said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 10:34 am

    This is a little off the main topic but this:

    One woman scientist who had worked at the director's institute was actually caught red-handed acquiring classified, high-technology equipment through her position in the institute and sending it back to China with the help of her husband (she apparently had been doing this for years before she was apprehended). Astonishingly, this female Chinese scientist was neither imprisoned nor deported from the United States; she merely lost her job at the research institute.

    Sometimes means that said scientist was 'turned', i.e. recruited to be a double agent.

  32. Irene said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    Establishing a universal lingua franca (regardless of the language) is a significant achievement of mankind. It provides access to the world's knowledge to every person on the planet who can use it (at least receptively) and facilitates the dissemination of new knowledge. I believe every educated person should be able to use the lingua franca receptively and all those who wish to share their knowledge should publish or communicate it in the lingua franca.

    I propose we start calling this English the global lingua franca or GLF (or maybe world-wide language WWL) to reduce its association with any particular culture and to promote its acceptance. As such, journals could require authors to submit manuscripts in GLF/WWL, it could be taught in schools as course LANG GLF 101, etc. As speakers of all languages would be using it, GLF might evolve separately from English and become a new, unique global language.

  33. Janet Swisher said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

    A few years ago, I worked at a multinational company with operations in Hong Kong and mainland China (I forget now exactly where). In conference calls, the Mandarin and Cantonese speakers would speak English with each other, even when the topic was of no concern to the Americans on the call. This was not for inclusiveness or openness. They had no compunction about speaking their native language with other speakers on the call who could understand them. English was simply their spoken lingua franca.

  34. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    Some of us will be pleased to learn that there are languages that stand athwart history. Friulian, for example, has a Societât Sientifiche e Tecnologjiche Furlane, established to encourage publication of scientific papers in Friulian.

    http://www.siencis-par-furlan.net/sstef.php

    Luckily, the society's web site also has an English version on-line.

  35. michael farris said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

    "I propose we start calling this English the global lingua franca or GLF (or maybe world-wide language WWL) to reduce its association with any particular culture and to promote its acceptance."

    The problem is that won't change the fact that it will still be far more associated with some cultures than others and just reinforces a model of winners (native speakers) also rans (second language speakers) and losers (non-speakers).

    Now a neutralized, colorless international standard (that native speakers had to consciously use) as a starting point for cross linguistic communication suits me fine but that won't fly with lots of people.

    I also really dislike the idea of a language every educated person knows. My least favorite time in a foreign country ever was in the Netherlands where attempts to speak Dutch were inevitably met with abrupt, dismissive English. What's the fun in that?

  36. michael farris said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    (that native speakers had to consciously use)

    should be

    (that native speakers had to consciously learn and would be expected to use)

  37. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    @Nathan Meyers:

    "I wonder if this is an example of a common historical phenomenon: a language is abandoned without coercion, wholesale, when it is perceived as too complicated and unwieldy, and a usable alternative presents itself"

    I had a colleague in Ghana who spoke five languages other than his own with admirable fluency, and not particularly closely related languages, at that (not a rare ability in Africa,by the way). I asked him which was the most difficult and he didn't hesitate a second before saying "English, because it's the most different".

    "Complicated and unwieldy" is in the ear of the listener.

  38. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    Myers, not Meyers – apologies as a lifelong speller-out of my own name on telephones …

  39. kledon said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    There are a number of complications that make romanisation of Chinese more difficult, not least of which is the sheer breadth of variety of pronunciation in the dialects in spoken Chinese. You can romanise Chinese as well as is possible, but if someone from one city cannot understand someone from another city, then it is in vain. Such is the benefit of hanzi – practically all of China uses the characters, despite pronouncing them differently, and they are cognates to a large proportion of Japanese kanji as well as several other East Asian ideographic character sets (although some, such as Korean, are somewhat deprecated). And if you're weighing a common written language in academia of several East Asian nations against a common written and spoken language in academia of practically every nation that participates in 'the open society', then it's little surprise which one will win.

    And I think that English does have a number of features that means it more readily lends itself to use as a lingua franca: for a start, it has relatively loose syntax, sparse grammatical gender, and fewer cases. The dual heritage of English from Romance and Germanic sources must have also made it relatively easy to acquire for speakers of languages from those lineages.

