Does "English-Only" Make Your Lab A Safer Place?

Prodigal Academic comments over at Isis's place:

Everyone speaking English is no guarantee of safety.

That is true, but since the lab was in the US, everyone in it is supposed to have a minimal proficiency in English. In practice, the net result was that the standard procedure was to use English first (allowing others to maintain a good awareness of what was going on around them in the lab), then confirm understanding in another language if necessary.

As a purely safety consideration, it makes a lot of sense to have a lab language. My group right now has 2 PhD students and 3 undergrads, all of whom speak decent to fluent English, and none of whom share another language in common. As it happens in my own lab, I don't actually care what language people use as long as everyone understands any hazardous conditions that may be present. If I see this not happening as the group grows, I may implement a similar English while setting up experiments rule.

When I began my PhD program, I had never set foot in a tissue culture lab before. I was an engineer, with a wee bit of chemistry experience from my M.S. But if you are intent on growing living cells, you are going to have to autoclave things. Or so I had come to understand.

I was a native English speaker, and so was everyone else in my lab. So, indeed, was everyone else that I interacted with regarding the use of the autoclave. Here's the extend of the instructions I got about using the autoclave:

"The autoclave is down the hall in room X. Put your stuff in this bin. For glassware you probably want to run it at such-and-so conditions. For liquids you probably want to run it at such-and-so conditions. Don't forget to put autoclave tape on your stuff so you know after what's been through the autoclave."

Everyone spoke English. Yay! But I am pretty sure I ruined some stuff for people, not to mention narrowly missed killing myself, before I finally haphazardly learned how to operate the autoclave.


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"That is true, but since the lab was in the US, everyone in it is supposed to have a minimal proficiency in English."

Who says? Wasn't aware we had a national language. Oh, that's right - we don't.

The English-only thing seems to be a way to improperly talk about something more important - communicating effectively in the lab. We DO want non-native speakers to have a command of spoken English, which they often don't have if their graduate program in your lab is their first real experience, especially in an immersion situation. But if they can't talk (yet, especially) about something to someone else in English and instead can do it faster and better in Language B, it's just wrong of me to stop them. They can do plenty of talking in presentations and in classes and with other sole-English speakers - if 2 students come into my lab to talk about a problem with an IC and they want to troubleshoot the situation together in Chinese, fine.

Communication is critical, for instance, when there's safety involved and when you're explaining/teaching something. I recall reading a story over on Derek Lowe's blog, in a comment I think, about a conversation overheard by one English speaker between several other nonEnglish speaking students. The other students all left the lab rapidly for some reason after discussing something. It was only later that the English speaking student realized that something had gone wrong and they had left the hazard area. The problem there isn't that the other fellows spoke English - it's that they didn't tell him something he needed to know. He could have easily been mostly dead or had headphones on. It was the lapse in judgment that was the problem, in my opinion, that caused the situation to become more serious.

I feel left out at night when the shouted conversations down the hall aren't in a language I understand, but I get over it.

By lost academic (not verified) on 03 Jun 2010 #permalink

@ lost academic - you hit the nail on the head. Its a communicating effectively. The issue isn't that the group was speaking a different language but they didn't tell the other individual necessary information, which couldn've been done by just simply grabbing and pulling the person. I guarentee the same thing has happened when everyone spoke English

In our academic program we have english proficiency standards for admission, and we refer people to accent reduction programs if we are concerned about their communication skills.

For native english speakers, we have no similar referral process for communication problems.

By MonkeyPox (not verified) on 03 Jun 2010 #permalink

I was a native English speaker, and so was everyone else in my lab. So, indeed, was everyone else that I interacted with regarding the use of the autoclave. Here's the extend of the instructions I got about using the autoclave:

Bah... This whole entire discussion reminds me of a company I worked for that manufactured biomedical equipment. It was composed of people who predominantly spoke Spanish. I don't think any problems ever came of it in terms of safety.

@ScientistMother - I know! It's almost as if people thing learning English can turn a person into a thoughtful, risk-aware, considerate person. Just like every resident of the US of A.


By lost academic (not verified) on 03 Jun 2010 #permalink

@lost academic - I haven't even mentioned that a good portion of individuals who come here (North America) for training, have no intention of staying they would like to either go back to their country of origin or another location. Its never crossed anyone's mind that not everyone want to stay in the USA?

