Language Barrier / 言葉の壁

September 23, 2017

 One thing that surprised me during the ddPCR meeting in Korea was that a speaker gave his talk in Korean. It could have been the first time for me to attend a seminar in neither English nor Japanese. When I was an undergraduate student, my English was not good enough to fully follow English seminars. However, I was still able to understand some words and follow the stories at least in partially. It was a very new experience for me to have someone give a talk on science in an in-comprehensive language. Since I did my postdoc in the US, I had never had an experience like this, but I guess those who came to study in countries where English is not the first language would have experienced similar situations. "Alienation" is the best word to describe my feeling at that time. The presenter did not intend to do so at all though.


 It gave me to re-think about Japanese situation. For example, if you look at the Japanese website and the English website of our institute, it is obvious that the Japanese one has way more information than the English one. We are supported by the Tokyo Metropolitan government as an institution, and by the Japanese government and other agencies for research grants, so it is our responsibility to show what we are doing as a scientific institute to the supporters and taxpayers. On that regard, it makes sense that the Japanese website has more information. However, scientific communication is done in English as a common language. I am afraid that having less information in English than in Japanese might give an impression that we care things only internally in Japan and are not interested in showing our existence and our science to people outside Japan (it is somewhat true, isn't it?). I am afraid that we are giving the same feeling of alienation that I felt in the meeting. For example, even in Japan, when you look at the Japanese website and the English website of RIKEN CDB, they seem to have the same information. We can see to whom they intend to show their websites and where their standards are. Since I also manage this lab website, I really understand how hard it is to prepare the same information in both Japanese and English. However, I do not think it is a good idea to leave things as they are now, only because it is hard to fix it. Moreover, I think Japanese people should be able to understand English more. How much the recipients of information understand determines the choice of language. Preparation of both Japanese and English takes much work and long time. Ultimately, if all Japanese people understand English, we do not have to worry about Japanese. Despite the fact that scientists use English as a common language and everyone on this planet can easily access any information via the Internet now, too many websites of Japanese universities and research institutions are still in Japanese only, especially ones of individual laboratories. By looking at how much information is presented in English in a website of a Japanese laboratory, it seems almost possible to judge where they are aiming at.

 We have a huge disadvantage compared to native English speakers for sure. However, it does not help to blame it at all. Even if we had to reset our common language and choose a language as a new one based only on linguistic characteristics, I still think Japanese would have no chance to be selected. It is coo complicated. Therefore, I have no complaint on the fact that Japanese is not the scientific common language. It could not have had to be English, but it would not matter for us anyway. Our Japanese forerunners were so great to establish the scientific basis that we have today in Japan even in such a linguistically isolated circumstance (or simply they were better at English?). I still think we have to improve the situation.


 In my case, of course I knew English would be critical for my career, and practiced English while I was in Japan, but obviously my English has got much better during my stay in the US. I try to have both my Japanese and English websites to have the same information as possible. I try to write this blog both in Japanese and English despite my imperfect English (I cannot even tell how poor or good my English is by myself). This is because I want to keep my English that I learned during my postdoc, and also to send messages to people all over the world. This is a part of my training of writing English as well.

 Above all, I made a lot of friends during my postdoc. Some of them are scientists and some of them are not. If I came back to Japan and made my website only in Japanese, I would have given that alienation feeling to my friends. This is the biggest reason why I use English. Whether I really intend to give that feeling or not does not matter. I use English in my SNSs for the same reason. I felt tweeting only in Japanese even when studying abroad was like always looking back and talking only to Japan. This is just my personal impression though, of course. This is a matter of mind set and preparation on my side, rather than whether my friends actually look at my websites or SNSs.

 Thus, although I do not know how long I can continue this, I would like to keep using English as long as possible.



 先日のddPCR symposiumで1つ驚いたのが、発表者の1人が韓国語で発表したことでした。よくよく考えると、研究の話を日本語と英語以外で聞いたのは初めてだったかもしれません。学部生で英語力不足だった頃は、英語での発表を完全には理解できなかったと思いますが、それでも一定の単語は理解できたし、部分的には話を追えていたはずです。全く理解できない言語で研究の話をされるのは新鮮でした(新鮮なだけで全く理解できないのですが)。私はアメリカというど真ん中の英語圏に留学したので、こういう経験はありませんでしたが、非英語圏に留学された方は、類似した経験をされているのだろうと想像します。その状況で味わう感情は、「疎外感」という言葉が完璧に当てはまりました。発表者の方にその意志は全くないのですが。





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