    Generally, despite the dislike of those who prescribe English language (and perhaps partly because), it is less strictly prescribed than its continental counterparts; while the de facto authority in English is often Oxford (though it often departs from common usage, even in formal language), Oxford is less prescriptive towards English than the respective centres of authority in languages such as French and Italian.

    Of course, the geopolitical history of English (including English imperialism and the rise and remain of America as a global power) and the status of second languages in a number of countries (the education systems of a large number of European countries expect English as a foreign language, sometimes alongside another; the English and American education systems, on the other hand, don't expect as much from their students) would also have strong roles in the rise of English as an important language in science.

  40. TB said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

    Language hat, I had a feeling I would be scolded for that, after I posted it. I don't think that Victor Mair is a troll, but I also don't have any respect for his opinion on this issue; this post and his one about people not being able to write "Taiwan" have convinced me not to. That's just a disagreement, though, like you said. I'm sure he's in good faith, unlike a concern troll, and I've read his other posts with interest. So I'm sorry I put it that way.

  41. Bryn LaFollette said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    kledon: "I think that English does have a number of features that means it more readily lends itself to use as a lingua franca: for a start, it has relatively loose syntax, sparse grammatical gender, and fewer cases."

    Than what, exactly? Certainly not Mandarin or Cantonese. These same claims about English's "inherent suitability" have been treated upon already in these comments a bit, and I think that this argument really doesn't hold water. English is a de facto Lingua Franca for no other reason that I can see than the current historical hegemony of America in the West (compared with Russian and Russia) following on the heels of the prominence of the British Empire in the last century. As a linguist, I don't see how there's anything easy or simple about Modern English. Likewise, the previous widespread languages filling this role were Latin, German (especially in science), and French. I think it's hard to argue any of those gave way to any other by virtue of structural suitability, rather just as with English, it is merely an accident (or outcome, depending upon your feelings) of history.

  42. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    It has always seemed to me that someone who describes a language as "easy" is either

    (a) a linguistically naive native speaker (this includes many otherwise well-educated folk)
    (b) a non-native speaker whose control of the language is much worse than he thinks

    Re (a): There's an episode in Primo Levi's "The Truce" where some Russians villagers are amazed that Levi can't speak Russian – after all, even small children manage to …

  43. peter said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    "and we already know how important a role Christianity plays in Korea and among the Korean diaspora (the anomaly is Japan, where Christianity has made little headway since its severe persecution several centuries ago, shortly after it arrived there; this is probably due to the overwhelming role that Buddhism [and to a lesser extent Shinto] plays in all areas of public and private life). "

    Unlike Japan, within living memory Korea was occupied for 35 years by a cruel and sadistic, fascist military dictatorship (that of Japan), and then divided in two these last six decades. Many, perhaps even most, Korean families have relatives in both halves. The northern half, the DPRK, is run as a slave state, and is the least-free society on earth. In contrast, Japan endured a mere 7 years of a relatively benign military occupation (by the USA). It is not surprising, given its history, that many people in what is now the Republic of Korea (aka South Korea) should be attracted to non-traditional religions. It is not just denominational Christianity that has benefited from this interest. By one estimate, there have been over 1000 self-proclaimed Messiahs in the ROK since 1945.

  44. vanya said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

    Michael,
    When Dutch people insist on speaking English to me I usually answer in German. That usually encourages them to switch to Dutch.

    I agree with many others here that Victor is way off base insisting that "archaic" characters are the issue here. English is becoming just as dominant in Russia, and the Latin alphabet is not superior to the Cyrillic.

  45. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    @ David Eddyshaw — I suppose many LLs know the Spanish poem «Admiróse un portugués …» along the same lines:

    http://www.poesia-inter.net/nfm003.htm

    which has an awkward English translation.

  46. Mark F. said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

    John McWhorter's book The Power of Babel addresses the issue of whether some languages are in any meaningful sense simpler than others. He says that languages that have been "subjected to a lot of foreign-language learning", like English and really all the other major world languages, tend to be simpler than languages spoken by very small communities with little outside contact. I hope I'm not misrepresenting what he said, and I think the claim is very difficult to quantify, but I can believe that difficulty of learning a language isn't purely a matter of how different it is from your own.

  47. Don Campbell said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

    @David Eddyshaw

    I agree but the reverse is also true:

    Someone who describes a language as "hard" is usually:

    (a) a linguistically naive native speaker (this includes many otherwise well-educated folk)
    (b) a non-native speaker whose control of the language is [as bad or] much worse than he thinks

  48. Nathan Myers said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

    Dan Lufkin: About Danish, I was referring to the short youtube film Mark L. referenced in the "Mutual Intelligibility" thread: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=1211#comment-24984 . Perhaps it's a small exaggeration.

