January 29, 2010 | Although English is typically considered the international language of science, it's hardly the only language heard in the offices, hallways, and cafeterias of UCAR/NCAR, and it's not necessarily what staff members converse in when they return home in the evenings.
An informal survey done by HR a few years back found that the organization's staff can communicate in languages from every corner of the globe: Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Korean, Hmong, Afrikaans, Malay, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Hungarian, Croatian, Polish, Japanese, Portuguese, Thai, Danish, Indonesian, and likely more.
Qian Wu (HAO), Charles Krinsky (NESL/ACD), Huaqing Cai (RAL), and Jielun Sun (NESL/MMM) converse as part of UCAR/NCAR’s English as a Second Language program.
Some staff members speak three or more languages—Marina LaGrave (EO) can converse in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian—and others are familiar with languages that most people probably haven't even heard of, such as Frisian, an endangered language from the Fryslân province of the Netherlands spoken by Eric Gilleland (RAL).
And yet, speaking English as a second language can pose unique challenges, particularly for scientific and technical staff who publish in journals. Most scientific journals, from general publications such as Nature and Science to more specialized periodicals, are in English. Scientists who publish in languages other than English risk cutting their research off from the international science community. And even when a researcher whose native language is not English can read and write English fluently, linguistic research and anecdotal evidence show that patterns of argument and discourse vary across languages and cultures, meaning that a scientist trained in Asia, for example, may be inclined to structure a paper differently than a scientist trained in the United States.
Polishing one's English
UCAR/NCAR's Communicating Science Program (CommSci) seeks to equip all the organization's scientific and technical staff to be world-class communicators. The program started several years ago in response to staff feedback indicating that scientists, particularly non-native English speakers, wanted more training and support for communicating their research.
Among the various resources that CommSci offers is an English as a Second Language program. The ESL effort aims to help scientific staff who are not native speakers become more comfortable with oral and written communication.
Jielun Sun, pictured here with Rick Anthes, Katy Schmoll, Eric Barron, and Jack Fellows, won a 2009 Outstanding Accomplishment Award for her mentoring activities within the ESL group.
Jielun Sun, who won a 2009 Outstanding Accomplishment Award for her mentoring activities within the ESL group, got involved about five years ago to improve her spoken and written English."Lots of our staff speak English as a second or even third language," she says. "Many of us can communicate with colleagues without too much trouble, but they don't correct our English. And when we write scientific papers we need others to help polish our writing and do a final check."
The ESL group maintains an extensive list of resources on its website, covering scientific papers and posters, oral presentations, and more. It offers casual clinics on English writing and presentation by Mary Golden, certified ESL coach and chief editorial assistant of Monthly Weather Review. With the help of funding from HR, the group is currently in the process of lining up guest speakers on English pronunciation and writing, according to Jielun.
One of the more visible ESL activities is TableTalk, a low-pressure way to practice English conversational skills while socializing with both native and non-native speakers. TableTalk meets monthly in the Foothills Lab cafeteria during lunch; dates are announced in Today@UCAR and can be found on the ESL calendar.
"ESL is more than language and writing," says Charlie Krinsky (NESL/ACD), a native English speaker who's been helping lead TableTalk for two years. "It's about making people feel welcome and helping them understand American culture. And those of us who are native speakers get to learn about other cultures."
The ESL group also plans cultural events from time to time to help staff satisfy curiosity about other cultures, prepare for travel, and simply have fun. In the past few years, it has hosted a Chinese New Year celebration and two multicultural potlucks.
Library resources, free Spanish classes
For staff who want to learn a language other than English, the NCAR Library keeps audiocassette tapes and compact discs on hand at all three campus libraries. The collection includes Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Arabic, and Swedish. Librarian Leslie Forehand encourages staff to stop by the Library to check out the collection, search the online catalog, or contact her (firstname.lastname@example.org or ext. 8505) for more information.
In addition, EO's Marina LaGrave, who works as a translator and outreach coordinator, facilitates free, informal Spanish language and culture classes at the Mesa Lab on Thursday evenings. The classes usually attract about eight to 20 attendees, and participants are encouraged to bring food and drinks. When Marina is not available, the more advanced students lead the class, in keeping with the class motto of "Everybody teaches, everybody learns." The group also goes on outings for salsa dancing, cooking classes, and art museums, and students use their language skills at outreach events such as Super Science Saturday.
"The class is primarily to learn to speak Spanish, but that's not all—it's like having a dinner with a group of good friends," says Bob Tan (NCAR Director's Office).
Meet the polyglots
Janaki Srinivasan (F&A)
Janaki, a software engineer in IT, was born and raised in Hyderabad, India. She grew up speaking Tamil, her mother's native language. Her school curriculum was conducted in English, as is common in India. She also learned Hindi, India's national language, as well as Telugu, the state language of Andhra Pradesh.
Janaki's husband speaks the same languages she does. They speak mainly English with their children, who know some Tamil but were born here. She uses Tamil, her favorite language, with her family in India.
Janaki especially appreciates how her ability to understand musical lyrics in Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu helps her better appreciate Indian music and dance. "I find it extremely good to know different languages," she says. "It's been a blessing for me and I feel that my kids are at a disadvantage knowing only one language."
For many people, learning one foreign language is challenging enough. But numerous UCAR/NCAR staff can converse in more than two languages, some of which may be completely unrelated.
Rebecca Haacker-Santos (EO/SOARS)
Rebecca speaks four languages: German, English, Spanish, and Maya Q'eqchi'. She grew up in Germany and studied English in school (along with a little French). She started traveling to Guatemala as a university student, spending extensive time there through graduate school. During that time she learned Spanish and Maya Q'eqchi', one of the many Mayan languages spoken in Guatemala; she eventually landed a job that required use of both languages.
In 2002, Rebecca moved to the United States and began reviving her English language skills. But at home she still speaks Spanish with her husband.
"In each language I think and feel differently," Rebecca says. "English is the business language that I work in, but I'm more comfortable in Spanish. And Maya Q'eqchi' is a beautiful language because it's so ancient and descriptive."
Rebecca points out that the word hurricane comes from the name of the Mayan god of wind and storms, Jun Raqan (also spelled Huracan).
Long Moua (CISL)
Long, a network technician, speaks Hmong, Lao, Thai, and English. Long grew up in Laos speaking Hmong, his native language, and Lao, the country's official language. Before coming to the United States, he lived for a year at a refugee camp in Thailand, where he studied Thai. Today, he speaks Hmong with his family. "I've been here for 24 years, but sometimes I can still have problems with English when I go through technical documentation," he says.