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In a question about university ranking, many people mentioned that language is a privilege for better ranking of English speaking countries.

Isn't a decent fluency in English the requirement for senior academic positions (regardless of native languages)?

Most ranking factors are about research activities. If a professor in non-English speaking country is not fluent in English, how does he supervise graduate students? For supervising/conducting cutting-edge research, someone should be able to read technical literature. Research papers are published in English (and there is no translation normally).

Most non-English speaking countries with excellent higher education (such as Scandinavia, Netherlands, Switzerland) offer the graduate programs in English.

I understand it is easier for native English speakers to read and write in scientific literature, but we don't speak their language, we speak an international language, which is their native language too.

I understand that this requirement is neglected in many countries, but is it reasonable and justifiable to give a senior academic position to someone who cannot read 99% of recent research findings in his field?

Is it acceptable for a professor or even a PhD student to have no understanding of English language? To avoid confusion, consider STEM fields.

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    we speak an international language a.k.a. "Labglish", and it's awful (but practical). – Cape Code Oct 13 '15 at 11:05
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    How does the content of the question relate to the (presumably) motivating first paragraph? – fkraiem Oct 13 '15 at 11:20
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    @fkraiem if English is ubiquitous in Academia, the argument that being in an English-speaking country is an advantage for universities ranking does not hold. – Cape Code Oct 13 '15 at 11:37
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    The argument is based on extremes: it is not black and white if someone speaks a language. Someone who is not a good, effective writer in English is not automatically someone, who "cannot read 99% of research findings". Exaggerations do not help the question. – Greg Oct 13 '15 at 11:46
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    @CapeCode I hope nobody seriously believes this... It is obviously an advantage when the "standard" language happens to be your native one, since you do not have to devote the time and energy necessary to learn a new one. – fkraiem Oct 13 '15 at 11:52
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In this answer, I will respond to some of the points raised in the question, however without any expectation of completeness.

Isn't a decent fluency in English the requirement for senior academic positions (regardless of native languages)?

To some extent, it is, although there are probably many different interpretations of what "decent fluency" means around.

If a professor in non-English speaking country is not fluent in English, how does he supervise graduate students?

Maybe I'm misunderstanding this, but ... simply in their non-English language? There is no general requirement that communication with graduate students (including foreign graduate students!) would have to happen in English.

For supervising/conducting cutting-edge research, someone should be able to read technical literature. Research papers are published in English (and there is no translation normally).

This is true, however I have noticed that there can be extremely wide gaps between the ability to read and understand complicated English texts and the ability to express complex ideas in English. Hence, a capable researcher can be perfectly able to understand technical literature written in English, and yet be unable to publish their own ideas in English.

Of course, this is not generally the case in all non-English-speaking places, but it probably depends on how English is trained or learned.

I understand it is easier for native English speakers to read and write in scientific literature, but we don't speak their language, we speak an international language, which is their native language too.

If it is their native language, too, then we do speak their language. Whether our motivation for learning or using English is to communicate with native speakers or with the international community doesn't matter; the result is that, as you say, "it is easier for native English speakers to read and write in scientific literature".

is it reasonable and justifiable to give a senior academic position to someone who cannot read 99% of recent research findings in his field?

As explained above, comprehension is not necessarily the same as expression. And even then, this statement possibly neglects that some fields might rely less on English than what I am used to from CS.

Is it acceptable for a professor or even a PhD student to have no understanding of English language?

No, rather not.

Coming back to your titular question:

Isn't English the common academic language?

Yes, in many fields, it is. But this mere fact has little influence on the effects you allude to. It neither means that English material is inaccessible to someone with low skills at writing in English, nor that ideas and surveys are always developed and conducted in English from the start.

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    +1. +2 if I could for "decent fluency" . We had lessons in English where the exchange student asked the prof to switch to Dutch because it was easier for her to understand the non-native language then to try to parse the prof's attempts at English. Meanwhile he thought we was speaking understandable English. – Hennes Oct 13 '15 at 13:22
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    "Is it acceptable for a professor or even a PhD student to have no understanding of English language? No, rather not." Depends where you are - off the bat I'm pretty certain you will find a number of professors in Russia who do not speak any English - although they may exclusively be elder persons. (With the younger people speaking English). Also, Russia still has many Russian only journals - with no requirement for English speech. – DetlevCM Oct 13 '15 at 18:50
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    "There is no general requirement that communication with graduate students (including foreign graduate students!) would have to happen in English." And, indeed, I have seen Japanese, Spanish and French supervisors fall back on their native tongue for group organizational efforts more than once. Both they and their students were more than minimally proficient for technical discussion, but making sure that everyone knows who is going with whom, when, to where and by what means, a shared native language is simply faster and more reliable. – dmckee Oct 14 '15 at 1:28
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    I agree that being able to read academic papers is not at all comparable to being fluent in a language. For example, even though I don't speak French and have never studied it in my life, I've read a number of math papers in French without too much difficulty because the specialized language is very cognate-dense. – Peter Olson Oct 14 '15 at 2:46
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    @O.R.Mapper But would this matter? - Because this assumes the literature that is available in the English language is essential/important - which is not a given. There are exclusively Russian journals - there is a lot of very good theoretical work in Russian that we have never heard about. - Yes, of course the international community then loses out on the knowledge - but that is a different topic. – DetlevCM Oct 14 '15 at 5:45
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While I agree that being able to understand and express your ideas in English is important for an academic career, much of the discussion supporting English so far has focussed on Europe and the question appears to come from that perspective. In fact, I would argue that there is much good STEM work now being done in China, and the Chinese journals are becoming much more important as Chinese based researchers are less likely to publish in English generally. This is similar to the Russian mathematics developments last century.

