The 'language laboratory'
It is well-known that the British, in general, are fairly poor at speaking foreign languages. One study showed that only 15% of UK adults felt that they could hold a conversation in French, 6% in German, 4% in Spanish and 2% in Italian. In the sciences, English is the universal language for publications and meetings which perhaps provides less of an incentive to develop foreign language capability.
We should spare a thought for our colleagues in mainland Europe (and beyond), where English is not their mother tongue. This was highlighted in a recent Italian publication I read targeted at start-up businesses. They make the point that this competence is under-valued and is one of the key ‘softer’ requirements for businesses operating within Countries and across International borders. Recommendations to Companies include holding meetings in English, developing oral and written English skills and supporting secondments to English-speaking Countries.
Indeed, a detailed report which looked at English language competencies across 40 Countries and 16 Industries showed that knowledge of English provides a major competitive advantage: ‘workforce English skills correlate positively with indicators of innovation and ease of doing business’. Drilling down into more detail from this EPI report shows that regions such as Scandinavia and the Netherlands have, not surprisingly, higher levels of English abilities. However it was interesting to read that the health and pharmaceuticals sector have only moderate levels of English ability and are below the food, beverage, accounting and IT sectors. My own experience indicates that those in more senior positions in the health sector in Europe have extremely good English linguistic abilities, confirmed in the report that demonstrates a lot of variation within Industry sectors.
For those of us where English is our first language, we should be careful not to become complacent. If you go back to the 16th and 17th Centuries, Galileo published prolifically in Italian, translating his work into Latin to take it to a wider audience. In fact, as described in the 2015 book ‘Scientific Babel’, German was the dominant scientific language in 1900, with French, Italian and English also being used. In the 20th Century, the growth of US science played a big part in the development of English as the universal language of science. However, with the current rapid growth of research publications from Countries including India and China, who can say how things may change in the future?