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Monica Dunford | USLHC | USA

View Blog | Read Bio

Tower of Babel

I am trying to think of a word that adequately describes my ability to learn languages. Abysmal, for example. That would be a good description. Actually even my English can be quite ‘creative’ at times. So much so, it once led my advisor, Gene, to ask, ‘Are you sure that English is your native language?’. Thus, my personal inability to learn languages makes me envy and admire many of my colleagues who have no problem conversing in whatever language necessary.

When it comes to communication, English is certainly this field’s lingua franca. Talks at conferences, meetings, analysis papers for example are all in English. But at CERN, native English speaks are a minority. So it is not uncommon to be in a meeting (in English) and yet be the only native speaker. Nor is it uncommon to be speaking with someone whose English is very, very good, essentially perfect and then learn that this person has never actually been to an English-speaking country. That they have learned English in the presence of non-native speakers.

One hears complaints that the English spoken here has become ‘twisted’. In the sense that it has become its own dialect. We have of course both American and British dialects, but now maybe we have a generic non-native dialect which is something of a melting pot of the 100 or so languages spoken here at CERN. I for one rather like it. It is interesting to see how the Greeks will phrase a sentence, compared to the Italians or Russians or Chinese. It is a little glimpse into their own language through the English.

Although English is generally the one language nearly everyone uses, it is interesting to see this web of communication that people create. Most of my European colleagues, for example, tend to speak three languages: their native language, English and then a third. It is very common therefore to have two people who not only both speak English but also both speak German. And why speak only English, when you can speak both? Some things are better said in one language then another. And I often see people switching from one language to the next where it best fits the conversation. The two languages are simply combined. And why not: isn’t two always better than one?

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