Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Englishing the Far East

Did you think English was on its way to supplanting Asian languages, at least to some extent? Victor Mair at Language Log seems to think this is happening now.

Yesterday I had the opportunity for an eye-opening talk with a man who for 20 years has been the director of a world-renowned biochemistry and physiology research institute. His job frequently takes him to key labs in China and Japan, and he always has scores of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean staff scientists and postdocs working in his own labs. Here are some of the mind-boggling things the director told me:

1. In their labs, when Chinese and Japanese scientists are engaged in discussions on research topics, they often speak in English or heavily lace their Chinese and Japanese with English.

2. Chinese and Japanese scientists regularly write to each other in English, often even on non-research topics.

3. There is an extremely strong imperative in the scientific culture of China and Japan to publish in English language journals. In China, there is even a fixed award schedule for researchers who get published in top English language journals, from very large monetary bonuses to individuals whose work makes it into the pages of Science and Nature, on down through lesser, but still substantial, rewards for work in less prestigious, specialized journals.

4. English is the de facto language of scientific culture in China and Japan.


Thirty years ago, I predicted that all of this (the rapid shift to English) would happen IF East Asian countries did not aggressively expand the applications of Romanization for their own languages. To my mind at the time, this was simply a foregone conclusion due to the archaic nature of sinographic writing and the relatively inflexible phonetic representational ability of syllabic writing in comparison with alphabetic scripts.

There's a lot more at the link. Good reading for anyone who likes to study languages.

No comments: