Europe gets entangled in complex language web

Rinckside 2001; 12,4: 13-15.

ead this sentence slowly: "The journal Diagnostic Exposure reports that gentle­men are inferior to domestic animals in stage setting when feeling children with assumed ill will."

Read that sentence again. If you understand it, I congratulate you. It took me a while to fathom its meaning.

Please, hold your complaints to the editor that this column gets out of hand. It is not about molesting little boys. It is about the results of a radiological study published by Diagnostic Imaging translated from English into German by a computer-based translation program. I have attempted a retranslation into English, to approximate the impact of the uproarious gibberish on a German-only reader [see Footnote].

But pass on the laughter; the problem is serious. Of course, computers cannot handle the subtleties of a language. Yet there are those who insist that computer translations are an elegant way to help people understand foreign languages. Translating simple sentences or technical texts ought to be easy for a computer, they say. Surely a computer can translate the phrase: “The hospital is big and the patients are sick”. Perhaps so, but if you apply translation software to more complex matters such as a radiological report, the health of a patient can be seriously compromised.

Translation software, like that Google supplies for its search engines on the internet accomplish what reading glasses do for the illiterate.

Translation software, like that Google supplies for its search engines on the internet accomplish what reading glasses do for the illiterate. It takes the human brain to accurately render medical terms from English to another language.

For slightly more difficult sentences you need a translator, a person who is able to understand the medical and literal context and interprets it – or you learn the language yourself, because in many instances the literal translation makes no sense in another language. This, however, a computer does not know.

From time immemorial, it was an advantage to be able to parley the language of the neighboring tribe or even a people living further away. As time went by, the lingua franca system developed. The language of a tribe or people travelling, trading, or simply “pacifying” other tribes or people would become the connecting language. In Europe this was Greek, later Latin for nearly two millennia.

Outside factors often changed the usage of a language. One example: When you walked through the streets of Berlin 300 years ago and didn’t know your way, the best language to address a stranger was French. One quarter of the population was French because religious tolerance in France was at its low during the reign of Louis XIV. More than 20.000 French Protestants had fled to Prussia which used to offer sanctuary to immigrants and refugees from numerous countries. The language at the Prussian court was French, and King Frederick William I wrote better French than German.

French remained the language of diplomacy and upper class conversation until the years between the World Wars. German became the language of science, replacing Latin, in the nineteenth century. Again the second World War brought this to an end.

Since the Germans had lost both wars, they did not complain about the loss of German as a leading lingua franca. The French did and still do. The late president of France, Georges Pompidou once stated: “We must not let the idea take hold that English is the only possible instrument for industrial, economic and scientific communication [1]."

He was right, it could be Russian or German, or even returning to Latin; of course, he thought of French. The present French president is said to speak better Russian than English – but he speaks both languages. The Italian and Spanish prime ministers need interpreters even for English. Clearly, they are at a disadvantage. In general, the lower your social and professional status, the less likely you are to speak English. Status increases with the number of languages spoken.

Nearly one quarter of the population of the European Union speak German as their first language. English, French, and Italian as first languages are only spoken by some 16% each. However, 47% of EU citizens say they can speak English, 31% of them as a foreign language.

Today you have situations where radiologists from the French-speaking part of Belgium talk to their colleagues from the Dutch-speaking part in English. The same holds for Switzerland. German speakers talk in English to their counterparts from Geneva or Lausanne.

Some of the foes of English as the universal language stress that the ubiquity of English ensures Anglo-American superiority around the world, and it is difficult to refute this argument. Although British impact is limited, US-American economic and cultural influence is strong – after the U.S.A. won both World Wars. With the victory came the influence one encounters everywhere.

International and national radiological conferences are proud if speakers from the United States are present. Many members of the young European radiological elite would emigrate to the United States if it were possible. The leading German publisher of radiological books has a series dubbed “US Art”. Radiology, the main journal of the Radiological Society of North America still is the leading scientific journal in medical imaging.

