Podcast: Lab languages

Researchers often speak multiple languages and their labs are often plurilingual, too. That's fun but sometimes not easy to navigate.
Published in Protocols & Methods
Podcast: Lab languages

Researchers often move around the world and might join the faculty at a university or research institute outside of their native country. A lab team, too, might be quite international with students and fellows  from a number of different countries. This often means that a lab will speak many languages, not just one. 

Sure, members of a lab will gravitate toward others who speak their languages. They need to 'get their fix' of their native language. But those conversations can sometimes exclude those who do not speak this language. For a principal investigator, it's a balance to give people freedom to be themselves and to be language-inclusive, too, without being heavy-handed about it. Language-based exclusion hurts. 

In the series "Lab & life" I did a story about languages in the lab for Nature Methods. Here's the link to the story and here is a quasi full-text link.  

For this story, Ilaria Testa  shared her thoughts and experience on language with me. She is a biophysicist and super-resolution microscopist at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and SciLifeLab, a research collaboration across Swedish universities. 

In her lab these are the languages spoken:

Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, German, Mandarin for now--I had Farsi sometime ago as well. - Ilaria Testa, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and SciLifeLab

In the Testa lab, people speak their native language--hers is Italian--when chatting or in small group discussions. When more people get together, they switch to English. She always switches to English in those situations, says Ilaria Testa. She has had Swedish students join her lab explicitly to experience an international environment.

She keeps a close eye on what she calls a "potential un-balance." She recommends to others to "keep your eye open for someone that can feel excluded and is not given the opportunity to join a conversation."

I have been excluded from conversation and I learn to speak up and switch to English to show my wish of participation.

Most of the time people are not aware or need a little push to switch language, interrupting and asking questions in english helps the switch.

Experiencing myself what means to be on the other side, shape me in being very sensitive to this situation. So I often intervene or create awareness, if such situation can affect the lab atmosphere.

Ilaria Testa, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and SciLifeLab.

In the lab of neuroscientist Ronen Segev at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the main lab languages are Hebrew and English. But not all members speak Hebrew, the lab also has Russian, Chinese and Arabic native speakers in the lab,  he says. “English is actually the only common ground,” he says. 

Language and communication are extremely important aspects of lab life, he says. Native speaker of the same language will almost always speak the native language with other natic speakers. This is where the role of the principal investigator comes in.

He finds it crucial that a PI makes sure those who do not speak Hebrew do not feel left out.

The way I do it, I keep on using English when speaking with lab members if one of the non-Hebrew speakers is around.

He does this even if the subject of conversation is not related to them directly. In this way, the non-Hebrew speaker can always join the conversation, says Segev. This matters for research issues, because they can contribute advice on something beyond their project. Even if this is casual, fun conversation, "in this way they feel belong to the group all the time," he says. He always runs group meetings in English. It forces all, including the Hebrew speakers, to polish their English. 

At University of California Davis, principal investigator Wolf-Dietrich Heyer speaks German, English and Italian and works on his Spanish and Japanese. He just spent a sabbatical period there. He switches easily between his three main languages, "but I prefer using English for science," he says. English was already the lab language in Switzerland where he finished his undergraduate education and did his graduate work. His research focuses on molecular genetics and protein biochemistry.  Heyer also thinks about the risks of excluding others with language. 

This can indeed be a problem and the larger the lab the more pressing it may become. When this happens, I point out to the individuals involved that they are losing an opportunity to improve their English proficiency, which is central to their professional advancement, wherever their career may take them. Moreover, it excludes the others, as you say, which is never a good thing.

People naturally tend to do this without malice to create a semblance of home, but so far everybody understood and accepted my points, and in fact were embarrassed not realizing the consequences of their indulgence. Wolf-Dietrich Heyer, UC Davis

"Embrace the diversity, it is a blessing," says Heyer. The cultural diversity in US science comes not only from the inherent diversity of the population, especially in Northern California, he says, but also from the influx of talented students and postdocs from abroad.

Tapping into this diversity uncovers new viewpoints and questions. Creating an environment where everybody feels empowered to speak up and contribute, even in halting English littered with grammatical issues, is important to let all people realize their fullest potential with great benefits to the individuals and the laboratory.

An easy way to cherish diversity are lab parties, where instead of going out to a restaurant, we have potlucks in the conference room or picnics after the lab hikes, where everybody contributes specialties from their home country. We have uncovered many talented cooks and bakers this way, tasting amazing food every time.  Wolf-Dietrich Heyer, UC Davis

Beyond the diversity of his own lab, "we are also cherishing the diversity of our department with 20 faculty where about half of the faculty are foreign born," says Heyer. 

