In January of this year, Megan Neely, the director of Duke University’s biostatistics master’s program, made international headlines after urging students not to speak Chinese to one another while in the building where the program is housed. Two other faculty members had complained to her about hearing students speaking Chinese “very loudly,” she wrote in an email to students in the program, and had asked to see photos of the program’s students so they could remember them in future internship interviews or if they asked to work with them on master’s projects. Neely warned the group to “keep these unintended consequences in mind when you choose to speak in Chinese in the building.” Once public, the email drew widespread condemnation, including from China’s foreign minister. Neely soon apologized and stepped down as program director, although she remains on Duke’s faculty. 

You can’t prohibit...

You can’t prohibit people during their free time and on their breaks from speaking in another language.

 —Lisa Stepha­nian Burton, Ogletree Deakins

The incident put a fleeting spotlight on language-related questions that, while common in the wider academic community, are seldom topics of public discussion or guidance. As of 2017, nearly 233,000 graduate students and 35,000 postdocs from other countries were studying in science, engineering, and health fields on temporary visas in the US, according to a National Science Foundation survey. While that survey did not touch on country of origin, the Institute of International Education has put out statistics showing that Chinese nationals make up the largest share of all international students in the US (undergraduate and graduate), followed by Indians, South Koreans, Saudi Arabians, and Canadians. 

So the questions of when it is appropriate to speak a language other than English in an academic setting, and the extent to which faculty can or should regulate that balance, are highly relevant to those working in the sciences. Yet there are no agreed-upon answers, and few universities issue advice on the matter, leaving staff and students on their own to navigate a minefield of sensitivities about identity, inclusivity, and power dynamics that surround communication in the lab.

“It’s a very complicated issue, the language thing,” says K.C. Liu, a biostatistician from China who has been a member of labs in Canada and the US with different approaches to the matter. “It’s a very difficult thing to go about solving.”

The pluses and minuses of regulating language in the lab

In her January email, Neely wrote that the faculty who complained to her were “disappointed that these students were not taking the opportunity to improve their English and were being so impolite as to have a conversation that not everyone on the floor could understand.” 

The Duke faculty members weren’t alone in their thinking. A chemistry professor at a university in the northeastern US tells The Scientist that he had similar reasons for instituting an “English-only” policy in his own lab several decades ago. (The professor agreed to be quoted on condition of anonymity, given fears of repercussions after he learned of the incident at Duke.) He says he felt that people overhearing a conversation in a language they couldn’t understand would assume they were the topic of discussion. 

The chemistry professor also thought that, given the dominance of the English language in the scientific community, requiring non-native speakers to practice their English would help them further their scientific careers. The professor says he used to let members of his lab know of his expectation that they speak English—and unlike Neely, he didn’t regulate what language they spoke in other areas, such as break rooms. If he heard someone speaking another language in the lab, he’d ask the person to stop. After learning about the fallout at Duke earlier this year, the professor says he discontinued his policy.

We thought, okay, we probably should have a discussion, at least to raise awareness about the complex­ity of language use in social and professional context.

 —Abbas Benma­moun, Duke University

Not everyone feels uneasy overhearing conversations at work in a language they don’t understand. Paula Ladd, a researcher at Seattle-based diagnostics company MEP Labs, who has worked in labs at Purdue University, Indiana University, and other institutions, says she isn’t bothered by it at all. But she has occasionally seen uncomfortable situations arise around language, she adds—for example, one person berating another in a language the listener doesn’t understand. She adds that expectations that English be used can lead to misunderstanding; in one lab Ladd worked in, a PI urging a lab member to speak English during the workday sparked a false rumor among nonmembers that the lab “only takes Americans,” she recalls. 

There are also logistical issues to consider in conversations about language at work. In the case of a laboratory environment, safety is a top priority. The chemistry professor who chose to remain anonymous says that ensuring lab safety through clear communication was another top consideration for him in deciding to have an English-only policy. But it’s not certain that restricting language use really does improve lab safety: Abbas Benmamoun, a linguist who is originally from Morocco and serves as Duke’s Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, suggests that safety would actually be enhanced if students are able to use their own language to ask a clarifying question about instructions delivered in English.

Indeed, students may not yet be equipped to communicate in English in all situations, says Benmamoun. He thinks Neely’s email reflected a failure to recognize that nonnative speakers who’ve become proficient in academic English in their home countries may not be similarly well-versed in the linguistic register needed for social interactions with colleagues or fellow students. “It takes time to master different registers of the language,” he says.

Liu adds that it’s important to recognize that an English-only policy could be perceived differently depending on who’s instituting it and to whom it applies. She says she has only once been part of a lab where languages other than English were discouraged. That was at the University of Washington, in a lab with multiple Chinese members headed by a Chinese scientist. Liu saw the policy as “gracious” to those in the lab who couldn’t understand Chinese, she says, but adds that she would likely have viewed it differently if the professor hadn’t been a member of the group whose language use was being restricted. “I think it’s a matter of . . . power dynamic, and who is socially in the position of power.”

A lack of guidance from universities

In the aftermath of the email incident this year, Duke has begun to speak with faculty throughout the university about the issue of language, and to develop guidelines on how best to foster inclusion in different contexts such as the classroom or the lab. 