    Irene: [Global Lingua Franca] might evolve separately from English and become a new, unique global language One may argue that this has already occurred; it's just that we still, mistakenly, call it English, which really only upsets the English.

    David Eddyshaw: "Complicated and unwieldy", in the case of Mandarin, refers to the writing system and the effects of the writing system, e.g. rapid degeneration of multisyllabic words to one necessarily homophonic syllable. I gather spoken Cantonese suffers much less from the latter, being written less. I am under no illusion that written English is notably wieldy, except in comparison.

    kledon: the benefit of hanzi – practically all of China uses the characters, despite pronouncing them differently… I have been led to understand that this is a persistent (and rather nasty) myth; rather, they are pronounced more or less the same everywhere, and when pronounced amount to Mandarin or Cantonese or another language; but mostly it is Mandarin that is written, and read, so that a literate speaker of Cantonese is perforce bilingual.

  49. marie-lucie said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 11:07 pm

    NM: the effects of the writing system, e.g. rapid degeneration of multisyllabic words to one necessarily homophonic syllable

    I fail to see how the writing system can cause "rapid degeneration". Do you mean the fact that some words are simplified in writing, much as in English one would use initials to form acronyms rather than the corresponding long words (eg "USA")?

  50. Fluxor said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 12:37 am

    Nathan Myers wrote:

    "Complicated and unwieldy", in the case of Mandarin, refers to the writing system and the effects of the writing system, e.g. rapid degeneration of multisyllabic words to one necessarily homophonic syllable. I gather spoken Cantonese suffers much less from the latter, being written less. (emphasis mine)

    Actually, I find the case to be quite the opposite — Cantonese seems to use more single character words than Mandarin. Cantonese has more tones and thus can get away with using more monosyllabic words than Mandarin. Typical examples can be found with simple everyday vocabulary, e.g. features of the face. Cantonese speakers will typically use a single character for eyes (眼), nose (鼻), mouth (嘴), neck (頸) while Mandarin speakers will typically use two characters words for the same things — eyes (眼睛), nose (鼻子), mouth (嘴巴), neck (脖子).

  51. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:48 am

    @Mark F:

    I think I may be in danger of overstating my case: while I don't believe there are any truly "easy" languages, I think it's difficult to deny that there are definitely some difficult ones where the difficulty is no mere matter of distance from the familiar.

    I suspect (for example) that in the whole history of humanity the number of people who've learnt to speak an Athabaskan language really well, and didn't get raised with another Athabaskan language, is in no more than three figures …

    I think I would also readily concede that some languages are in themselves easier to speak badly but usefully than others, that is, it's easier to pick up how to make comprehensible sentences even if they are grammatically imperfect.

    There's another phenomenon I've noticed about languages widely used by non-native speakers; the native speakers themselves get better at coping with non-native versions of their language. In northern Ghana even Hausas are used to hearing and coping with "bad" Hausa; whereas I found that with the local relatively small tribal language you basically had to try much harder to get things right in order to communicate effectively at all.

    I suspect this difference in degree of tolerance for foreigners' versions of one's language contributes to the idea that the big lingua francas are "easier" – the relevant speech community is more fault tolerant.

  52. marie-lucie said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    "Difficult" languages are usually those which require a high degree of memorization of morphological forms, and they are especially difficult for native speakers of languages with few such forms. For instance, most English speakers feel overwhelmed by the large number of forms in French or Spanish verbs, while a French speaker learning Spanish or Italian also has to memorize a lot of forms but is not surprised by the fact that verbs do have many forms. Latin or Russian declensions also require a lot of memorization. The Athabaskan situation is similar. English on the other hand has very little morphology which needs to be memorized, but syntax is more difficult because it is so analytical: verbs occur in possible long strings of words (eg in "I will have been expecting you") as well as dual-word combinations with often unpredictable meaning (get off, etc); noun phrases can be very long and complex, and nowadays compound verbs (written as two words, for instance "people watch") can make it difficult for a learner to decide which words are supposed to go together. But it is easier on a learner to speak English badly (stringing words together) than to speak Russian badly (searching one's memory for the forms, with awareness that one is probably not using the right ones).

