Physicist Prof. Cornelia Denz and historian Prof. Heike Bungert exchange views on the differences in using foreign languages in Natural Sciences and the Humanities.
Internationalization permeates Münster University at all levels, from teaching to research. In order to attract even more of the best students from abroad, the University is offering more and more seminars, individual modules, lectures – even entire courses – in English. But is this really necessary? Are German students putting their careers at risk if they opt to use only their native language? Bernadette Winter discussed this with two high-ranking female academics: Prof. Cornelia Denz, Chair of Experimental Physics with a focus on photonics and Vice-Rector for International Affairs and Junior Researchers, and Prof. Heike Bungert, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History with a special focus on North American history.
Has your personal attitude to the question "German or English?" changed in the course of your career?
Cornelia Denz: When I began doing research in the 1980s there were only two journals in my subjects, optics and photonics, that were published in German – or in two languages, German and French. They both ceased publication very quickly. I made my career in Germany at a time when the classic academic structures were still very conservative. Anyone who had not yet got their habilitation was not considered to be a fully-fledged academic or scientist. In other countries, however, this formal qualification step didn’t exist – academic achievements were enough per se to admit you to the academic community. This meant that I could make my mark for example at international conferences in quite a different way and I received distinguished invitations and was able to push ahead with my career. As a result, the first projects I was successful in acquiring were international projects, funded by the German Academic Exchange Service or the German Research Foundation, in which I undertook research on an equal basis with highly respected international colleagues. At that time, in Germany, this would have been unthinkable for a young scientist without any habilitation.
Heike Bungert: I can confirm your experience. I did my master’s degree in the USA. In Germany I didn’t count for much in the big subjects of History and English. In America, though, I was already a "graduate student". That was something special, an incredible feeling.
What about current developments in the disciplines’ Is there any difference between Natural Sciences and the Humanities?
Denz: In the Natural Sciences and Life Sciences English as an academic language has now established itself to the extent that other languages are hardly important any more in publications, research communication and conferences. English is also present in everyday work in the labs: a third of our final papers in master’s degree courses are written in English. In double degree courses such as the one in Physics with the University of Seville in Spain, English is actually a requirement – and both countries apply it, of course.
Bungert: How intensively we use foreign languages depends on the subject. After all, we also offer Latin American history. For these students it’s much more important that they can speak Spanish. In the field of medieval history we have a strong focus on France, with teaching being done in French.
How is the issue seen by students?
Denz: In the Natural Sciences too we have students who take up the subject because they don’t feel their strengths lie so much in languages. That’s why, in addition to German textbooks, we also recommend English ones to them because they’re easier to understand. And we try to make it clear to them that nowadays scientific discoveries are published exclusively in English. That’s why it’s important for their studies that they familiarize themselves with English as a language of science. In the first lectures of the bachelor degree courses, which are normally held in German, a summary of the previous lectures is given by many of our colleagues in English, so that students can start getting used to the language. The other way round, we summarize English-language lectures in German, so that the exchange students – for whom we give an increasing number of lectures in English – can learn some German. In the end, everyone benefits.
Bungert: Anyone studying History – which is a subject in which the source material and most of the secondary literature is in German – is not going to write a dissertation in English. That wouldn’t make any sense. But anyone looking to make an international academic career should publish the occasional article in English. Anyone studying Ancient History or the History of Art may have to read articles in Italian. So currently we offer English or other foreign languages wherever they fit in with the subject being studied. That means that occasionally I give my seminars on American history in English because the source material and the secondary literature are in English. A colleague teaching the medieval history of France does his teaching in French. From time to time we invite colleagues from other universities to come and give a lecture in their own native language, usually in the form of a talk rounded off with a discussion. Then students have the option of hearing the language "in the original", as it were. Nevertheless, there are still problems. Many students find it difficult to get through an entire foreign-language academic textbook in a certain period of time. For this reason my English-language teaching is often intended as language practice in the master’s module. The advantage here is that no grades have to be given. Instead, I can give feedback on how students use the language.
Among your colleagues, are there clear-cut advocates and opponents of the "English only" policy?
Denz: There are colleagues who say quite clearly that in Germany they expect German to be spoken in research and teaching. Now and again, students hint that they would look for another university if teaching were to be done here only in English. And there are other colleagues who would like to push the use of English even more because they see it as an advantage for students in their studies and their later careers if they have a good command of English as the international language of the academic world.
Bungert: The question is: what would happen if we did all our teaching in History in English here at Münster? I suspect that many trainee teachers who will later be teaching German history in German, and for whom their grades will be important in getting a job as a teacher, will switch to other universities in North Rhine-Westphalia.
Denz: On the other hand, there is now a clear commitment to internationalization at all universities in Germany. English must play a role at any university that wants to be noticed in the international rankings and which aims to be competitive. The question is how we should take account of the various interests that exist at a German university. In my view, it’s not possible to lay down fundamental, absolute rules. You can’t say German is our native language and we‘re only going to speak German – but nor can you do everything only in English, as some private universities do, simply by arguing that English is the lingua franca of the future. But I certainly would recommend to all departments that they think hard about using English, because in my opinion the advantages outweigh the negative aspects. And if individual subjects want to define for themselves how much teaching or research is done in English or in German, that’s perfectly OK. But I take a more critical view if, in a series of lectures, individual colleagues only speak German while all the other lecturers speak English. In all departments there should be agreement on a clear policy on which teaching is to be done in German and which in English – and that should apply throughout a teaching session, regardless of who is doing the teaching.
Bungert: I take a different view. There are some colleagues whose English is not so good, and there are others whose French is better. Also, we have focuses in our degree courses in which other foreign languages are important. But generally I would say that foreign languages are needed in any case.
So are you making a clear recommendation to students that they should learn more languages if they don‘t want to spoil their career chances’
Bungert: Graduates in the Humanities, in particular, who are not studying to be teachers can later choose from among very many different professions. And there, any additional qualification is enormously important. A period spent abroad is always recommendable, if only to broaden the horizon. The difference, if there is one, is simply in the fact that in Natural and Life Sciences the focus is on English. Although it is important in the Humanities too, it can also be another language.
Denz: It’s naive to think that you don’t need English any more after school. This is true just as much for academic life as for the world of business. The extent to which a field of research or work needs English certainly depends on each individual subject – but it is still important. So for this reason my recommendation is not to let the English you learned at school go rusty, but to continue using it actively. I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone with graduate qualifications can have a job in industry or at university and have nothing to do with foreign countries and cultures. Also, having another language opens up intercultural gateways and helps in understanding other cultures. Sticking to just your own language and your own culture doesn’t make any sense any more – especially not today. The world has simply gone global, not only at work but also in our private lives.