What to do when language impedes science

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Eshani Lee knew from a young age that she wanted a career in the sciences. But she nearly gave up on that dream. During her sophomore year at the University of California, Irvine, Lee grew increasingly frustrated with how poorly she was performing on her examinations. “I don’t understand. Why am I not doing well?” she wondered.

What confused Lee the most was that she knew she was quite capable of explaining the class material in Gujarati and Hindi, the languages she grew up speaking in India. But when she had to decipher test questions written in jargon-filled English, she would often trip on the wording and receive a low grade.

By the numbers

Compared with proficient English users, English-language learners may need up to:

91%

more time to read a scientific paper.

51%

more time to write a scientific paper.

94%

more time to prepare for presentations.

In addition:

75%

of the time, English-language learners ask for language help when writing scientific papers.

30%

of English-language learners decide not to attend conferences because of language barriers.

Source: PLOS Biol. 2023, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002184.

It was only after Lee became a teaching assistant in graduate school that she discovered that other students who learned English as an additional language were also dealing with language barriers. “I realized this is not just a ‘me’ problem,” says Lee, who is now a chemistry education researcher at the Pennsylvania State University Hazleton. The problem is systemic, stemming from a wider lack of support for English-language learners.

Since modern science is communicated primarily in English, students working and studying in countries where English is not the primary language also face similar issues. Valeria Ramírez Castañeda remembers struggling to read the research papers she was assigned as an undergraduate student at the National University of Colombia.

“I was privileged because I had 4 years of good English classes,” she recalls. Many of her classmates, on the other hand, gained little from texts written in English.

Later, as a master’s student, Ramírez Castañeda toiled over her thesis for weeks, trying to write it in English to make it easier to publish. But, eager to graduate, she eventually gave up and wrote in Spanish.

Ramírez Castañeda is now a fifth-year PhD candidate in biology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her master’s work is still not published.

Science isn’t the only discipline whose community members need to overcome language barriers. English dominates many academic fields, says Michael Gordin, a science historian at Princeton University. But the speed at which science is being produced and the high number of scientists who learned English as an additional language combine to make language struggles particularly taxing in scientific disciplines.

Yet language is rarely considered during conversations about diversity within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). So when students encounter these barriers, they start to feel as if they’re “not cut out to be in the sciences,” Lee says.

Meanwhile, English-language learners who manage to make a career in STEM often find themselves making up for time lost navigating language-related obstacles. According to a recent study co-led by Ramírez Castañeda, language barriers force researchers who are less proficient in English to spend up to 91% more time reading scientific papers and up to 51% more time writing them than their colleagues who learned English as their primary language (PLOS Biol. 2023, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002184).

The difficulty caused by reading in English can alone translate to around 19 extra working days per year for a typical PhD student, according to Ramírez Castañeda’s research.

Focused solutions can help ease this burden. For example, Tatsuya Amano, a biodiversity researcher at the University of Queensland who co-led the study with Ramírez Castañeda, coauthored a separate article outlining 10 things the scientific community can do to start tackling this problem. The authors’ recommendations include providing editing services and acknowledging language barriers during performance evaluations (Nat. Hum. Behav. 2021, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-021-01137-1).

In a similar vein, Lee’s research focuses on how to make chemistry education more accessible to English-language learners (J. Chem. Educ. 2021, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.1c00370).

But because everyday language barriers are invisible to most people who learned English as their primary language, attempts to ease them are usually left up to the individuals who need support in the first place. “We have been writing these solutions a thousand times,” Ramírez Castañeda says. “Can you actually pay attention to them?”

Common barriers

Language wouldn’t be as big a problem in science if everyone had access to adequate English-learning services. But it’s almost impossible to navigate an anglophone environment using only what you get from school in many countries, says Sebastian Kozuch, an Argentine chemistry professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

A person writing on a whiteboard.

Credit: Courtesy of Eshani Lee

Eshani Lee, a chemistry education researcher at the Pennsylvania State University Hazleton, nearly gave up on her dream of becoming a scientist because of language barriers she faced in college.

Kozuch learned English on his own; other English-language learners, like Ramírez Castañeda, have attended private English classes after school. Unfortunately, such courses are often costly and thus inaccessible to many people, especially those living in low-income regions. “There are just so many people who are not able to become scientists because they didn’t receive enough English education,” Amano says.

Students in wealthier areas, meanwhile, typically have more opportunities to learn English. But these resources, with their focus on general grammar and conversational English, can help only so much.

Fluency in the language used in academia is a skill set that is entirely different from conversational fluency, Lee says. In addition to featuring discipline-specific vocabulary, academic language can involve words that have different meanings in scientific contexts than in everyday ones. Terms that are not common in everyday speech present additional challenges. For example, Lee remembers coming across the word respectively during a chemistry exam. “What does respect have to do with this?” she recalls thinking. “Clearly, I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The issue is not just reading comprehension either. Language problems pop up during lectures and research presentations. Even the most fluent English users can struggle to understand different accents or rapid speech.

“We learn more effectively when we can take in new information and connect it meaningfully to our own prior knowledge,” explains Jacky Deng, a PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa whose work focuses on the experiences of chemists from language backgrounds other than English. This process becomes more challenging when English-language learners are confronted with new information in English, he says. “It’s harder to make the connection.”

Understanding conversational and academic English is only one side of STEM’s language conundrum, though. “It’s another thing to communicate effectively,” says Daniela Navarro Pérez, a lecturer in chemical engineering at the University of Magallanes and a PhD student at the University of Leeds.

