English: the Lingua Franca of Science?

A post over at the Scientist blog laments the difficulty in getting people to acknowledge the English-language bias in science:

Many, perhaps most, scientists are grateful that English has become the international language, but an informative protest comes from Prof. Tsuda Yukio of Japan, who has taught in the U.S.

"Today one speaks of globalization. It's really Americanization....the dollar economy and communication in English. Isn't it appropriate to think about egalitarian communication and linguistic equality? .... When I told Americans that the reign of English causes linguistic discrimination they argued adamantly that the world chose English, so what's the problem?

My rebuttal: 'We lack the freedom NOT to choose English.' I said the great power of world English precludes the use of other languages. But for Americans English is de facto the world language. They wouldn't acknowledge that a problem exists. I said that English contributes to the Americanization of the world. The American reaction: 'One needs English to survive. English is the key to success and prosperity.' I answered: 'Every language and culture is indispensable and deserves protection.' They argued: 'Language and culture are constantly changing. Besides, even if a language disappears, the culture remains.' I answered: 'Language is inseparable from culture and identity.' The debate went on and on. My perspective apparently shocked the Americans. That they argued so vehemently is significant. How so? Their opposition shows how important the supremacy of English is, thanks to which they maintain their advantaged position in the world.

My stand questions precisely that. It's quite understandable that English speakers reject criticism that threatens their position and profit. Many of them lack a moral sense of egalitarian communication. They regard the rule of English as a natural phenomenon."

The post also cites an article from last year over at Nature that has a good summary of the difficulties encountered by non-native speakers of English. I was particularly struck there by the observation that losing scientific discussions in the vernacular also places an impediment to communicating science to the lay public:

Some European scholars have spoken out against the switch to English. A 2003 Finnish editorial warned that adopting English in Finland would alienate the lay people from the products of science. In this rallying cry, three Finnish academics contend that if university research focuses exclusively on the use of English, their own language will "gradually lose its ability to depict new concepts and phenomena and their subtle differences". They fear that this trend could create social inequality between those who can and cannot speak English.

In Spain, library science researchers Maria Bordons and Isabel Gomez at the Centre for Scientific Information and Documentation in Madrid used data from a survey of Spanish publication trends to try to understand how incentives designed by the Spanish government to aggressively increase the use of English in science are affecting researchers' publication preferences.

Bordons and Gomez found that reports on basic science, particularly in molecular biology and immunology, were published predominantly in English journals, whereas those on applied science were published in national journals in Spanish -- mirroring the situation in Japan. They argued that these non-English journals, which are on the decline for both basic and applied science, are vital for knowledge transfer at the national level.

When you are dealing with language as it relates to cultural identity, you are always hitting a touchy subject for people. So this is a subject I am going to try and tread lightly on. I think we can all agree that English is the de facto language of pure science at the moment; the issue circulates more around whether this situation is a problem deserving remedy or a good development overall.

There are certainly benefits to science being conducting in a common language -- regardless of the one you pick. The ability to actually interact with people of different cultures at scientific meetings and through international journals is of inestimable benefit to science. The free interchange of ideas acts as a force-multiplier contributing to all of our efforts. Experiments are less likely to be repeated in different countries. Different theoretical systems developed by researchers of different backgrounds can be reconciled and made consistent. Thus, there is clearly an advantage to having an international culture of science with a common language.

On the other hand, there are clearly downsides to this. As both the articles point out, non-native speakers face a near life-long impediment in making themselves understood and understanding other speakers at scientific gatherings. They have to spend an absurd amount of energy preparing for talks that a native speaker could run off in half an hour, and they have additional costs getting their manuscripts published in English journals.

The disconnect created by having a non-native language be the language of academic discourse is also quite serious. Scientists are always "translating" science in degrees for the lay public. We have encountered mixed success in the US helping the public understand science. There is still a great deal to be done such that someday 55% of the US public may finally understand that lasers don't use sound. Imagine, however, trying to inflict this knowledge on the public not just by removing the technical terms but translating into a totally different language. It makes selling science inestimably more difficult.

The whole problem of language supremacy also has the taint of cultural imperialism attached to it. To those that respond that the desire for a common scientific language is just cultural imperialism on behalf of Americans, I would point out that English was not the lingua franca of science even 50 years ago. I have had many discussion with older professors forced to learn German because most of papers they read were published in German. There is no reason to believe that just because English is dominant now, it will be so in perpetuity.