Uh oh, now it is my turn to step in it. Rereading this comment, I see it comes across as if I believe that the English language is the key to safety in a University lab. I apologize--that is not at all what I meant to say. I certainly don't think that people should be forced to speak English in the US (though I acknowledge it does improve job prospects), nor do I force students in my group to speak only English in the lab, as stated in the quoted text. Right now, I have no rule on it, but I have contemplated the possibility of needing one in the future.

First, some context. This comment came after this one, which related a lab accident that had as a partial cause poor communication of a lab hazard, partially due to language issues.

When I said that the lab was in the US, I should have said "at a US university where minimal proficiency in English is a requirement for admission." I am well aware that the TOEFL has limited applicability to real world interactions in a lab, but I don't think it is out of the realm of reasonableness to expect students at a US institution which requires basic English language skills to be able to discuss scientific issues (at least at a basic level) in English, particularly if that is the PI's means of communication as well. How will students be mentored by the PI if they can't communicate with her?

What minimal and crappy safety training I got as a student was communicated in English (hmmmmm maybe we should update that for the reality of the 21st century American student distribution? That is actually something that we should be discussing). Same for lab safety training here at Prodigal U. I also go over basic safety issues specific to our lab with my students, and I do emphasize the importance of good communication about hazards. In many lab accidents, the person who was careless injures someone else (sometimes fatally), so I do pay attention to what others are doing while I am in the lab, and I discuss the importance of awareness of the lab environment to safety in a hazardous environment with my students.

Zuska, you received crappy training on an autoclave. English had nothing to do with it (and a crappy safety environment for student is a HUGE unspoken problem at Universities). A uniformly understood lab language (not necessarily English) is one teeny tiny piece of lab safety, in my opinion. Two people speaking the same language does NOT necessarily make them effective teachers or mentors. But it is a minimum requirement for effective communication that they have a language in common.

Lost academic, I would be really unhappy if my students were using headphones in the lab. That is a MAJOR safety no-no. In the office, go right ahead, but not in a lab full of hazards and other people using them. I can't stop them from zoning out, but I do suggest it is unwise.

In my postdoc lab, there are at least half a dozen nations/languages represented; count in the labs that we share space with, then there could be 10 or more languages spoken in this one area. Frankly, if anything horrific happened, I would probably be able to figure out there was a problem by the frantic tone, no matter what language they were speaking. When it comes to conversations, it really shouldn't matter whether they choose to speak English or their native language. In cases where at least 2 in the lab speak the same language, it may be more efficient for them to converse in their native language. If it gets the job done, then it shouldn't matter. Sometimes it makes people-OK, Americans, if in a U.S. university-uncomfortable because they feel left out. We should get over it.

That being said, there should be a 'universal language' for certain things in the lab, namely (a) labeling of reagents and chemicals... because if you transfer sulfuric acid to another container, everyone should be able to determine that it's sulfuric acid as opposed to PBS and (b) recordkeeping so your work can be continued when you leave. In some ultra-competitive labs, I've heard rumors that trainees would maintain notebooks and label reagents in their native languages just so others couldn't steal their reagents, results, or ideas; clearly there are bigger issues here than simply using one's native language, but nonetheless it's bad for science.

Prodigal Academic, thanks for commenting so extensively here, expanding on and clarifying your earlier comment that I quoted from Isis's post. I really appreciate what you took the time to say here.

So much food for thought already, in just eight comments.

I don't work in a lab where dangerous things can happen (the biggest risk in a math department is chalk dust inhalation), but if a group is going to work together for an extended time, there should be at least one language everyone understands. Around here, that'll probably be English.

However, I wish there were more opportunities for foreign-language study in the US. I had the chance to study math in a foreign country for a semester, which I was only able to do because it provided instruction in English. It's a shame we don't have more students coming here, to experience school and life in the US, without having to learn English to a university-ready level.

By Snarkyxanf (not verified) on 03 Jun 2010 #permalink

I work at a clinical lab so I don't know how applicable my experience is, but there are multiple people who have english as a second language, and talk with peers who know their language. It was not a big deal, at all. I don't know why it would be in a lab setting.

About 5 years back, I worked in a bio lab in Boston that was staffed almost entirely by Korean scientists and technicians. Amongst the group, the PI was really the only one with a solid command of the English language.

I can say that problems did crop up from comunications blocks. They ranged from being inconvenient (being handed a protocol with the important parts written in Korean) to somewhat problematic (a researcher didn't understand when told that there had been a chemical spill, and had to be pushed out of the lab) to outright hazardous (bottles of hazardous materials labeled in Korean).

