The Basic Question
As an American scientist in Taiwan, what language should I speak?
I am a US-educated chemical engineer who has spent a year collaborating with engineering professors and students at Yuan Ze University in Taoyuan, Taiwan. I have a bachelor’s degree in Chinese language, and had previously studied in Taiwan and China, but my language classes were all non-technical; before arriving in Taiwan, I knew how to talk about current events, but not how to talk about organic chemistry. I wasn’t sure how much of the technical vocabulary I’d be using for my project would be in Mandarin. Before arriving in Taiwan, I tried to study some scientific vocabulary. Though I learned some words that were relevant to my project, I was surprised to find that there were fewer resources available for learning scientific vocabulary than for learning economic or business terms. I worried that I was missing something important: surely there were other scientists who wanted to learn Chinese words so that they could work internationally?
Once I arrived in Taiwan and began working with the Taiwanese students, I paid attention to how they spoke. I started to find the answer to my original question: what language should I speak at my host university? English, or Chinese? The answer is: I need to use both. How and why that works is more complicated and interesting than I could have foreseen.
How We Use Conversational “Science Chinese”
It makes sense that Taiwanese university students would be most comfortable speaking Chinese at school. However, in engineering, much of the vocabulary is highly technical, and some of these technical words were developed in English and are difficult to translate into other languages. As a result, Taiwanese students generally speak Chinese in the lab setting, inserting English technical words when necessary. We use Mandarin (and occasionally Taiwanese) in informal conversation and discussion with each other, but written formal reports and conference calls use English, even when everyone present speaks Chinese.
Initially, I found the mixing of languages confusing. Was I only encountering English-language technical vocabulary because I was working in a lab that had American collaborators, or were all Taiwanese chemical engineering labs bilingual? Was this exclusive to chemical engineering, or were other technical fields like this?
I learned that engineering education in Taiwan is highly bilingual. Many introductory science courses are taught in Chinese, but some of the upper-level classes are taught in English. Sometimes, professors give lectures in Mandarin, but use English-language textbooks and assign English-language journal readings. At conferences, I see Taiwanese students presenting their work in English. Once, I found myself in a graduate seminar where everyone was Taiwanese, and the seminar was given in English. A graduate engineering seminar conducted in the second language of everyone present would not happen in the United States. So, what’s going on here?
The Bigger Picture of Bilingual Science Education
The experience of an engineering student in Taiwan is quite different from my own experience as a student in the United States. Engineering students at my home university in the US, and at most other American universities, are not required to study a foreign language at all. (I completed a dual degree in chemical engineering and Chinese language, but my experience was the exception, not the norm for an engineering student.) Most of my classmates and I had the luxury of taking classes and reading technical literature in our native language. As an undergraduate, I took classes in chemistry, math, thermodynamics, and reaction engineering; Taiwanese students in chemical engineering programs take these same classes, but they’re also required to take English classes. In this sense, it takes more effort for a Taiwanese student to earn the same degree as a student who grew up speaking English.
The decision by faculty to teach in English is a practical one. Much of the published research in engineering is written in English, so students who want to understand the innovations happening in their field need English scientific literacy skills. The result is that students who rarely or never use conversational English are required to use highly technical English. Professors know that work published in English-language journals will reach a wider global audience than work published in Chinese-language journals, so there is pressure for both students and professors to have a high degree of proficiency in scientific English. I learned that this preference for English is not exclusive to Taiwan; around the world and in different fields, scholars use English as a second language to communicate. All of this is quite familiar to scientists trained in non-English speaking countries, but those (including myself) who trained in English-speaking countries may have never encountered anything like this before.
Science and engineering in the 21st century are highly international; research groups rely on the skills and contributions of experts from many different countries, and groups in different countries need to be aware of progress of other groups. Having a common language helps us work together. It turns out that I’ve been taking the advantage of being a native speaker of English for granted; until I came to Taiwan, it had never occurred to me that there might be this imbalance in who gets to use their first language at work.
In my field, chemical engineering, we use a lot of chemistry-specific vocabulary. The names of many chemicals have Latin or German origins, because the scholars who identified those chemicals used Latin or German, the dominant academic languages of their times. In chemistry, as in many other fields, different words come from different eras in the history of science. In this era, English dominates, and scientists around the world use English words.
Some scientific terms can be translated easily, while others can’t. Mathematical terms exist in many languages, and students generally use the mathematical terms in their own native languages. Animals and plants have systematic scientific names in Latin, as well as common names which vary greatly between and within languages. I learned some of the Chinese names for organic chemicals: methanol, ethanol, and propanol become 甲醇，乙醇，and 丙醇 (jia chun, yi chun, and bing chun). Names of simple organic chemicals may be easy to translate, but when we talk about polymers with more complicated names, we usually stick to the English abbreviations. Names of products such as pharmaceuticals are typically not translated.
At this point, the answer to the question, “as an American scientist working in Taiwan, what language do you use?” is this: I use both English and Chinese, depending on whether I’m speaking formally or informally, and on whether I’m using mathematical or medical words. While I have not learned as many new Chinese words as I was expecting to learn, I learned a great deal about how language works in international classrooms, and how scientific ideas are communicated to global audiences.
What I Learned about the English Language in Taiwan
The preference for English is not limited to chemical engineering, and it is not limited to Taiwan. Researchers around the world are reading and writing in English, and using English to share their work with each other, regardless of their native language.
Should a Taiwanese student who wants to get a job as an engineer, but does not intend to work internationally, be required to learn English? I’m not sure. There are certainly many benefits to learning a foreign language, but I am not sure that a high level of English proficiency should be required of all students, regardless of their career plans. At present, the science and engineering education system requires quite a bit of extra effort from non-native English speakers. I’m not sure that there is a simple way to make the education system more multilingual, while still allowing scientists to collaborate internationally and communicate with a wide global audience. My experience in Taiwan has taught me that bilingualism is much more highly valued in Taiwan than in the United States; here in Taiwan, English proficiency is a tool that makes the world accessible, but in the United States, it’s harder to see concrete benefits of bilingualism.
Bilingualism is a subject that is frequently discussed in the humanities, but rarely or never addressed in engineering classrooms. I studied Chinese out of curiosity, not out of obligation. As a native English speaker, I could have earned my engineering degree and gone on to work as an engineer, without ever needing to study another language. Learning a second language has helped me approach problems in different ways, and I believe that has made me a better engineer. I am certain that more American students could benefit from studying a second language, and from learning from students who grew up speaking a language other than English.