October 16, 2023
SEOUL – International academic conferences always offer insight into the status and use of English as a global language. In late September this year, I was fortunate enough to have the chance to submit a paper at a conference on comparative punctuation organized by the University of Regensburg in Germany. For three days, scholars discussed the use of punctuation from a variety of perspectives, but papers on historical and linguistic perspectives were most common.
The official language of the conference was English, as has become common in linguistics conferences in Europe since the 2000s. Some conferences are officially bilingual in English and the official language of the host institution. Others allow the use of different languages in the Q&A that follows the presentation. Even in these cases, most presenters speak in English and the Q&A is also in English. The only place where other languages are used is during coffee breaks, but even then, English dominates because it is the common language of all participants.
In one paper about punctuation in Swedish, the presenter created a corpus of academic papers in Swedish to analyze use of punctuation over a number of years. Only papers in the humanities were included because nearly all science, technology, engineering and mathematics field papers in Sweden are written in English. There simply aren’t enough Swedish papers in STEM fields to make a useful corpus.
The paper caused me to think again about the vitality of other languages in the creation of information. Swedish is spoken in Sweden and by a minority in Finland, but only about 10,500,000 people speak it as a native language. Sweden is an advanced industrial democracy with one of the highest levels of social development in the world. To participate in “global STEM” information production, Swedish researchers have switched to English as the language to present their results. At the same time, Sweden’s high level of social development creates the conditions for thriving cultural activities in Swedish.
The switch to English is also affecting STEM researchers in languages such as French and German with many more speakers. Japanese has a long history of STEM research in the language, but in recent years, the shift toward English has been rapid. Research in China progressed with the rise of English, the universal language of STEM fields, so researchers there have been presenting their research in English for a long time.
National languages continue to dominate research in humanities and social science fields in these countries, but English continues to make headway as researchers hope to gain recognition for publishing their work in English-language “international” journals. Between the humanities and social sciences, national languages are more dominant in the humanities because they include fields closely connected to national and local culture.
Among the presenters at the conference in Regensburg, I was one of the few native speakers. Most presenters were from Europe, but there were some from the Americas, the Middle East and China. None of the presenters seemed to accommodate closely to a native variety of English. Instead, they spoke in clear, idiom-free “global English” that reflected native language pronunciation mixed with the variety of English they learned in school. British English was more prevalent because it is the standard in European English education.
During a coffee break, a presenter mentioned that some of the presentations were hard to understand because of the pronunciation. I was surprised and asked her for details. She said that pronunciation doesn’t have to be great, but that it has to be clear enough to understand. During the rest of the conference, I noticed that more than pronunciation itself, presentations with a flat, stressless intonation, mostly by French speakers, were hardest to understand. This suggests that “global English” has an intelligibility floor, which creates an extra burden on non-native speakers to speak clearly. Native speakers, of course, should refrain from using trendy, idiomatic English that is hard for many non-native speakers to follow.
Like their counterparts elsewhere, Korean STEM researchers publish primary, if not exclusively, in English. International journals have more prestige and offer more points in schemes that evaluate research output.
Increasingly, Korean researchers in the social sciences are publishing in English, leaving the humanities as the only area where Korean remains dominant. In the scholarly world, Korean is now mainly a language for transmitting STEM information created in English to a Korean-speaking public. Outside, it remains a vital language of cultural activity that, amid the never-ending advance of English, has gained new energy through the worldwide popularity of Korean cultural products.