The English spoken in Europe, however, is neither British nor US-American (whatever British English might be if you have ever tried to understand a taxi driver in London or Liverpool or a medical doctor from Yorkshire). It has little in common with the melodic singing of the Irish or Scots. Its more modern orthography owes its allegiance less to the Cambridge in England than to the Cambridge in Massachusetts. “Euro-Fizz” English is spoken with Continental accents and written à l‘Americain.

On the whole, English has become a stateless language. The global number of non-native English speakers is about four times larger than that of its native speakers; today there may be as many non-native dialects of English as there are native dialects.

I am amused when I read job advertisements in the newspapers offering certain positions only to “native English speakers”. What is a native English speaker – a British, Irish, Australian, Indian, South African, US American, Canadian? It is better to look for “advanced written and verbal English language skills” as other advertisements demand.

A non-native English speaker is often better for a non-native English-speaking audience.

Often it is advantageous to have a non-native English speaker for a non-native English-speaking audience. I have been involved in arranging radiological teaching courses for more than two decades and now prefer to use non-native English speakers for such courses. Native English speakers with a strong dialect such as those from Texas and Yorkshire can be particularly difficult for an international audience. The participants don‘t understand them, no matter how pedagogically and scientifically expert they are.

In Europe, English is likely to develop into a kind of Euro-American hybrid with an increasing part of the vocabulary being imported from Continental Europe. Sooner or later there might be a lobby “Keep our English clean” similar to the French lobby “Keep the Anglicisms out of our French”. Perhaps the same people could take over the new movement.

Many native English speakers watch the development proudly because their language leads the world. However, they might wake up one morning and not understand their own language any more.

This has happened to linguae francae before. The Latin spoken during the height of the Roman Empire remained the language of the better educated. But the dialects spoken throughout the Empire varied and developed into different major Romance languages: Italian with all its dialects, French and its dialects, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, you name them. Look at the English spoken in former British colonies: Pidgin English idioms are languages of their own.

A persistent problem for many native English speakers is that for them English is not only the first, but in many instances the only language they know. For all others, English is the second, third or fourth language. They can switch languages and return to their mother tongue at will. English-only speakers are excluded from this flexibility.

Today, scientific success in disciplines like medicine, pharmacy, physics, chemistry, or psychology on an international level is impossible without a thorough knowledge of English. There is no advantage for the individual researcher, for patients, or for the entire scientific discipline if one insists on talking or publishing in a language other than English – except if the target audience is limited to people speaking another mother tongue. In this case it will be advantageous to use that language.

Languages are taught at school, mostly at the secondary, sometimes already at the primary school level in all European countries. On average, school children in Luxembourg learn 2.9 languages, in the Flemish part of Belgium 1.9 (1.4 in the French part). French children learn 1.7 languages in average, German 1.2, Italian and English 1.1.

These children might use computers to learn a foreign language, but hopefully they will avoid translation software programs. These software programs will remain ersatz. If you don’t understand English you better learn it. This holds not only for radiologists, but also for politicians and administrators.

Today most EU documents are translated into a dozen languages; a task that keeps several hundred, possibly thousands of translators busy and paid. I believe that not only radiologists should speak a second language, but it should be a requirement for politicians in Brussels too. It would save money and misunderstandings.


1. Tannock C. The leaning tower of Babel. The EU’s official multilingualism will turn to cacophony after enlargement. The Wall Street Journal Europe. 23 July 2001, pg. 8.

Citation: Rinck PA. Europe gets entangled in complex language web. Rinckside 2001; 12,4: 13-15.

A digest version of this column was published as:
Europe gets entangled in complex language web.
Diagnostic Imaging Europe. 2001; 17,12: 22-23.

TurnPrevPage TurnNextPage

Rinckside • ISSN 2364-3889
is pub­lish­ed both in an elec­tro­nic and in a prin­ted ver­sion. It is listed by the Ger­man Na­tio­nal Lib­rary.


→ Print version (pdf).

The Author


Rinck is my last name, and a rink is an area of com­bat or con­test.

Rink­side means by the rink. In a double mean­ing “Rinck­side” means the page by Rinck. Some­times I could also imagine “Rinck­sighs”, “Rinck­sights” or “Rinck­sites” …
⇒ more


Bulletin Board