Let’s put the accent on communication

This is an uncomfortable topic for me, because it is not politically correct. But ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room is also counterproductive. So …

I want to talk about foreign accents. Not the cultured Oxford types that are Masterpiece Theater’s stock in trade. Or those that charmingly hint at a French or Italian upbringing. I’m talking about accents that are so thick and heavy that a native English speaker can at best glean but one word in four.

At this major international conference I’m attending, I encountered many foreign accents today. And while I could understand most of what was spoken during the majority of presentations, there were a few that I just couldn’t fathom, no matter how hard I tried (even, one time, sitting in the first row).

The presenters I’m referring to are smart. They’ve done clever work. And now they’re trying to share their findings with the world. Except that their non-native inflections erase any chance of the audience following more than what’s on their PowerPoint pages.

In most cases, these foreign or foreign-born researchers have a stunningly good command of English. Occasionally they miss the need for articles or have a small problem with subject/verb agreement. But in written form, they communicate superbly.

I wouldn’t mind if they wanted to read their talks (which many do) if they also handed out copies so the rest of us would understand what was said. But I can’t figure out how standing at a podium and butchering the pronunciation of those words could possibly advance their own reputation much less the science.

One speaker today was given a brief pep talk by his American advisor (and last author on the study) before the young microbiologist ascended onto the stage. He was encouraged to speak slowly. It didn’t help. I couldn’t follow more than about one word in 12 to 17. I know this because I eventually started counting. By looking at his PowerPoint, I could decipher a word he was uttering now and again, but it wasn’t easy.

Nor did many people appear to try. A man sitting next to me started doodling about two sentences into the presentation. Two grad students in front of me soon started texting and kept it up until the poor speaker finished. Afterward, one older scientist asked a question, but said it was based on being puzzled by something he’d seen on one of the earlier PowerPoint graphs.

I understand that the speaker’s advisor wanted the young scientist to get some experience presenting and defending his data. But sometimes, I’d argue, that can best be accomplished through use of an interpreter — like one of the four coauthors of this paper.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.