The myth of English as the language of science?

by Dieuwerke (Dee) Rutgers

In this day and age, it is hard to imagine the world of science without English: The dominance of English as the lingua franca of the international scientific community is generally undisputed, even if the impacts of this dominance are more contested. My aim here is not to make a claim to the contrary: English is indeed the preferred language of scientific communications today. Still, I wonder – might there be more to the ‘language of science’ than meets the proverbial eye? How ‘English’ is our scientific language anyway, and what does this reveal about the history of science? Might our bias towards science published in English be leading to lost knowledge and missed opportunities? What are the less visible and less tangible parts of our scientific endeavours, and what roles do languages play within this?

All languages are subject to influences from the outside. These outside influences are perhaps even stronger where the language of science is concerned, as scientific knowledge building has always been strongly international in nature. In fact, the history of our scientific disciplines can often be traced in words such as ‘biology’ (from Greek bios (life) and logia (study of)), ‘chemistry’ (from Arabic al-kimia or ‘alchemy’), or ‘linguistics’ (from Latin lingua (tongue/language)), as giving us insights into the languages that were spoken by those who conducted the initial work laying the foundations of our scientific disciplines today. Certain languages have indeed been more dominant in scientific history than others, as explaining for example the strong reliance on Latin and Greek words as still visible in the scientific terminology used to date. The English language seems to be in this dominant position today, and will undoubtedly influence new scientific vocabulary currently being coined to describe our latest discoveries. Even so, the language of science has deep roots that reach back far beyond current English-dominant times. In this way, the language of science as used today, while understood to be ‘English’, is perhaps better appreciated as multilingual.

The notion that all science worth reading is published in English has also been found to be a myth. Famously, the global spread of the H5N1 bird flu virus back in 2005 could perhaps have been slowed down, if not prevented, had vital research about its spread from birds to pigs not been overlooked initially because it was published in Chinese. Work by Dr Tatsuya Amano based at the Conservation Science Group within the Cambridge Department of Zoology, for example, highlights how a lack of language skills continues to be a major barrier to global science, and that our bias towards English-language publications can lead to local scientific knowledge (as encoded in local languages) being ignored or deemed irrelevant to the bigger scientific story. This not only leads to biases in our scientific understandings, but clearly also to lost opportunities where the prevention of global crises is concerned.

Of course, science is much more than that which is encountered in print. The process of research generally takes place across different geographic regions, and therefore involves dialogue with regional stakeholders, communities and participants. In many areas of research – not just those of language and cultural studies – languages are a vital part of science, and overcoming language barriers a crucial task in moving our shared scientific understanding forward. Anecdotally, I have had this confirmed when a close friend explained to me that he obtained a job as a researcher in evolutionary biology not just because of his scientific skills, but also because he had access to the local community in which the research would take place through his additional language skills. The job description of his fieldwork assistant too included the ability to speak this other language, or at least a willingness to learn it while on the job. He went on to confess that, in actual fact, everybody in his current research lab had an additional language skill that was vital to the successful development of their work and of the scientific knowledge gathered from it.

This is perhaps the greatest unspoken truth about the ‘language of science’! While universities around the world openly acknowledge the importance of English for science, the importance of additional language skills often remains hidden from the public eye, this instead being part of the vital collaborative work that takes place ‘behind the scenes’ of our scientific performance. This perpetuates the myth of English as the language of science, when the language of our science always has been, and always will be, multilingual!

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