  • While I agree with your answer, I am not convinced I have indeed focussed on Europe in my answer. – O. R. Mapper Oct 13 '15 at 13:14
  • Fair enough, I will revise – JenB Oct 13 '15 at 13:16
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Universities in English-speaking countries have an advantage in rankings precisely because English is the most common academic language. Native English speakers also have an advantage in most fields, but that advantage is quite negligible, when compared to the advantage the universities have.

The advantage comes from attracting talent from abroad. If you're a person moving to another country, you probably have much easier time settling in, if you already speak the language. Because far more academics speak English than (let's say) French or German, academics tend to choose job offers from the US or the UK over equally attractive offers from France or Germany. As the top universities in English-speaking countries have access to a wider talent pool than the top universities in the rest of the world, their research tends to be of higher quality.

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    That's interesting but does not directly answer this specific question. It would be better suited for the one linked. – Cape Code Oct 13 '15 at 13:16
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    It may or may not be an answer to the question, depending on what the original poster meant with the question. The first paragraph implies that the question is really about the supposed advantage the universities in English-speaking countries have because of the language. If this interpretation is correct, the rest of the question is based on poor understanding why the advantage exists and is therefore less relevant to the discussion. – Jouni Sirén Oct 13 '15 at 13:20
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Isn't a decent fluency in English the requirement for senior academic positions (regardless of native languages)?

For STEM fields, generally yes, but there are are other fields, especially in the humanities (e.g. literature, history, architecture), where the majority, if not all, of the publications are written in the local language. In addition, in these fields, books instead of journals are the typical publication venue, and these books are frequently written in the local language.

Think of a historian specializing in the local history of a tiny village located somewhere in nowhere: would their publication language be English or the Somewhere one?

Indeed, whatever the field (even in STEM fields), being able to, at least, read publications in several languages is always an advantage, and I generally suggest to learn at least a second language. Even in publications written in English, one can frequently find references to works in German or French, more rarely Russian and Spanish, for which translations are not available. I've found many fine technical books (maths, physics) written in languages other than English.

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    +1 for mentioning other fields than STEM. Once a research area is tightly related to its cultural context, it does not make much sense to have English as a requirement for senior academic positions. – PatW Oct 13 '15 at 15:33
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Right now, the state of our civilization happens to be such that English is the dominant international language in science. This is a recent phenomenon, however. For example, less than a century ago, science was split fairly evenly between German, French, and English. Before that, up until the 19th century, Latin was the dominant language of science, and before that there was no global dominant language, but regionally dominant languages, e.g., Arabic, Hindustani, Chinese, Latin, Greek.

As a practical matter right now, world-class scholars need to be able to effectively interact with English, just as previously they would have needed to interact also in German and French or before that in Latin. Not every act of scholarship needs to be playing on the world stage, however, and there are many regional communities. In STEM fields, I have most often encountered this in Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and French (all having major recent independent scholastic histories).

Looking forward, will English remain the dominant language?

  • Network effects mean that once a standard becomes "locked in," it is very difficult to change. See, for example, the QWERTY keyboard. By default, then, we should expect English to remain dominant for a long time.

  • If there is a major shift of international order, however, such that a non-English language becomes the lingua franca in other areas, it could enable a transition similar to what happened in the past, when scholarship moved away from Latin into a poly-lingual state, and thence to English.

  • Finally, if automated translation improves sufficiently, then language may become less of a barrier to communication. I doubt this will happen within the next decade, but it could easily happen within a century.

Bottom line: English is dominant, but that doesn't necessarily mean one has to use it now, nor that it will remain dominant in the future.

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    The dominant language of a research area depends entirely on the topic. Not all modern topics of international interest has English as the dominant language. For example, English publications on alternative input methods and unicode-related issues are notoriously weak. For social sciences, the quality of "research" the West does on the East and the South is not merely weak, but embarrasingly so. Even publications from Harvard, yes. – Pacerier Jan 30 '17 at 10:09
  • For those who are not acquainted with this phenomenon, a good rule of thumb is always to read the follow-up comments on all research done. This can easily be done when links to such research is published internationally via the internet by major news sites. E.g. take a read through the comments under news articles like washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/05/16/… – Pacerier Jan 30 '17 at 10:09
  • If English fades away, perhaps Esperanto, Interlingua ("Latino sine flexione", which Peano invented), or another constructed language that's quick-to-learn will take over. There are already scientific papers written in Esperanto. – Geremia Jul 7 '17 at 20:57
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Isn't a decent fluency in English the requirement for senior academic positions (regardless of native languages)?

Let me answer your question plainly:

לא, יש אנשים שמתקבלים כחברי סגל אקדמי באוניברסיטאות ישראליות ואינם מסוגלים לנהל שיחה באנגלית. הדוקטורט שלהם לא נכתב בשפה האנגלית, הם לא השתלמו השתלמות בתר-דוקטורטית באנגלית, וכן הלאה.‏

You see?

No, there are people who are faculty members at Israeli universities and are unable to converse in English. Their dissertation is not written in English, they do not do post-doctoral training in English, and so on.

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    Can you identify by name a full professor at an Israeli university who has not published in English? – ff524 Oct 13 '15 at 19:14
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    @ff524: First, I will obviously not name names of any kind here. Second, I didn't say they were necessarily full professors, nor did I say they never published in English. You can publish in English and have dismal English at the same time... – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 14 '15 at 9:03
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Isn't a decent fluency in English the requirement for senior academic positions (regardless of native languages)?

For all I know, I can imagine a very senior and experienced researcher teaching and doing research in his own language, and having his assistants/students translate and review the latest English-language articles in his field. Even more, he can publish articles in English, if he's the one to propose ideas and another person is the one to lay them out.

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