I think it boils down to proper communication, rather than simply English. I'm a native English speaker (my only other language being a fluency in French limited to asking "where is the library?"), so I decided to learn Korean to get by in the lab. While this would have solved my communications problems, there was still a problem in that the lab was a part of a greater research group that largely spoke English. Ideally, I would have learned Korean (I moved on to another job before learning much), and they would have learned English.

I do think that a command of the dominant language (English in the US) is necessary for safety when working with dangerous equipment or hazardous materials, though. In a lab fire, for example, the firefighters need to know what's what in the lab in order to safely do their job. In a multilingual facility, it would be unreasonable to expect the firefighters to understand 6 or 7 languages, or to bring along a translator.

Bottle of hazardous material labelled in a language other than english would expose the lab to some ENORMOUS fines if it were inspected by the EPA or other health and safety outfits, which in turn might lead to some serious repercussions for the faculty, especially if untenured. I know the original post focuses (rightly) on personal safety, but you could extend it to the safety and security of the lab itself as a scientific enterprise. After all, if the PI is canned and the lab is shut down, everyone loses.

Safety: language, communication and awareness.
There are so many ways to screw up lab safety with all of the other 3. When I was the in the lab, every new person learned safe lab practice, animal handling, chemical and radioactive waste handling from the other lab residents. In a big lab, this will RARELY be the PI. I was a grad student and post-doc in 3 different labs with many other students, post-docs, and visiting faculty. One big problem, that I learned early on, is that there are cultural issues that will make teaching and learning safe lab practices more difficult. Sometimes it stems from someone from the MD culture coming into a research lab for the first time and being loathe to acknowledge that a lowly PhD student might be the best resource for learning how to use a radioactive reagent. It can also be related to language or gender. I learned, while teaching in the lab, to ask for detailed feedback while teaching a procedure, and not just ask: 'Do you understand?', which is far too easy to answer with a meaningless 'yes'. Some folks don't like to admit that they don't understand what they just heard, and some folks don't like to be in a position of learning anything from a guurrrrull, and would consequently never ask questions or admit a gap in their understanding. So, better to teach everyone interactively and make sure they know exactly what to do when and where, or you will eventually catch someone mouth pipetting radioactive bacteria in a tissue culture hood, and when confronted, be adamant that that is exactly the way they do it in X lab.
Of course, as most students and post-docs know, the most dangerous people in the lab are often the visiting faculty/sabbaticals. They identify with the PI, they wander away from the bench to deal with phone calls from their home university, they haven't been in the lab in years but they are SURE they know exactly what they are doing because back when they were grad students they were hot shit, etc. Watch them carefully.

I know of at least one instance where poor english skills (in a lab in the US at a university requiring a minimum TOEFL score, etc.) led to an extremely hazardous situation. The student in question was unable to understand the statement, "Take that out of your mouth, it is a neurotoxin!" in a timely manner. Say what you will about how poor communication might have led to the situation occurring in the first place, but certainly a good command of english helps keep people safe when dangerous situations do arise.

The fact that the university requires a minimal TOEFL score already speaks to the importance of english as a universal language at US universities. From the point of view of education, it seems reasonable to expect students in your lab to speak the same language whenever possible. I would expect the same of myself if I were working in a lab in another country for an extended period of time (or even a short period of time if possible).

The most important cultural issue in terms of interpersonal communication and safety has nothing to do with language per se, and everything to do with cultural norms of deference to authority and willingness to tell someone else that they are wrong. Taken to its extreme, this has led to communication breakdown in the cockpit of an airplane where a second officer was too timid to tell the captain that he was piloting the plane right into the side of a fucking mountain. The entire crew and passengers were killed in the crash.

I discuss this in detail here:…

When trainees join my lab, I make a concerted effort to convince them that it is their responsibility to call out bullshit when they see or hear it in the lab, especially when it is I that is spouting it.

"a researcher didn't understand when told that there had been a chemical spill, and had to be pushed out of the lab" Pushing someone out of a lab is communication (they understood once you'd done that, didn't they?)

All this discussion about "english only" excludes those who understand english, but might not be able to do all three of the following: read it, speak it, understand it when it is spoken to them. Does every English-speaking lab ensure that everyone that enters: has perfect vision, can read fast enough, doesn't mumble, doesn't have an accent, speaks the same dialect of English, hasn't ever and will never lose their voice, has perfect hearing, doesn't have any auditory processing issues (different to hearing) and doesn't regularly tune out background noise or zone out?

