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Science and English

February 19th, 2008

Recently a friend of mine pointed me at this story.

The issue of contention is that English has become the de facto language of science. In most fields, almost every paper is published in English, and all conferences use English. This didn’t use to be the case (and most graduate programs in the sciences had a foreign language requirement), but every year English becomes more and more dominant.

The advantages of a single language are self-evident. In the past papers published in other languages often went unnoticed and uncited, resulting in people reinventing the wheel. Furthermore, at most people must learn a second language, not 3 or 4 or 5 or whatever to read journals in multiple languages.

The disadvantages are perhaps clearer to non-English speakers, who cannot easily get access to original peer-reviewed journals, or understand them easily when they can. Those with the best potential to be scientists are perhaps not the ones with the best language capability, and working in English may limit their effectiveness.

A continuing problem is mentioned in the article, how a foreign-speaking scientist even with some English knowledge must often continue to struggle to write clear, polished papers without getting dismissed out of hand. For entire careers. I’ve seen this first hand refereeing papers. I try to focus on the science and only comment in passing about the English (e.g., “The authors needs to work on the language as it is not yet ready for publication, and would benefit from a native-speaker providing feedback on a revised draft prior to resubmission” or words to that effect). I’ve worked closely with foreign collaborators, and I’m often the “native speaker” providing the feedback.

(To to tell the truth though, there are a lot of scientists who struggle to write good English in their papers whether or not it is their first language. This is something that I understand better being involved with students a professor. And while this is a related issue, it’s a digression.)

And it isn’t just foreign scientists with the problem: journalists, politicians, and teachers must also deal with a slow process and inaccurate process of translating. This has to significantly affect the dissemination of knowledge. Even though science journalism is far from what it should be in this country, in theory everyone’s speaking the same language. Superstition and misunderstanding persist because scientific knowledge is more difficult to spread, and few enough people are well informed that there’s no local consensus about such matters. It’s much more easy for anti-science groups to get a foothold, and it seems too easy in the U.S. sometimes from my perspective.

The original article I posted the link to above sees this as an issue of basic human fairness. That non-English speaking peoples are facing discrimination from science, a higher hurdle toward participation and more difficulty taking advantage of the knowledge science generates.

The suggestions in the article are to call for science to become multilingual and interlingual (with perhaps Esperanto as a second-language for scientists to level the playing field).

I disagree with this, both from the perspective of practicality and for the efficacy of science. Science should not be primarily concerned about fairness in my opinion — that’s a political issue — but in achieving the best and fastest results for the least cost. So what if some people have it a little easier? You don’t make it more difficult for them to solve a perceived problem. You have to bring the disenfranchised up and make sure they have assistance and opportunity. More on that in a second.

From the practical standpoint, the best and most PhD-granting institutions in science are in English-speaking countries. That’s a major reason English has emerged as the dominant language.

I think the best thing we can do to level the playing field, if you will, without compromising science and helping it and ourselves in the long run, is to increase funding for science translation. Across the board, from peer-reviewed journals to pop science books to financial assistance for language lessons for would-be scientists and those in related fields. And science might just help solve this problem itself, with voice recognition, scanning, and translation technology making on-the-fly translating much more viable. See Ray Kurzweil on this. The technology is coming, and given time should be cheap and ubiquitous, associated with cell phones.

I’m not above proposing what is essentially a science fiction solution: the universal translator.

It’s not like there are laws that science must be done in English, and I don’t see how any rules or laws about changing the language to Esperanto could really work. This is cultural evolution and while minor regulation is often needed to prevent problems and keep things running smoothly, wholesale imposition of major changes is almost always a terrible idea that destroys the institution it’s meant to improve. We’re going to have to live with English as the language of science, and find ways to let everyone operate within that standard.

Is it entirely fair? No. But that’s not the point of science. Can we do better and eliminate or reduce some inequities? Surely. There are some bright young kids out there who would likely make great scientists if they had the chance, and we should make every effort to find them and make it as easy as possible. We’d all be the better off for it. And that goes for any international endeavor where one language or culture dominates (e.g., the world has probably lost some great African basketball players that never had the opportunity to play for an NBA scout, but that’s another post).

Science is one of the few truly international human endeavors and it benefits from open and regular communication. Let’s think about improving that capability.

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