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Monday, September 26, 2011

“Science Must Be Multilingual”. An Interview with Peter Funke

Peter Funke; © DFGEnglish is becoming increasingly dominant in many research disciplines. In an interview with, Peter Funke, vice president of the German Research Foundation (DFG), calls for linguistic diversity in science and scholarship.
Mr Funke, in which language do you publish your papers?
The majority of my publications appear in German. I have, however, also published many papers in English, as well as some in Italian, Spanish and Greek. As a rule, I write my essays in German first and then have them translated if necessary. This is not because I have anything against other languages – I simply feel that I am able to express myself more concisely and precisely in my native tongue.

Scholarship is international

But that means you are keen to make your publications available to an international readership too ...
Academics conducting research; © DFGMost certainly. Any other approach to academic work would be inconceivable. Since time immemorial, classical and ancient studies have had an international orientation. The sharing of ideas across national and linguistic boundaries is taken for granted. I myself have conducted field research in Greece for twenty years, working closely together with historians and archaeologists from different countries; they in turn pursue their research in all the continents of the world. In this context, a sound knowledge of all kinds of languages – both ancient and modern – is essential.

English as a lingua franca

The language of science and scholarship, in other words, does not necessarily have to be English, but depends on the topic currently being addressed?
That is exactly how I see it. I have nothing against the English language, but I do believe that it is crucial for our academic landscape to remain as multilingual as it currently is, at least in my discipline.
Academics conducting research; © DFG I do not wish to deny that the role of English as a lingua franca is and no doubt will remain undisputed. This role, however, is one that has always been played by a lingua franca – as a means of communication and understanding between academics and scientists from different countries.
For me it is perfectly natural that English should be one of the languages spoken at conferences and that I should also use this language to communicate with colleagues from abroad. Nonetheless, there are areas of research in which the subject matter dictates that the key languages should not be English.

The value of the native tongue

Yet there are disciplines in which English is used almost exclusively nowadays and in which publications appear in English. It is often claimed in these areas that anyone who fails to publish in English risks falling by the wayside...
There are indeed disciplines in which English is used with particular success. These include the natural and engineering sciences, though even here there is an ongoing discussion about the consequences of abandoning German as a language of science and scholarship. It is also becoming increasingly important for a researcher’s reputation to be able to use English. This is evident from the numerous ranking systems which rate academics according to how much they publish in English.
I see this as problematic, since the value of an academic publication cannot be determined primarily by the language it is written in. On the other hand, the humanities in particular are defined by the value of their respective languages, and there should be more incentives these days to embrace linguistic diversity.
DFG; © DFG/Lichtenscheidt

Learning German by attending tutorials in the classics

How could one raise awareness of the value of different languages?

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