Is there anything to do to address these issues?

Well, first, I think it would be nice if English speakers had a degree of sensitivity at scientific meetings to the travails of our foreign counterparts. I admit that I am not free of this vice, but I think we all need to grow a little patience when a speaker is having trouble making themselves understood. Second, a concerted effort needs to be made to translate scientific findings into local languages, even if the scientists are not always communicating in those languages. Because having a global language for everyone is probably unrealistic, having a global scientific culture means a good deal of translation has to take place. This is neither cheap nor easy, but it is still important.

I am curious to hear any stories people have about dealing with this issue. Have you ever had trouble making yourself understood at a meeting? Any cultural misunderstandings that crossed over into scientific misunderstandings?

More like this

Huh. I have never thought about this, but on a moment's thought it would be a problem for non-native scientists. I can't imagine what the solution would be, though. Doesn't science need a common language? I'm sure I sound like the other Americans Dr. Tsuda mentions, but if science needs a common language, why not English? This is said with the full acnowledgment that languages should be preserved; I think I've studied enough language to appreciate the point that language is an inextricable part of culture.

Maybe science should switch back to Latin?

or esperanto

There have been numerous attempts to impose a international language for science or commerce or whatever. Esperanto and Ogden's Basic English spring to mind.

However, they have been failures for two reasons as I understand it. One, you have a problem with nuance. It is difficult to balance making the language easy to learn with giving it the complexity to handle concepts like those in science.

Two, the bigger issue is that people don't accept languages imposed from above. The issue of resisting cultural imperialism always springs to the fore. I think that people only really try and learn English because they think it is in their best interest to do so. If it was mandated by some international body, I don't think people would accept it.

What about Esperanto as the common language? It has been in practital years for over 120 years, and has been used for scientific purposes. I am a subscriber to a scientif journal called Scienca Revuo which has been published for over a century.

There is a downside to Esperanto. Esperanto has no country, or government or real money behind it. It really depends on people like us deciding to make use of it. Take a look at www.esperanto.net

By Bill Chapman (not verified) on 05 May 2008 #permalink

Language is a big issue, particularly on this (the southern) side of the Equator, where English skills are scarce. I often check the language in the papers of my closest colleagues (specially after referees refused to review one of them because of the poor language). Sometimes it may be fun, like the time I caught a "we pretend to show..." ("pretender" in Spanish means "to try to"), but in general it's time consuming and often tiresome. In my French-oriented grad school there was only one researcher who had done his PhD in the US, and he refused to check the English of colleagues because of the burden it had become at some point in the past.

Meetings are an entirely different level of difficulty. I can read English as easily as Spanish, and my writing has few mistakes once I double-check, but listening is trickier. When non-native English speakers talk everything is usually ok (the French may be an exception), but then some American asks a question from the back of the room and the only thing you understand is a ",you know," interspersed somewhere. If you are the one giving the talk, you tremble. And may the FSM save me from Australians.

When it comes to communicating science, yes, there is trouble, too. Interesting scientific meetings in Chile are in English (like everywhere else) and that makes participation harder for students, academics, and non-academic interested people (I'm thinking about some high school teachers I know). Popularization books in Spanish are scarce, and often 15 years old; beautiful, state-of-the-art, English written books in my shelves wait in vain for some student or friend that may struggle to get beyond the third page.

All that said, it's ok to have English (or rather, science tailored Globish) as lingua france, since it's quite flexible, already widely spoken, and the learning curve is smooth at the beginning, and remains so if you stick to technical stuff. If only native speakers would remember to make an effort towards clear speech when they are at an international meeting... If only there where more transcriptions to complement audio podcasts... Many times I have lamented the lack of a written text for some interview embedded in a science blog.

By dileffante (not verified) on 05 May 2008 #permalink

That English is the lingua franca of science is a historical accident, resulting from the fact that the United States was the only major industrialized country that was not severely damaged during World War II. During the early 20th century, science was much more often discussed in German, presenting a similar problem for scientists who weren't native German speakers. I have had occasion to read at least one paper in German that was published during this period, and I had to ask a German-speaking colleague for help with some of the subtleties (e.g., my German-English dictionary claims that Reihe can mean either "sequence" or "series", which are synonyms in layman's usage but have separate meanings in mathematics--"series" is the correct translation in this context). There was a time when American Ph.D. programs in physics had a foreign language requirement; today I don't know of any that still do.