We all have differences in communicating, no-one understands 100% of what any one person ever says, and the person who doesn't hear your urgent warning might be the person who isn't a native speaker of your language, or they might be the native speaker who regularly tunes out any and all background noise when they're concentrating.

Health and safety procedures need to take into account any problems that might arise, and if the procedures don't, then it isn't the fault of the people who haven't been taken into account. In a multi-lingual country like the US I would have thought this would be apparent, but then, I don't know what your health and safety legislation and regulations are like or how they are enforced.

By Katherine (not verified) on 09 Jun 2010 #permalink

So yes, making your lab English-only *might* make it a safer place, but it isn't the only way you can go about it.

Forgot to add in my previous post. "The student in question was unable to understand the statement, "Take that out of your mouth, it is a neurotoxin!" in a timely manner." Why didn't you grab it out of their mouth? Why was it out somewhere that they could put it into their mouth? Why wasn't it labelled pictorially as a deadly neurotoxin? Why weren't they made to understand before they came into contact with it?

By Katherine (not verified) on 09 Jun 2010 #permalink

Here's my two cents.

Part of learning in grad school, much more so than at the undergraduate level, occurs at the collaborative level. Maybe you complain about challenges over a beer, or you elbow and hiss to a deskmate in the lab proper. During meetings you ask questions and discuss limitations and potential application of one's research. These interactions are beneficial to both parties - identifying specific ways to improve the research at hand, further developing critical thinking skills, etc. When different groups in the lab cannot communicate easily outside of strictly formal presentations, this limits the workflow.

For example, I work in a lab that is approx 50% Chinese. When I present to my American/Indian/European colleagues, there is engagement - people ask questions, point out possible solutions, ask to incorporate my work into their perspective. When I present to my Chinese counterparts, rarely do I get feedback. I know they are learning from my work because I see the ideas being incorporated into their work (and sometimes get credit).

Here's the catch: my heritage is not Anglo. I actually understand ~10% of the conversations that go on. Just enough to understand that the conversations in Chinese, some are just chatter, but a lot are about collaboration. We've had some cases where the Chinese students present "difficult problems" in their research only to find that someone else in the lab already solved it, and was recently talking about it casually in the student's presence.

In response to the comments about speaking in native language in order to have a touchstone to one's culture - yes, absolutely. I think it's perfectly fine to have non-lab related conversations in your own language. Do I want to know about pop star antics in Asia? Not really.

But the point of research groups is collaboration. And while there are many situations where English-proficient students must be taught to identify who it is "safe" to share openly with, why are we allowing opportunities for group division to flourish?

I don't know the perfect answer for groups with a lot of primary languages, but I get nervous when a solution for one group gets generalized as a solution for use elsewhere.

Where collaboration has to happen, there has to be a way to let everyone in the group participate fully, undoubtedly. Sometimes the answer is easy -- I was once part of an engineering group scattered across many timezones, and the solution to that was to hold all technical discussion via internal chat server. Whenever you came online, you could read the chat logs and catch up on the discussion. It also made the occasional translation problem easier -- clarifications or definitions just got pasted into the discussion, and most of us read a foreign language more easily than we interpret it spoken. This wasn't handed down as a rule, but was a spontaneous result of the group finding a way to collaborate.

I was in another group where I was in the language minority. I partnered up with someone who spoke the majority language, but was in a specialization minority. We kept chat open in meetings, translating on the fly for each other -- from language to language or from specialization to specialization. The others policed themselves with regular pauses to make sure everything was communicated. Again, no one suggested any of this from above, it was just how the group solved the collaboration problem with what was available in that instance.

If a group hasn't found such solutions on their own (maybe they need resources they don't have), I'm not sure handing down rules is a good approach except as a last resort. I suspect you get better results by pulling everyone together and making it clear that full involvement for all group members must be the top priority, and then asking the group how they would like to make this happen.

By Helen Huntingdon (not verified) on 19 Jun 2010 #permalink

@Helen Huntingdon "I'm not sure handing down rules is a good approach except as a last resort. I suspect you get better results by pulling everyone together and making it clear that full involvement for all group members must be the top priority, and then asking the group how they would like to make this happen."

Much the same as true health and safety policies need full staff engagement ;)

By Katherine (not verified) on 30 Jun 2010 #permalink