Multilingualism and policy

"Translation means Both Enrichment and Loss" – German in the Sciences

Is science nowadays still multilingual, and what role does the German language play in science? We discussed this question with Felix Grigat, the editor in charge of the university and scientific journal Forschung & Lehre (i.e. Research & Teaching).

Mr Grigat, in your estimation, is science nowadays still genuinely multilingual?

Yes, despite the fact that English has become firmly established as the sole language for international scientific publications and conferences. All over the world, including in Germany, there are essays, books, lectures and conferences which people write, present and conduct in their respective mother tongues, just as there always have been. More to the point, not all scientists in this world have English as their mother tongue. For the great majority, English is a second language they have had to learn. In most cases, they have to first translate what they intend to communicate, yet translation means both enrichment and loss.

Is it in fact possible at all to talk so generally about "science" in this context? Is the situation in the cultural sciences not rather different than, for instance, in the natural sciences?

Beyond the basic consensus that a scientific statement needs to be backed up by rational evidence, it is indeed problematic to talk about "science". After all, right from the very beginning the debate about what "science" is has been one of the most widely discussed questions. Of course, there are different language cultures within the sciences, but this is not only true of the popular distinction between cultural and natural sciences. Philosophers from different schools of thought likewise have problems understanding one another.
Nonetheless, it is probably true to say that the natural sciences are more anglicized than other branches. For the time being.

Is that likely to change in the near future?

I am no prophet, but I don't expect anything to change in the near future. In the medium and long term, however, there is a risk that German will also withdraw from the humanities. There is a clear need here to urge people to use their mother tongues.

Are there different recommendations for the various disciplines?


Why in fact shouldn't we all agree to use English as a lingua franca?

There is nothing wrong with having a lingua franca. For centuries, Latin was used very productively as a lingua franca for the sciences and for European culture. Nevertheless, it is still important for people to continue to use their mother tongues. A language monopoly which ultimately becomes virtually totalitarian should certainly be rejected. The mother tongue must remain the source language for technical discourse because any scientist will achieve in their mother tongue a confidence of style and nuance which is virtually impossible to attain in a second learned foreign language.

In the opinion of the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers, should particular efforts be made to encourage the use of German as an international language for science?

This is a question with a somewhat melancholy background. For a long time, German was the recognized international language of science, even in the natural sciences – including medicine. Perhaps it is possible to some extent to promote a country's language in the scientific work that takes place in that country itself and in projects with an international focus. However, it is also a question of the importance of science itself. If a country enjoys international standing in a particular science, researchers from other countries will also be happy to learn this country's language. In other words, we should not be bemoaning the loss of importance of the German language in science, but the loss of importance of Germany as a scientific nation. Helping German science to achieve or maintain a leading international position is the best service which can be rendered to German as a language of science. Only a thriving intellectual and scientific culture in Germany can also boost interest in the German language. German universities are offering more and more degree courses which are run in English.

What is your feeling about this trend, in view of the role German language plays in science?

Academic teaching at German universities should take place in German. One exception to this, of course, are those philological disciplines in which teaching in a foreign language makes sense and is appropriate within the framework of academic education. In addition, universities are free to offer certain degree courses which have a particularly international focus in English.

How do you foresee the future – will people end up speaking only English at international conferences in Germany too?

The working languages of international conferences in Germany should always be German as well as English.
National conferences, and those which target primarily a German-speaking audience, should do without English as an official conference language.

Dagmar Giersberg
put the questions. She works as a freelance journalist in Bonn.

Translation: Chris Cave

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
June 2007

Related links

Migration and Integration

Migration is changing cultures. The Goethe-Institut reflects these developments in Germany and around the world and dedicates its work to the linguistic integration of migrants.

The Power of Language

The impact of language in a globalised world