Nor is there any guarantee that English will always be the lingua franca of science. Whether it simply loses favor to local languages as happened to Latin, or is displaced due to the US fighting the losing side of a major war (a possibility which seems much more likely now than it did eight years ago) as happened to German, the effect would be that Americans would have to learn other languages. I also wouldn't take any bets as to what would replace it: India might want to stay with English (which is a general purpose lingua franca there), but other large countries would likely prefer their own languages.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 05 May 2008 #permalink

Well, as a German I have to say it is quite unfortunate (for us) that our language lost the status of a "lingua franca" in the scientific community. However, English is quite a good solution for now, since a good chunk of the world's scientific community probably uses English as their first language anyway. And since in most non-English spekaing countries, English is at least taught in schools, I guess it is a solution which most scientists can agree on.

The only people I know (aside maybe, from that Japanese professor) who happen to have a significant problem with this are French scientists :-) French people generally take great pride in the linguistic beauty and the complexity of their language and sometimes despise the much easier English (and the much "ruder" German). Thus, many scientific terms are regularly translated into French even during conferences and other events, which sometimes is a problem for scientists from other countries who are, of course, unfamiliar with specific French terms.

As for the next "scientific" lingua franca, my bets are with either Spanish or Chinese....

Esperanto has a nicely large vocabulary, but also its own problems.

The only people I know (aside maybe, from that Japanese professor) who happen to have a significant problem with this are French scientists :-) French people generally take great pride in the linguistic beauty and the complexity of their language

The real reason is that English is taught too late in the French highschool curriculum, so most kids never really learn it. Other European countries start teaching the first foreign language (almost always English, it goes without saying) much earlier, and the results are easy to hear.

As for the next "scientific" lingua franca, my bets are with either Spanish or Chinese....

Not Chinese as long as the Chinese writing system stays as it is. On the spoken side, most people who don't already speak one have real trouble with tone languages. The grammar is easy, though, even though it requires considerable rethinking if all you know is Standard Average European.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 05 May 2008 #permalink

Somewhere I learned that science writing should be structurally simple, that synonyms should be avoided, etc. so the writing should be more accesable to non-English speakers. I used Spanish as my MS language, French and German for the PhD, and when I needed to translate Portuguese about fish I managed it. Some journals will have the abstract in more than one language.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 05 May 2008 #permalink

Gotta disagree with David. Chinese has a huge advantage, at least for use in equations. Greek only has 24 letters!

My personal experience is that papers written by native speakers are often much harder to understand because they're more fond of (and more able to use) more elaborate words. This does not bother me too much now, but when I first had to start with papers as a student, despite being good at English, I had the 'fortune' to have to work on a paper by an American group that was particularly fond of those elaborate words. It would be nice if some papers were written in a more simplistic language, in regards to those who don't speak that language natively.

On the other hand, you can sometimes see the struggle in papers from other groups, too. I recently read a paper in my native language and was stuck somewhere between embarrassment for my country's researchers (German) and the incredible wish I could read this paper in German because obviously the authors and I both would have had an easier time with that.

Then we get to cross-language-over-English-barriers that might even be a disadvantage to the contents. A colleague of mine is not so good at English and had the pleasure to present a paper by a French group. Apparently the French group had their struggles with English, too, and she had her struggle plucking long, complicated sentences apart to be understandable to her.

If you now go to the level of the minds of people, the paper hopped from French to English and then to German (and then back to English because she was holding her talk in English). I wonder how good that was for the contents of the paper being transmitted towards me in that talk (because I naturally translated it back to German to understand it - in a way...).

But finding a way around that, however, is in reality quite difficult. It's like finding a taxonomy system that would go with nature and yet support scientific conversations on taxonomy like the current system.

However, English is 'world language' and it's more or less become that. Complaining about how things are doesn't really help so much. Even if you change science, the language of the internet, the language of economy and global communication will STILL be English. As mentioned, the best we can do is try and be gentle when talking to people who do not understand or speak it perfectly.