  53. Stephen Jones said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    Dan Lufkin

    I honestly fail to see how the additional cost of producing text books in Danish amounts to 4% of the GDP. The Danes probably don't even spend 0.4% of the GDP on textbooks.

  54. John Cowan said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 12:25 pm

    Well, this has been quite a dogpile/pigpile on poor Victor, with me as leader of the pack, but I would like to affirm one of Victor's points, namely that hanzi writing is archaic.

    There are four known original writing systems, those which are not derived either directly or by stimulus diffusion from other writing systems.These are Mayan, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Sumerian cuneiform, and hanzi, and all of them are morpho-syllabic in nature. That is, there is roughly one symbol per syllable of a distinct morpheme, as opposed to simple syllabaries, where all syllables pronounced the same are written the same. In hanzi, the determinatives/radicals that help to tell one morpheme from another have become part of the character, whereas in the other systems they are written separately before it, but the difference is purely typographical.

    Of these systems and other morpho-syllabic systems derived from them, only hanzi are in use today. So hanzi are archaic in the same sense that Lithuanian and Latvian cases are archaic: they preserve the original Indo-European situation elsewhere lost or greatly simplified. (By contrast, Finno-Ugric cases are mostly innovative.)

  55. Ken Brown said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    Nothing to do with Chinese or otherwise. The situation described in the opening post is global. That's how science is done these days.

    Exactly the same is happening to French and Russian scientific publishing and has already happened to German or Greek. I know people who have worked in German labs without knowing how to speak German. One recent colleague of mine got his equivalent of a PhD in a German university and hardly used a word of German.

    In the bit of science I have studied most recently, bioinformatics & molecular genetics, effectively all work is published in English and always has been for the very short history of the subject.

    What is interesting is the comment about Christianity. Missionaries and evangelicals in general have been saying things like that for a long time now. I have often wondered how much of it was wishful thinking. We know it actually did happen in Korea, now it looks as if it might actually be happening in China.

  56. peter said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 5:38 pm

    Victor wrote:

    "Thirty years ago, I predicted that all of this (the rapid shift to English) would happen IF East Asian countries did not aggressively expand the applications of Romanization for their own languages. To my mind at the time, this was simply a foregone conclusion due to the archaic nature of sinographic writing and the relatively inflexible phonetic representational ability of syllabic writing in comparison with alphabetic scripts."

    In response, I asked: In precisely what sense is sinographic writing archaic? John Cowan has responded by saying that it is archaic in the precise sense of being very old.

    This response leaves me more confused than previously. I would welcome an explanation as to how the great age of sinographic writing could thereby encourage its users to switch to English, as Victor claimed.

  57. David Eddyshaw said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 6:54 pm

    Surely alphabetic writing is no spring chicken, if we're throwing about terms like "archaic"?

  58. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 7:00 pm

    @ Stephen Jones — I agree that textbooks are a very minor part of the GDP of Denmark. That's why I said "books and magazines". The small press-run phenomenon applies across the printed word, it's just more draconian in the textbook instance. At any rate, I'm just passing on what M. Paldam, who's like the Paul Samuelson of Denmark, put in his book.

    Paldam accepted my translation and said that he was going to make some additions to it. It dealt primarily with the economy of Greenland (what there is of it) and he was going to include more Danish data. That was about 10 years ago and AFAIK, he's still working on it. As I said, Amazon has a book of the appropriate title, but it's "unavailable". I'd like to see it spelled out better myself, but when you look at the sales figures for Danish literature and newspapers, I think he's on to something.

  59. matt said,

    March 14, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    "There are four known original writing systems, those which are not derived either directly or by stimulus diffusion from other writing systems.These are Mayan, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Sumerian cuneiform, and hanzi, and all of them are morpho-syllabic in nature.

    From what I understand, Egyptian hieroglyphs are not exactly morpho-syllabic in character, but rather consist of consonantal symbols (written in various unstandarised ways) with a determiner (which is often not used, in a similar fashion to how "logographic" hanzi are used purely for phonetic value when the writer doesn't know the character). Morpho-abjadic is probably a better way to describe Egyptian Hieroglyphs.

  60. Aaron Davies said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 6:04 am

    istr reading somewhere that one reason for the lack of uptake of xianity in modern japan is that what native community there was was centered in nagasaki…

  61. marie-lucie said,

    March 16, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    matt: "morpho-abjadic": gloss please?

RSS feed for comments on this post