“We thought, okay, we probably should have a discussion, at least to raise awareness about the complexity of language use in social and professional contexts, [and] what it takes to master a particular language,” Benmamoun says. Those conversations are ongoing, he notes, adding that it will be important to make sure international students have adequate support in mastering English. “We need to look at what resources we provide for them, what opportunities for them to use the language. We are not there yet.”

Duke appears to be an outlier among higher-education institutions in to addressing the issue head-on. Of 63 other research universities queried about whether they had policies or guidelines for faculty on use of English in the lab, The Scientist could find no other instance of a US university that has worked to develop such protocols around whether a principal investigator can impose restrictions on speaking a language at work that’s not understood by everyone who might overhear. Eighteen answered that they have not, while 44 did not respond. 

One of the institutions that did respond, the University of Texas at Austin, wrote that all employees are reminded during staff training of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s policy that people are permitted to speak any language at work, a spokesperson writes to The Scientist in an email. There are exceptions to that rule, though, says Lisa Stephanian Burton, an employment lawyer at Ogletree Deakins law firm in Boston. On the job, it may be legal to require English be used for reasons of business necessity, she explains. In a lab setting, an employer might determine that the use of other languages would impede safety or communication with coworkers. But requiring the use of English in common areas is more likely to be deemed discriminatory, Burton adds. “You can’t prohibit people during their free time and on their breaks from speaking in another language.”

When any language-related policies are instituted, it’s important for a supervisor to make expectations and the reasons for those policies clear to everyone so that individuals don’t feel singled out, Burton says. English-only policies also benefit from flexibility, Benmamoun adds. If students slip into their native language because they’re unsure of how to express a thought in English, the professor could use this as a learning opportunity, taking the student aside to tell her the phrase she needs rather than admonishing her, he suggests. 

From Liu’s perspective, though, mandating that English be spoken in the first place is “usually not as productive as it seems,” she says. “When people communicate with each other and kind of work things out organically, it usually works better.” 

Natalie Mullen, director of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Training at Wheaton College in Illinois, has researched how multilingual international students use language on campus. She says she agrees that it’s unnecessary for lab heads to set such an expectation. “From my research, the [international] students . . . were hyperaware of not making the monolingual English speakers uncomfortable with not being able to understand,” she says. “We have to ask ourselves . . . Who thinks that it’s a good idea that there should be a language policy in the lab and why, and who’s going to benefit from an English-only language policy?” Restricting language use wouldn’t benefit the research being done, she argues, “because you want people in a lab to be able to communicate with each other as best as possible about the work at hand.”

Benmamoun emphasizes that language-related practices are also just one piece of the puzzle in ensuring that international students, along with everyone else, feel fully included in the workplace. At the beginning of the fall 2019 semester, for example, he ran a workshop for faculty whose classes include a large proportion of international students. For many of those students, “English is not their first language,” Benmamoun says. “They probably grew up with a different education system, different expectations of the teacher and of the students, and all those things.” 

See “Making STEM Education More Welcoming to Underrepresented Minorities

A “Best Practices for Inclusive Assessment” document that his office recently developed recommends providing a variety of ways for students to participate in classroom discourse—including avenues of communication to accommodate non-native English speakers, as well as people with English as a first language who might not be comfortable speaking up. The overall idea, Benmamoun says, is “basically making [language] part of what we mean by having an inclusive lab, an inclusive classroom, an inclusive learning and research space.” 

An Alternate View: English-Only Degree Programs in the Netherlands

The US is far from the only country to grapple with language issues brought about by the internationalization of academia. In the Netherlands, for instance, a burgeoning number of English-only degree programs has sparked debate. As of the end of last year, three-quarters of master’s degree programs and 28 percent of bachelor’s degree programs are taught entirely in English. The organization Beter Onderwijs Nederland (Better Education Netherlands, or BON) filed a lawsuit last year to halt what Annette de Groot, a linguist at the University of Amsterdam and advisor to BON, considers a rush to anglicization.

BON lost its suit, but continues efforts to slow or reverse the English tide, de Groot says. While she’s in favor of bilingual higher education, she has concerns about the trend toward English-only programs. “The difference in expressibility, in comprehensibility between the second language—even though it is strongly developed—and your native language . . . it’s very noticeable,” she says. “That means that when the second language . . . becomes the language of instruction, instruction suffers.” Furthermore, she says, Dutch-speaking students entering all-English programs “will not develop the Dutch language to [an] academic level.” As a result, “Dutch as a language of science and culture will in the end disappear.”

On the flip side, offering English-only degree programs has enabled Dutch universities to attract international students—a positive phenomenon, argues Association of Universities in the Netherlands spokesperson Bart Pierik. “Dutch universities are really very high up in international rankings. For example, all our universities are in the top 250 from the Times Higher Education index,” he says. Many Dutch students are also drawn to English-only programs because they believe a strong grasp of the language will help further their careers, he says. His association is working to help universities mitigate downsides, by recommending, for example, that instructors have a certain level of English proficiency in order to teach in the language. Overall, Pierik says, “it’s an enduring challenge for us to strike the right balance between being internationally relevant, competitive, and being rooted in [Dutch] society.”

Shawna Williams is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at or follow her on Twitter @coloradan.

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