Interestingly, due to circumstances, I recently attended a talk that had slides in German and was held in English. I found that mind-challenging, but actually in a rather stimulating and positive way. I am sure I learned much more from this talk than if the slides had only been in German. I am not sure how my colleagues felt about it.

Language is, after all, a beautiful and interesting thing. I also love being a scientist because when I started studying I regretted that I couldn't study English as well - my other passion. I eventually realized that in science, I get both. :)

Lingua Franca? Somehow that doesn't quite have an Anglo Saxon ring to it ;-)

By Fernando Magyar (not verified) on 06 May 2008 #permalink

I work in english most of the time, but I have often need to read papers in french, and occasionally in german - and my native language is yet another european one.
I think a lingua franca is needed, and english plays the role latin played for several centuries. I wouldn't want to go back to the situation 150 years ago, when everybody was using their own language - it wouldn't be possible, now that science (finally) has spread out of Europe.
What is required is help from the native speakers to the nonnative speakers, both in fixing mistakes (with a particular attention to those who interfere with understanding) and mostly in speaking clearly, avoiding colloquial terms.
As an example, I remember a very brilliant speaker who, in a subject where the word "branch" has a technical meaning, use the verb "prune" to indicate removal of branches, without explaining it first. At least half of the audience didn't get it.
Clear diction is also a problem mostly for native speakers, who should make an extra effort in this direction.

About the comment about French scientists:

As a young Francophone scientist, I find it fine that English is the lingua franca of science: it's the closest language to French, especially in science. I used to learn English and German, and math articles in English are much easier to read than in German for a French scientist: all the words are the same (roughly two thirds of the English vocabulary come from French, Latin or Greek, and it is the most technical part, so it is the one that is actually useful in science). Well, it's much better than Chinese or even Russian, at least. Even if Latin would have had its charm... :-)

Well, given that, I am only writing in French for now. (But my subdomain has a strong local tradition of using French...). And I still think it important that science is at least translated to the local language, and also that the local labs use the language of the country (including, as much as possible, foreign visitors -- and yes, if I have a position abroad, I plan to learn the language as soon as possible, including for doing science): the scientific culture of the masses is already too low, what we really don't need is adding a language barrier on top of that.

By Jérôme ^ (not verified) on 06 May 2008 #permalink

Well, first, I think it would be nice if English speakers had a degree of sensitivity at scientific meetings to the travails of our foreign counterparts.

Yes, Jake,

The physicist Richard Feynman struggled to learn Portuguese just in time to give a lecture in a local conference at Rio de Janeiro city. He was shocked when he arrived at the conference and discovered that all lectures were given in English just because he was attending!

More native English speaker scientists should have Feynman's sensitivity. And less ESL speaker scientists should have this excessive amiability with native English speakers.

Second, a concerted effort needs to be made to translate scientific findings into local languages, even if the scientists are not always communicating in those languages.

"The book of Nature is written in mathematics. Books on mathematics are written in English. Start to learn English now!", once said a professor during a mathematical physics class I attended at the University of S�o Paulo, Brazil. He was absolute right. There were virtually no one good textbooks in Portuguese, just terrible translations and some awful texbooks written quickly and dirty by local researchers.

It is fair to say that, now, this same professor is finishing a nice more-than-1000-pages textbook, in Portuguese. A rare enterprise. He is doing this without any incentive from his research institution.

Not only scientific training is jeopardized but science public outreach as I commented in a The Loom post. I am very disappointed with the scarce local science popular media and its "copy, paste and translate" modus operandi.

The problem seems that we all are lazy about language. An american scientist might think, "why learn other languages if all journals are written in English and everybody talks in English at the conferences?" And a Brazilian scientist might think, "why should I care to write my research in Portuguese? Nobody will read it, not even my Portuguese peers will." The Brazilian Journal of Physics is written in English!

Chinese has a huge advantage, at least for use in equations.

Oh yes, sorry. This is absolutely true. They even made up characters for concepts like "entropy".

Clear diction is also a problem mostly for native speakers

Let me put this the other way around: non-native speakers are misled by the English orthography, the worst of any language that uses an alphabet or syllabary, into expecting pronunciations that native speakers don't use. Conversely, most native speakers make spelling mistakes that I never make.

