Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Jessica Love On The Burden Of Being A Non-English-Speaking Scientist


Meh. I'm not sure what to make of this. It kind of sounds like much ado about little... But we can at least say: other things being equal, you're lucky to be a native English speaker if you want to do science. (Of course and unfortunately, the ubiquitous term "privilege" creeps into the essay at the end, in its accustomed role: facilitating a bit of self-flagellation). It's a little weird to rend one's garments over the fact that non-native speakers who move to the U.S. have an extra cognitive burden to bear...  I mean, I wish I could snap my fingers and give them all perfect facility with the language...but they did know what they'd be getting into when they made the move...  That more and more science even overseas is (allegedly) done in English is a different matter...though I'm not sure what to make of it.

This seems pretty erroneous to me, however:
Another quirk to master: arguments themselves are constructed differently in English than in other languages. “In Spanish, it is much more typical to talk around the topic and only get to the point by the end of the text, whereas in English there is a bigger pressure to put the topic right up front and then make the arguments after the fact,” says Kanayet. S notes something similar: “English writing is extremely deductive—you put the topic sentence at the beginning and your supporting evidence follows. … In East Asia the order is opposite. You need to read the whole thing” before the thesis is revealed.
But English isn't particularly "deductive"...there simply isn't all that much explicit deduction in English. And conclusions can appear anywhere in an English text. The beginning and the end are the two most common places, but many argumentative paragraphs have the conclusion in the middle. And I frankly find it hard to believe that it's that different in other languages. If in Spanish it's more common to beat around the bush, then, well, Spanish speakers aren't really constructing their arguments differently so much as they are mixing non-argumentative stuff in their arguments. Which is not actually much different than what most English speakers do... Also, it's pretty easy to move your conclusion around. You can typically move it from the end to the beginning without a whole lot of futzing around. So that paragraph seems really, really wrong.

(Note how the conclusion of the previous paragraph comes at the end? See?)

I think what these folks really mean to say is that scientific writing is different than ordinary writing. But it's different for everybody. It's different than most written English, too. Don't get me wrong--if I've got to produce a scientific report in English, I'd much rather start out as an English-speaker and only have to learn the conventions of scientific prose, which are pretty easy to master...  That's going to be about an order of magnitude easier than it would be to first learn English and then learn the conventions of scientific prose. But anyway, that's a different point. Without a doubt if tomorrow I have to start producing all my papers in German then ich bin verschraubt...or something like that...

But, anyway, as someone who has spent much of the last ten years trying to teach undergraduates--mostly native English speakers) to produce (fairly low-octane) arguments, I can tell you that this problem isn't just a problem for non-native speakers...not by a long shot...


Anonymous lovable liberal said...

Hi WS!

Bad writing is very common in science and technical texts.

I work with many Indians, and they so greatly prefer passive voice that I've concluded that it must be a cultural preference. Among East Asians, I find Chinese quite direct, Japanese much less so, and I think it's untenable to generalize to East Asia.

Of course, I could have an unrepresentative sample.

American engineers tend to write badly, too, with only somewhat less preference for passive voice. Me? I favor concrete nouns and active verbs. And profanity. Sportswriting!

BTW, your link is broken.

5:42 PM  

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