Newton’s Principia Mathematica was written in Latin; Einstein’s first influential papers were written in German; Marie Curie’s work was published in French. Yet today, most scientific research around the world is published in a single language, English.
Since the middle of the last century, things have shifted in the global scientific community. English is now so prevalent that in some non-English speaking countries, like Germany, France, and Spain, English-language academic papers outnumber publications in the country’s own language several times over. In the Netherlands, one of the more extreme examples, this ratio is an astonishing 40 to 1.
A 2012 study from the scientific-research publication Research Trends examined articles collected by SCOPUS, the world’s largest database for peer-reviewed journals. To qualify for inclusion in SCOPUS, a journal published in a language other than English must at the very least include English abstracts; of the more than 21,000 articles from 239 countries currently in the database, the study found that 80 percent were written entirely in English. Zeroing in on eight countries that produce a high number of scientific journals, the study also found that the ratio of English to non-English articles in the past few years had increased or remained stable in all but one.
This gulf between English and the other languages means that non-English articles, when they get written at all, may reach a more limited audience. On SCImago Journal Rank—a system that ranks scientific journals by prestige, based on the citations their articles receive elsewhere—all of the top 50 journals are published in English and originate from either the U.S. or the U.K.
In short, scientists who want to produce influential, globally recognized work most likely need to publish in English—which means they’ll also likely have to attend English-language conferences, read English-language papers, and have English-language discussions. In a 2005 case study of Korean scientists living in the U.K., the researcher Kumju Hwang, then at the University of Leeds, wrote: “The reason that [non-native English-speaking scientists] have to use English, at a cost of extra time and effort, is closely related to their continued efforts to be recognized as having internationally compatible quality and to gain the highest possible reputation.”
It wasn’t always this way. As the science historian Michael Gorin explained in Aeon earlier this year, from the 15th through the 17th century, scientists typically conducted their work in two languages: their native tongue when discussing their work in conversation, and Latin in their written work or when corresponding with scientists outside their home country.
“Since Latin was no specific nation’s native tongue, and scholars all across European and Arabic societies could make equal use of it, no one ‘owned’ the language. For these reasons, Latin became a fitting vehicle for claims about universal nature,” Gordin wrote. “But everyone in this conversation was polyglot, choosing the language to suit the audience. When writing to international chemists, Swedes used Latin; when conversing with mining engineers, they opted for Swedish.”
As the scientific revolution progressed through 17th and 18th centuries, Gordin continued, Latin began to fall out of favor as the scientific language of choice:
Galileo Galilei published his discovery of the moons of Jupiter in the Latin Sidereus Nuncius of 1610, but his later major works were in Italian. As he aimed for a more local audience for patronage and support, he switched languages. Newton’s Principia (1687) appeared in Latin, but his Opticks of 1704 was English (Latin translation 1706).
But as this shift made it more difficult for scientists to understand work done outside of their home countries, the scientific community began to slowly consolidate its languages again. By the early 19th century, just three—French, English, and German—accounted for the bulk of scientists’ communication and published research; by the second half of the 20th century, only English remained dominant as the U.S. strengthened its place in the world, and its influence in the global scientific community has continued to increase ever since.
As a consequence, the scientific vocabularies of many languages have failed to keep pace with new developments and discoveries. In many languages, the words “quark” and “chromosome,” for example, are simply transliterated from English. In a 2007 paper, the University of Melbourne linguist Joe Lo Bianco described the phenomenon of “domain collapse,” or “the progressive deterioration of competence in [a language] in high-level discourses.” In other words, as a language stops adapting to changes in a given field, it can eventually cease to be an effective means of communication in certain contexts altogether.
In many countries, college-level science education is now conducted in English—partially because studying science in English is good preparation for a future scientific career, and partially because the necessary words often don’t exist in any other language. A 2014 report from the University of Oxford found that the use of English as the primary language of education in non-English speaking countries is on the rise, a phenomenon more prevalent in higher education but also increasingly present in primary and secondary schools.
But even with English-language science education around the world, non-native speakers are still often at a disadvantage.
“Processing the content of the lectures in a different language required a big energetic investment, and a whole lot more concentration than I am used to in my own language,” said Monseratt Lopez, a McGill University biophysicist originally from Mexico.
“I was also shy to communicate with researchers, from fear of not understanding quite well what they were saying,” she added. “Reading a research paper would take me a whole day or two as opposed to a couple of hours.”
Sean Perera, a researcher in science communication from the Australian National University, described the current situation this way: “The English language plays a dominant role, one could even call it a hegemony … As a consequence, minimal room or no room at all is allowed to communicators of other languages to participate in science in their own voice—they are compelled to translate their ideas into English.”
In practice, this attitude selects for only a very specific way of looking at the world, one that can make it easy to discount other types of information as nothing more than folklore. But knowledge that isn’t produced via traditional academic research methods can still have scientific value—indigenous tribes in Indonesia, for example, knew from their oral histories how to recognize the signs of an impeding earthquake, enabling them to flee to higher ground before the 2004 tsunami hit. Similarly, the Luritja people of central Australia have passed down an ancient legend of a deadly “fire devil” crashing from the sun to the Earth—which, geologists now believe, describes a meteorite that landed around 4,700 years ago.
“It is all part of a growing recognition that Indigenous knowledge has a lot to offer the scientific community,” the BBC wrote in an article describing the Luritja story. “But there is a problem—indigenous languages are dying off at an alarming rate, making it increasingly difficult for scientists and other experts to benefit from such knowledge.”
Science’s language bias, in other words, extends beyond what’s printed on the page of a research paper. As Perera explained it, so long as English remains the gatekeeper to scientific discourse, shoehorning scientists of other cultural backgrounds into a single language comes with “the great cost of losing their unique ways of communicating ideas.”
“They gradually lose their own voice,” he said—and over time, other ways of understanding the world can simply fade away.
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