One language to rule them all

I consider myself very lucky. English is my first language. I can’t even imagine trying to learn a language that thinks this is okay.

“No time like the present,” he said.  “It’s time to present her the present.”

And don’t get me started on Australian English. In a few hundred years you all will have your own incomprehensible dialect of shortened English slang.

But for scientists in other countries, it’s almost mandatory they learn English. Most, if not all, of the high impact journals only publish articles in English. In fact, about 80% of all literature published in scientific journals is in English. In some non-English speaking countries, the ratio of English language articles to non-English language articles is as great as 40 to 1.

But this hasn’t always been the case.

By Paracelsus, 1493-1541 (Chemical Heritage Foundation), via Wikimedia Commons

Back in the day, I’m talking 16th century, scientists would communicate their science in two languages. Their native language when communicating in their home country, and Latin when they were communicating with scientists from abroad.

“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.” – science historian Michael Gorin

But soon scientists began to abandon the use of Latin in their scientific communication. By the 19th century only a few languages remained for scientific literature: French, German, and English. However, after two world wars, English became the dominant scientific language.

In fact, for a brief period after World War I the German language is criminalised in the United States. It’s illegal to broadcast on the radio or to teach to a child under the age of 10. These isolationist laws didn’t last very long but their effects sure did. Foreign language education dropped significantly. So, the generation of future scientists growing up during that time weren’t exposed to any new languages.

The scientific community became very America centric. M Cheung via Flickr

Now you might think that a common scientific language would be a good thing. Being able to communicate with scientists all over the world is very valuable. But the problem starts when we ignore science that isn’t published in English. In certain fields, up to 35% of the literature is published in another language. If we as scientists ignore this research, our knowledge is significantly skewed.

The dominance of English as the scientific language also means that this knowledge is unavailable to other non-English speakers. That knowledge can’t be used by local policy makers in their decision making unless they have a skilled translator.

The US is no longer the leading publisher of scientific literature. China has taken over the throne. Does that mean Mandarin will take over as the new scientific language? It doesn’t look very likely right now, but you never know what will happen in a few hundred years.


2 Responses to “One language to rule them all”

  1. skhalifah says:

    Great blog!

    Yeah also in my country all scientists have to publish their articles in English, even if they not use it during their work!

  2. Marie says:

    Interesting article. Sometime I wish that the World had one common language….