This pharmaceutical company without English is like Romeo without Juliet – unimaginable. – by Jenna MostynEnglish as Lingua Franca, Pharma/Health
We’ve all heard of the famous love story of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, but I don’t recall their tale ever being used to describe a relationship between a company and a language. That is, however, until I interviewed a friend of mine who gave me the impression that this is the exact connection the company they work for in Basel has with the English language (thankfully this rendition of the story does not have a tragic ending though).
Ever since 1994, my friend has been “a research director in the [area] of pharmaceutical research” at the company’s campus in Basel. The main subject of their research is biologics and they devote the majority of their time to attempting, not only to understand the mechanics behind diseases, but also to develop therapies for them. When it comes to their team it is ‘klein aber fein’ and consists of five research associates who assist them in the projects they are currently working on.
When asked how they would describe the company they work for, they referred to it as “a global big player” – a status which comes with the establishment of research departments not only in Basel, but also across the globe. Some examples they named were USA, China, Singapore and India. Furthermore, out of the world’s 195 countries, the Campus in Basel is home to approximately 130 different nationalities, even including employees from Nepal.
Due to such a level of internationality, it is no surprise that the company’s choice of official language is the world’s most global tongue: English.
“English is the language of science”
Like many of their peers, my friend constructed the main building blocks they needed to eventually become proficient in English during their time at school. The fact that English “is the language of science” meant that it not only encompassed the entirety of their reading and writing assignments, but also that there was no way for them to avoid it: if they wanted to become a scientist, they would have to learn English.
Nevertheless, they didn’t have to participate in a language test when applying for their current job. This is because all of the interviews at the company used to be, and still are, conducted in English: “they just want you to be able to speak it and this can be easily recognised during the interview”. The level of English expected, however, can differ depending on the hierarchical status of the job you wish to apply for. As my friend explained:
“The higher the position, the more you have to do in the interview […]. So a researcher, lab head or a scientist – they have to give a presentation or a scientific talk in and also answer follow up questions in English.”
Hence, being a research director means that my friend has to speak English really well. Thankfully, the company has some strategies to aid all of their staff in eventually mastering the language.
“Help is at hand”
Firstly, the majority of employees usually communicate in English, even if it isn’t their L1(first language): If my friend is surrounded by L1 speakers of German, but then a non-speaking German colleague approaches, they will immediately change to English and stick to it: “the transition is automatic and immediate, it’s [also] a matter of politeness and making sure that they can follow the conversation”.
Secondly, the majority of work concerning upcoming research projects is done collaboratively via Microsoft Teams. This encourages a strategy which my friend and their peers like to use a lot: before they send their work off or publish it, they nearly always ask some of their colleagues, who are L1 speakers of English, to proof read what they have written. Besides resulting in indirect English lessons, this method enforces team spirit. As my friend stated: “[I]t doesn’t offend anyone! We’re always so happy if we can help each other out!”
Lastly, the company is willing to offer language courses whenever necessary to whomever necessary and the offer can be either employee or company driven: If, for example, an associate believes that their level of English is hindering them in being able to do a good job, they can approach their supervisor and ask for extra help. Similarly, a supervisor can approach their associates and “kindly inform [them] of the fact that a language course might possibly be of use [to them]”. There even used to be English lunches that took place, which was open to everyone who wanted to practice using the language in a relaxed atmosphere.
“English is our language”
So, as you can tell, English plays a crucial role at my friend’s company:
It is the language in which they communicate during the majority of their day, in which they create the fruits of their labour and it is the language which holds the company together.
When asked to give a closing statement, my friend exclaimed the following:
“I cannot imagine my workplace without English. We couldn’t survive without it. English is our language!”
(Now can you see why I thought of Romeo and Juliet..?)
by Jenna Mostyn