Everyone in his lab is a native French speaker, says Aurèle Piazza, a Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) researcher at Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon.

When he was a postdoctoral fellow in the Heyer lab, he did some calculations to show with how many people --across the world--the group can communicate.  The map is here

Here is the language map numbers of his current lab:

- French (everybody) = 79.9M mother tongue (MT), 274M (million) total  

- English (everybody) = 373M MT, 1.45B total

- Italian (one person ) = 64.8M MT, 67.9M total

- Dutch (one person) = 25M MT, 30M total

- Arabic (one person) = 456.7M MT, 730.7 M total

- Berber-Kabyle (one person) = 4M

It means the lab can communicate with a minimum of 1 billion people in their mother tongue and a maximum of 2.6 billion people. Not quite half of humanity, and not as good as Wolf's lab yet: we need to work on our internationality :).  Aurèle Piazza, a Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) researcher at Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon

The Heyer lab  has a world map with the pictures of all lab members and flags marking their origin. 

I saw this during my undergraduate years when I visited the lab of our collaborator Dieter Söll at Yale and thought that was a great way to acknowledge diversity. What we noticed is that we had no representation from Africa for a long time, and after over 32 years running my own laboratory, only a single person from Africa was in the lab, and that only for a summer research experience. -Wolf-Dietrich Heyer, University of California, Davis 

Discussion about this lack of representation from Africa also led Heyer and Piazza to discuss language  and communication, which led to the map Piazza made.

Science proficiency is such a portable skill and only limited to the societies, who can afford to maintain a scientific research infrastructure. Our map is a reflection of that, says Heyer.

Everyone in his lab speaks French as a native language, says Piazza. He and the team know that they need proficiency in English to communicate science, network and to ready PhD students for finding a postdoctoral fellowship abroad.

The team has set up "English Tuesday." On Tuesday they all speak English to practice communicating science and for casual conversations.

I don't know of other labs doing that, but I felt it was a way to help students become more proficient. As a grad student we never practice and my poor English proved quite challenging at conferences or starting as a postdoc abroad, especially everyday conversations.- Aurèle Piazza.

And here is a podcast about languages in the lab with Denis Wirtz, cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and vice-provost for research at Hopkins. He is also in the above-mentioned story, the link to which is here.

Transcript of the podcast

Note: These podcasts are produced to be heard. If you can, please tune in. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and there’s a human editor. But a transcript may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

 Denis Wirtz

I get my French fix when I speak to my mother once a week that that's all of us. But I think my Taiwanese students or Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis. They get to practice, you know, Urdu, Hindi once a week with their parents. I think we're all in this boat together, I’m afraid.


That’s Dr Denis Wirtz, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and vice-provost for research at Hopkins as well. I spoke with him about his research some time and that’s a different podcast I am still producing but we also spoke about language and that’s what this podcast is about today. 

Hi and welcome to Conversations with scientists, it’s been a while since the last episode. Apologies, I was writing a lot, did a video and then tried to take some time for family. Because work-life balance matters, right? Anyway, glad to be back and glad to be producing this podcast and others, too. 

 This episode is about a topic that is, in a way, a given in labs and perhaps not talked about a lot: language. Labs speak many languages because principal investigators, graduate students, staff, post-docs, visiting scientists they come from all over and speak different languages, which is of course fine and great.

 I did a story about lab languages for Nature Methods and Denis Wirtz is in that story as well as other researchers. A link to the story is in the show notes. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41592-023-01854-7


Scientists tell me about the balance they strike to keep the lab talking and have people feel comfortable to speak in their own language, too as well as English. It’s just that such conversations in one language can exclude others, which is when things can get a bit difficult.

Here I want to share more of what Denis Wirtz told me on the subject of language and how he handles language matters in his lab. It’s a short podcast today, the next ones will be once again longer.

 So what happens in a lab when people congregate to speak their native language. That can leave others out of a conversation that may be important for all to hear. But of course some need their fix of their native language and they need to live their own language as well as English. Here’s Denis Wirtz.

 Denis Wirtz [2:40]

Because exactly, you do not want to make them all, you know, hide, or even delete, if you will, what makes them interesting an individual right. So I it's interesting because I think I do help my students learn how a story is told and it matters, right? Accessibility is primordial and I am a big believer in Elements of Style, right? It tends to be accessible it this, this fantasy that too many students by the time they graduate either with an undergrad or PhD, the more obscure they are the more seemingly savant they sound. When of course it's the exact opposite.

