Should There Be an Official Language of Lab?

Isn’t the official language of science…science? Well, there’s no doubt science is a language of it’s own, but international conferences have opted for English as the primary means of communication. Talks, poster sessions, and exhibit halls all expect registrants to speak the same language. Yet once everyone returns home to their respective labs, should the language rules still apply?

There’s no question that assembling a lab from individuals with diverse backgrounds, nationalities and worldviews is a benefit; however, issues of language in the workplace are complicated. In the United States, the equal employment opportunity commission has adopted strict guidelines for English-only rules in the workplace. Specifically, two scenarios are described:

(a) When applied at all times. A rule requiring employees to speak only English at all times in the workplace is a burdensome term and condition of employment. The primary language of an individual is often an essential national origin characteristic. Prohibiting employees at all times, in the workplace, from speaking their primary language or the

language they speak most comfortably, disadvantages an individual’s employment opportunities on the basis of national origin. It may also create an atmosphere of inferiority, isolation and intimidation based on national origin which could result in a discriminatory working environment. Therefore, the Commission will presume that such a rule violates title VII and will closely scrutinize it.

(b) When applied only at certain times. An employer may have a rule requiring that employees speak only in English at certain times where the employer can show that the rule is justified by business necessity.

Of course, thinking the law is clear cut is like thinking you’ll be the exception that gets your PhD in three years…it just ain’t right. A 2010 report (pdf, 19MB) by the US Commission on Civil Rights highlights a few of the legal conflicts that have arisen in recent years. In summary, the report recommends that an employer’s English-only policy be deemed unlawful if it’s enacted to exclude, embarrass or harass employees based on their country of national origin.

Setting legal issues aside, effective communication in the lab is extremely important. At a practical level, miscommunication could result in safety issues as well as technical problems with performing experiments. There is also the issue of lab morale when a subset of the group speaks in a foreign language since it’s not uncommon for labmates to wonder whether the conversation and laughter is at their expense. Over time, what begins as a minor discomfort or insecurity can end up shredding the fabric of the lab.

So what’s a PI to do – does it make sense to declare an official language of lab? If a full-time language requirement seems excessive, perhaps guidelines would only apply during work hours, allowing early birds and night owls to converse in the language of their choosing. Or maybe the language of science is all that matters and as long as lab members are productive, they can do whatever they want.

What do you think the language policy of a lab should be?


When should everyone be required to speak the same language in lab?

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Other articles dealing with issues scientists may face when working in another country:

How to Address the Funky-Smelling Lunch Problem

Leaving the Academic Path (and Country) to Find a Job

The Non-U.S. Postdoc, Part 1

The Non-U.S. Postdoc, Part 2

BenchFly’s Football Primer: Science-ized



4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Linda

    wrote on November 16, 2011 at 10:12 am

    When I was a postdoc, about 75% of the group was from the same foreign country. We didn't have an "English-only" policy and an unexpected consequence was that whenever someone like a sales rep, rotation student or new lab member came in, it suddenly became my responsibility to deal with them since everyone else claimed a language barrier. Needless to say, that got old very fast.

  2. blotter

    wrote on November 16, 2011 at 10:44 am

    this may not justify making an official language rule, but in my graduate lab we had a chinese postdoc who came speaking very little english. but since he was the only chinese-speaking person in lab, he was forced to speak english to communicate. everyone in the group was amazed at how quickly his english improved and beyond benefits to lab, his improved english increased his confidence when giving presentations and ultimately helped him get a job.

    i've also been in a lab where foreign speakers were allowed to speak to each other in their mother tongue all day and their english never noticeably improved. maybe we should consider learning the language part of their professional development.

  3. TNT

    wrote on November 16, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    English is the language of science and as a foreign student and postdoc, in the US especially, one should consider speaking English a big part of their career development.
    I have met many foreigners who did not use their English regularly and their presentation skills, their ability to communicate their science (taking questions, writing papers, understanding other peoples work) suffered greatly from it.
    Even if you are talking about science and not about me in another language I would still like to learn from your conversation, and who knows, maybe I'll have something useful to add to your discussion.

  4. Jon S

    wrote on November 17, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    I worked in France for several years and struggled with the language the entire time, despite having access to company-paid language training the whole time. Not only did my employer and co-workers expect me to speak in their native language (along with all the other non-French employees), but expected it of myself! I enjoyed being able to mentally decompress during ithe work day with other English-speakers, but it likely slowed my French language development. Like many in the U.S., I now work with many non-native English speakers. There is a group of Chinese speakers to have lunch together and speak Chinese in a different room from the "English lunch" group, but I think it's cool. I wonder, though, if I feel this way because their English is excellent. We have another person in our group that has been in the U.S. for over 20 years, and he barely speaks English. If I saw him speaking Chinese every day at lunch, I think I would be irritated.

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