International academic events are always a good laboratory to observe not only the various schools of thought, national educational orientations and current trends, but also opportunities to think about about language and understanding. Not less importantly, they represent occasions to think about the need for permanent education, independently of our sometimes impressive academic degrees and professional performances.
In many cases, English is the lingua franca of the majority of the encounters of this type. International publications are in English or accepting submissions in English, making this language a useful tool for getting together ideas and researchers from all over the world. During these conferences, you might observe as well the creation of small national groups of researchers with the same linguistic background, who will be eager to share their thoughts and ideas better in their mother tongue. There are also people who are unable to express themselves in any language other than their own, despite impressive academic records.
International gatherings offer a good opportunity to practice a foreign language, by direct contact with native speakers. Even if you can’t learn the language – especially the grammar – in a couple of days, at least you are switching your level of knowledge to a more active one. Very often, we miss those opportunities, too afraid to translate ideas into a confusing bubbling.
However, beyond some encouraging aspects regarding the diversity side of the story, the main question during academic gatherings is how much are we able to really express ourselves and understand the discussions. Very often, I have been part of various Babel-like conversations, when only the names of the authors – well known scientists – were the common understandable reference of the dialogue. If in the area of science, the standard vocabulary is more easily translated and understood from one language to another; in the case of human sciences, the “lost in translation” effect is more confusing and misleading.
Learning to know a language is a very long and almost never-ending process. We learn with difficulty and we forget easily. You need practice and you need to actively use the new language. For this, time is the unknown element. To improve your linguistic performances you need to dedicate a serious amount of your daily – and probably busy – schedule.
On the other hand, using your time for improving the knowledge of at least two foreign languages, beyond your own, is a long-term achievement. It is brain challenging, through opening new doors for extending your knowledge and your references. It also helps us to be more tolerant and open-minded to the various human, historical and cultural differences.
I do not think there is any kind of classification of the languages you have to know. In every domain, there are always several open options. What we need, independently of our academic and national background, is to be aware of the fact that self-sufficiency is a strong poison for the brain. The antidote is to keep ourselves optimistic enough to overcome our limits of communication.
Ana Dinescu is a PhD candidate in history at the Faculty of History, University of Bucharest, with a background in Political Science. She has been a journalist for ten years for Romanian daily newspapers and is currently a communications consultant, living in Berlin.