People will presume if they don't understand what you're saying is not because they're stupid, it's because you're stupid, right? And, and so that I work very hard on. And it's a story of simplification, simplification, without trivializing the discovery they may make, okay? But it's interesting at the same time maybe. So that's the English part, right. The unifying language undeniably is and remains English.


The language in science and in his lab is English but of course people will hang out together during the day and speak another language. But in a lab you also want an inclusive environment as well as one that is comfortable for people whose native language may not be English.

Denis Wirtz

Say, a group of there is three French people first you never will prevent them speaking French to each other, it’s  just lost cause. But I may take one aside and say keep in mind that you do at the end what you want, I realize you need your fix of French every day, it's all it's all good and nice.

But that then someone else who could be listening in and could provide, could contribute to this conversation cannot, right. And so it's always It's a fine balance. I want to preserve these people feel comfortable just, you know, they don't like I don't know, eliminate what makes them in part, it makes them unique. And at the same time be inclusive, right?

Where I always say it can be distracting to hear a conversation background. But sometimes it's so useful. Because you you're hearing something, and it's like helping you in your work, maybe not today, but one day. And you can't even recall you can't even remember, that was this background conversation you overheard, you have to almost scratch your head:who was talking because what they were saying was so true. Who was oh, it was Bart, let me go to talk to Bart, and he may have a solution for what I'm trying to solve here. And I'm big believer of this.

And at the same time, right. And I tried to create physical space for people to you know, think the big thoughts, to, you know, when they code they need silence. So sometimes you need, you know, headphones. And to strike that balance, I'm not sure I get it right every day, between this open floor, this openness, this common language you're talking about and at the same time, having an ability to be alone and, and be kind of ambitious in the reasoning. So it's, it's such a good question I as you can see, I haven't thought about it.


Denis Wirtz its originally from Belgium and speaks multiple languages.

 You speak how many languages? Four or more?

 Denis Wirtz

You have to, that’s how it works. It's Flemish, German, some but that German is gone. Now it's official, French and English. I say I'm terrible at either of those languages. I get my French fix when I speak to my mother once a week that that's all of us. But I think my Taiwanese students or Chinese there is Indians and Pakistanis. They get to practice, you know, Urdu , Hindu  once a week when they talk with their   parents. I think we're all in this boat together, I'm afraid. Where it's like, we switched, we could have this conversation in French, it would be a struggle for me, it literally would be a struggle.


It would be a big struggle for me, particularly over words and things, but I think it changes the dynamic, right? I think when people switch between back and forth, it is actually good for them to have that identity, both of the identities.

 Denis Wirtz [7:01]

Right, I really think so. I really think so. But what I wanted to say it could be different for different universities, But at Hopkins, you know, we’re gonna have kids who are not only extraordinary scholars, but will be completely fluent in English, right and know how to write English often they come already with papers, there was a discussion in Twitter isn't unfair to those and I agree. But how do you how do you select those students then?

I mean, if you have the luxury to be able to pick those students who are already published as an undergrad, fluent in English, say coming from China, just as an example. And Hopkins tends to attract these kind of high caliber students. And so the the issue concern, I don't know how to put it, challenge that you have students who really struggle with the language is a bit less than at a place like Hopkins.

It’s not absent, just to be clear, for instance, I have master’s students. And there they did, I can see the level of language is a little bit, not as high. And so I'll make a point to, in a very secure way, of course, to present the work more often. With me once a week, as part of group meetings, I have sub-group meetings. So they meet as part of, so they they’ve different like sub-communities, where it's presented in slightly different ways where you're going to have in a sub-group meeting experts in a group meaning fewer experts, you have to learn how to tell your story to a large. And then of course, the conferences, where you may have experts and non-experts and then I always, say to your family, so you have to be able to explain what you're doing. And, and read the body language and if they are unimpressed, because they should be impressed, that tells me that you didn't find a way to sell your, your science. 


That was Conversations with scientists. Today's episode was with Dr. Denis Wirtz, cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and vice-provost for research at Hopkins.

The music used in this podcast is Better by Dizzy licensed from artlist.io.

And I just wanted to say because there's confusion about these things sometimes. Nobody paid for this podcast and nobody paid to be in this podcast. This is independent journalism that I produce in my living room. I'm Vivien Marx. Thanks for listening.

A plane flying above the clouds, shown against a blue sky with some clouds.

(A. Foster, Getty Images)


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Go to the profile of Chi-Ping Day
about 1 month ago

Vivien, great job! This is such an interesting topic that happens at daily bases in most of the laboratories, but no scientific journalist talked about it until I found your podcast. The first French and Spanish vocabulary I learned from my friends were "merde" and "consado", respectively; obviously because they were postdocs!    

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