There used to be a nice pdf by the Icelandic linguist Pétur Knútsson out there that called scientific English a dead language; Google doesn't find it anymore, unfortunately, so if you want to read it, tell me your e-mail address.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 06 May 2008 #permalink

English is more than the lingua franca of science; it is rapidly becoming the lingua franca of all international intercourse. Many English speakers do not realize that, at the same time, English is being altered. If a "Global English" emerges, Americans and Britons will have some difficulty understanding it.

I don't see it in moral terms. Yes, language and culture are intertwined and we don't want English to overwhelm other languages. Ultimately, a "Global English" that is no so blatantly American in cultural outlook would be of benefit to all humanity.

This is a variation on a common issue in technology, the "winner takes all" problem. The best example of this problem is the dominance of Microsoft Windows, an operating system that is dominant because... because, well, it's dominant. It's only historical inertia that keeps it going. Both the Macintosh and the Linux operating systems are superior to Windows, yet Windows dominates. Once a standard is established, it becomes the most efficient solution for all. English doesn't "deserve" its dominant position -- but it's still dominant.

I think that the best overall solution is for humanity to grab English and make it its own. Why should Americans and Britons define the language? The world's languages teem with wonderful words that express ideas that English doesn't express. How about "schwerpunkt" in German or "tanagadalang" in Indonesian? If the whole world grabs English and evolves it in a universal direction, then we'll have a universal language that EVERYBODY can appreciate. And as part of that, native English speakers have to acknowledge the fact that English will be most useful if other languages get their chance to influence its evolution.

But I urge all of us to abandon linguistic chauvinism. We need a language for everybody.

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 06 May 2008 #permalink

David Marjanović: Is this the paper you were talking about?

A variety of lingua francas might evolve as particular cultures/nationalities express their national interests on a global scale, though I rather think that automatic translation using computers will likely emerge in the future making much of this a concern of our time period only.

David, is this it the paper you mentioned?: English as a Dead Language (2004)

Fernando Magyar:

Lingua Franca? Somehow that doesn't quite have an Anglo Saxon ring to it ;-)


More native English speaker scientists should have Feynman's sensitivity. And less ESL speaker scientists should have this excessive amiability with native English speakers

I couldn't disagree more ...
So if I wanted to go to conferences in germany, france, brazil and japan, I should learn all those languages ? Thats crazy !!!
If conferences want to have any impact on science they have to be in a common science language. Science these days, if you like it or not is done internationally and that is also the way it should be done.

I find this to be a very interesting argument... I don't necessarily agree that this is BECOMING a problem--this has been a problem for a very long time. Language has been a barrier to every globalized academic pursuit for an untold number of years. However, language does limit and enable expression--for example, the increased amount of nouns that represent "snow" in Eskimo-Aleut languages. This simple example of an increased "snow" vocabulary allows Inuits much greater flexibility and precision in expressing ideas related to snow... just think of the scientific implications of language limitations.

I would agree that the adoption of English as the Lingua Franca of science may alienate many non-English speakers, but without designating a Lingua Franca, much of the scientific knowledge will not even make it to scientists who use this information more frequently--the expansion of scientific knowledge will be significantly hindered. In lacking a global language, the scientific community will find itself subject to a Babel effect. Unless a global language is adopted, or a simple and accurate method of universal translation is developed, this problem will not be easily or efficiently rectified.

David Marjanović: Is this the paper you were talking about?

Sorry for the long delay. Yes, this is it! I don't understand why Google didn't find it.

The Brazilian Journal of Physics is written in English!

Why is there a Brazilian Journal of Physics when there is no Brazilian Physics? There is only one physics. I know that lots of journals all over the world are, for historical reasons, named after the countries in which they appear, but this doesn't make the slightest sense in as international an enterprise as science.

The world's languages teem with wonderful words that express ideas that English doesn't express. How about "[S]chwerpunkt" in German or "tanagadalang" in Indonesian?

The German one, at least, has an English equivalent: "center of gravity".

the increased amount of nouns that represent "snow" in Eskimo-Aleut languages.

Some of those languages have two words for snow. The others have three.

On the other hand, Czech does have 18 words for beer. :-}

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 18 May 2008 #permalink

I totally agree to the above post that English has become the international language of science.In fact, it has become the international language of communications. We should learn English as early as possible and be a part of the global change.


By MIke Davidson (not verified) on 06 Jan 2012 #permalink