Amano and Ramírez Castañeda estimated that researchers who speak English as an additional language need to spend up to 94% more time preparing and practicing presentations for conferences than their more fluent colleagues.

That finding matches Navarro Pérez’s experience. Before this year’s European Geosciences Union General Assembly, “I practiced a lot for my presentations,” Navarro Pérez says, even though her two talks were each only 8 min long.

A person working on a computer.

Credit: Courtesy of Daniela Navarro Perez

Daniela Navarro Perez, a chemical engineer on the leadership council of Geolatinas, says the organization helps break language barriers with events that allow people to receive feedback on papers and practice conversational English.

In fact, conferences require so much work that scientists lacking confidence in their ability to speak English well may avoid them altogether, Amano says. According to Amano and Ramírez Castañeda’s study, around a third of researchers with low or moderate English proficiency said they frequently opt out of attending conferences, despite the repercussions that their choice could have on their careers.

And half of these researchers said they decline opportunities to give oral presentations. Even asking questions at conference talks is hard, Ramírez Castañeda says. The last time she attended a conference, she didn’t raise her hand to ask anything, she says.

For some English- language learners, writing research papers presents an even larger issue. When Deng recently surveyed 18 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in chemistry whose primary language is not English, “everyone I spoke with talked about how writing just took longer,” he says. Respondents noted the cognitive demand required to translate their research ideas from their primary language into English and then put their thoughts on paper using proper grammar, vocabulary, and syntax (J. Chem. Educ. 2023, DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.2c01063).

Research ideas become simplified during this process because the writers don’t have the words to express their complexity in English. “A lot of these students told me that this translation process is almost like a filtration process,” Deng says.

And all that extra effort might not even pay off. According to Amano and Ramírez Castañeda’s study, researchers who are less proficient in English are 12.5 times as likely to be asked to revise a research paper and 2.6 times as likely to have a paper rejected for language-related reasons than more proficient English users are.

Although reviewers often conflate the quality of the English with the quality of the science, improving the English can be hard. “It could be really expensive to use professional editing services,” Amano says.

Breaking the barrier

The situation may seem grim for students and scientists with a primary language other than English. But quantifying disadvantages can help drive change, Amano says. Studies on language barriers help those who may not be directly affected become aware of the problem. Research can also highlight ways in which people who are proficient in English can make science more welcoming to all scientists, regardless of their English proficiency.

For example, Lee’s work shows that professors at universities where English is the primary language can simplify the language they use to construct test questions, allowing students to focus on what an exam is asking. “We don’t need to use elevated vocabulary,” she explains. “There are ways to break things down and present it to students so that it doesn’t sound so complicated and out of reach.”

A person sitting on a boat on a river surrounded by dense forest.
.

Credit: Courtesy of Valeria Ramírez Castañeda

Valeria Ramírez Castañeda, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, co-led a study quantifying the extra work that English-language learner scientists need to put into learning and communicating science.

Deng proposes that universities provide discipline-specific resources, like STEM-focused writing centers. According to Deng’s study, existing centers are too general and rarely provide useful feedback to science students.

In addition, students need to be able to access textbooks in their primary languages. Right now, “there are people who are likely being weeded out of science, not because they don’t have good scientific minds but because they’re bad at languages,” Gordin, the science historian, says.

Many English-language learners simply don’t have access to the same educational resources or opportunities as students with high English proficiency. For example, the Center for Chemical Process Safety, an organization within the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, offers several online certification courses that Navarro Pérez believes are invaluable for chemical engineers. But most of them are in English, she says. “That’s a barrier for a lot of people.”

To help researchers communicate science, Amano says, conference organizers can provide live translation for talks. In addition, organizers can create mentorship programs to match speakers of different English proficiencies “to help with their presentation preparation and practices,” Amano says. Some international conferences have started doing this, he adds.

So have organizations like GeoLatinas, a multilingual group that provides tools for Latina women to pursue careers in geoscience. Navarro Pérez, who is part of the group’s leadership council, says GeoLatinas regularly hosts events that allow students and researchers to give dry runs of their talks, receive feedback on papers and job applications, and practice conversational English.

Big changes also need to happen within scientific publishing. In a paper that has yet to be peer-reviewed, Amano and his colleagues list several language-inclusive policies that journals can implement (EcoEvoRxiv 2023, DOI: 10.32942/X2NS3K). They suggest that journals provide author guidelines in multiple languages, train reviewers to be more aware of their language-related biases, and offer researchers editing and translation services for free or for more affordable prices.

Such editing and translation could be done using artificial intelligence tools like DeepL and ChatGPT. Although some journals initially banned these tools after ChatGPT rose to prominence, several have since changed their stance. The journalScience just loosened its AI policy to allow researchers to use large language models to proofread their manuscripts with proper disclosure, says Holden Thorp, editor in chief of theScience family of journals.

The American Chemical Society is also preparing to launch a pilot program offering an AI editing tool to authors. “We’re optimistic that this tool will help reduce the barriers faced by authors who learned English as an additional language,” an ACS spokesperson writes in an email. ACS publishes C&EN but is not involved in editorial decisions.

Science education researchers say AI editing tools, along with other proposed changes, will benefit science as a whole. Making STEM more inclusive toward English users who are not as proficient in the language increases the diversity of perspectives in science, which in turn will breed innovation and advancement, Lee notes.

Right now, “only some people . . . can fully participate in science, and it’s people that have already English as their first language,” Ramírez Castañeda says. Until that changes, “we are losing ideas; we are losing observations; we are losing solutions.”


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