My graduate school lab, like most of them, had an assortment of people from different countries. That kept things at all sorts of hours, since we’d get the occasional Japanese post-doc who never really seemed to get off JST and worked the zombie schedule. It also made for some adventures in communication. English was the lingua franca of the lab, naturally, but there were a lot of varieties spoken (and attempted).
And although it’s risky to generalize, I think that the ones with the biggest language gap were the aforementioned Japanese. Friends of mine from the country have blamed the problem on the traditional state of English teaching there, and the way that too many students are taught the language as if its phonics really did conform to what’s available in Katakana.
That’s the writing system used in Japan to render words phonetically. Reading fancy Japanese (Kanji) takes some real practice, but any hack (like me) can plow through Katakana with a chart and a little practice. I’ve been asked many times, in wondering tones, if I read Japanese after I pulled out a useful reagent name from a Japanese patent, but I wasn’t reading Japanese – I was reading English. Sort of.
Sounding out the words makes you sound like the most unfortunate expatriate Japanese post-doc you’ve ever heard. “Cyclohexyl”, for example, comes out as “Sa-ki-ru-he-ki-sa-ru”, and “chloro” is “ko-ru-ru”. I’d probably sound even worse than that if I had to speak Japanese, but it does give you some insight as to where the stronger features of the accent come from.
One way or another, we all did communicate in the end. I remember talking with one of our post-docs, trying to learn some Japanese profanity (a well-known gateway into a foreign language, of course). But I couldn’t get the concept across. “Bad word?” he asked, puzzled. “Curse word?”
An idea hit me. “OK”, I said, pointing at his rota-vap where a 1 mL flask was spinning. “How long did it take you to make that stuff?” That stuff, he informed me, was step 17 of his synthesis, and had taken weeks and weeks of work. “Fine,” I said, “what happens if it falls into the water bath?” “Ah! Terrible!” he said, looking fearful at the very thought. “Right”, I told him: “If that happens, what do you say?”
Enlightenment! “Oh! Yes! Those words! Bad word, yes, now I understand!” A great moment in international understanding. We went on to explore the sorts of phrases that are absolutely guaranteed to come in handy in any research lab, no matter where.