You have probably noticed that most scientific research is published in English. It’s no secret: while studies are printed in a myriad of languages, the highest impact factor journals—the “royal court” of the scientific world—are all monoglots, and English is their native tongue.
Has English always been the ‘language of science’?
This was not always the case, though. Only in the last century has English been ‘king of the castle’. In fact, you might believe that Latin is the official language of science. We certainly see the influence of the ancient language today in technical classifications such as taxonomic rankings, but nobody is writing their manuscripts entirely in Latin anymore. While Latin was the dominant language of scientific discourse for hundreds of years, it was eventually supplanted by the languages of major powers in Western Europe (French, German, and English) by the latter portion of the eighteenth century. At that point, Latin speakers were extinct outside of the highly educated, and more widely used languages were natural choices to reach wider audiences. Scientific research had always been printed in local languages, but it was required for scholars to at least have a passing understanding of one of these three languages to remain relevant.
In the early twentieth century, tensions with Germany eventually led to the decline of the German language in science. In fact, the shift in language is not such much the rise of English as it is the spectacular fall of German. Throughout the 1900s and especially after World War II, with superpowers such as the United States broadening their influence and American-centric culture proliferating, English became widely used for science.
Increasing diversity in the language of scientific publishing
In the twenty-first century, not much has changed. English is still the primary form of science communication. For many, this is viewed as a great benefit, an even playing field where everyone can participate. Surely, one standard language is better than many, right? In a broad sense, this may be the case because universal standards, such as the International System of Units, are often indispensable in academia.
However, in recent years, scholars have criticized the notion of one language ruling them all. For instance, this PLOS Biology study asserts that over one-third of all biodiversity conservation research is not published in English. This, in turn, can lead to unconscious biases against the “other” published literature by virtue of exclusion. English is thus the ultimate gatekeeper for cultures in which it is not the primary language, and the study urges more concerted effort to solve the issue.
Further, in a recent Nature Chemistry interview, Sibusiso Biyela, a science communicator, discussed the benefits of communicating scientific concepts in one’s native language: “I think knowing, or simply discussing, science in your own language makes it easier to culturally own science and take with it the many benefits it brings to our lives.” It is true that communicating in one’s own language helps to both internalize and disseminate science. The trouble is that many languages such as isiZulu—Biyela’s native tongue—do not have the have the history or framework to support very specific scientific discussions. Translations are not always accurate or even possible.
This is not just a cultural issue, either. In fact, class plays a huge role. Some families can afford to teach their children English, while others often struggle with multilingualism. This has largely been true throughout history, and the same is true today for English. Sneha Dharwadkar, a wildlife biologist in India, recently spoke to Nature about this topic and echoed similar sentiments:
“I find that scientists in India often look down on people who can’t speak English… They assume, correctly, that if they hire someone who isn’t fluent in the language, they’ll have to spend extra time training them. They end up hiring people from privileged backgrounds who have had the chance to learn English. There are so many people out there who want to contribute to science, but can’t because they don’t know enough English.”
It is certainly a problem that status is often a prerequisite to education and, thus, scientific contribution. The current one-language system might not be helping, either. Indeed, a number of articles have been written on this issue, with the likes of McGill International Review and Science weighing in over the past year. Global participation in science is arguably at an all-time high, but even as journals make commitments to diversity, their sole accepted language, English, might be one factor deterring some talented individuals from truly excelling. The reality we must face is that is that non-English publications are dwindling, which likely translates to untapped potential and missed discoveries.
Bridging the language gap in a global community
It is important to understand that many authors of critical research papers are not fluent English speakers. There is an impressive network of scholars dedicated to helping each other communicate in English. The key is finding the right help. Colleagues and mentors can be an excellent resource for drafting letters and papers. Similarly, professional editing services (like LetPub) are instrumental in bridging the gap between researchers and their audience. Wherever there are voices, there are people willing to listen.
So, where do we go from here? The current single-language system has enabled many to contribute their research, but problems of diversity, inclusion, and bias still exist. We see countless authors lament the need to publish in English to have their voices heard, but this issue is not the fault of the language itself. Linguistic standards are difficult to change; it took Latin hundreds of years to fall out of favor. In the meantime, scientists not fluent in English are at a disadvantage, but perhaps we can come together as a global scientific community to assist one another at the intersection of culture, academia, and discovery.