How English Came To Be The Dominant Language In Science Publications

Jan 8, 2017
Originally published on January 8, 2017 2:07 pm
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And now to a challenge in science - new research suggests some studies aren't getting the attention they deserve. A team at the University of Cambridge released a study last week highlighting all the science that is getting published in languages other than English. That's important because with English as the dominant language of science, research in Swedish or Vietnamese, for example, can get overlooked. Michael Gordin of Princeton University has studied the language of science. He told us that until the early 20th century, scientific writing was evenly split between English, French and German.

MICHAEL GORDIN: But in the wake of World War I, a wave of anti-German language actions took place in the U.S. About half the states in the union criminalized German in that you couldn't teach it in schools, you couldn't publish newspapers in it, etc. Those laws are overturned by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 1923, but the damage was done. So when America emerges as a global scientific leader after World War II, there's not much foreign language competence to be had in their ranks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So English is the dominant language now. Is this a problem?

GORDIN: It has pluses and minuses. On the one hand, it reaches a kind of utopic ideal that people wanted a long time ago, which is to have one language in which all knowledge could be communicated. On the other hand, it's enormously unfair. It produces a situation where native speakers of English, who are a minority of people who practice the sciences and engineering in the world today, basically have an ease in this language that they get for free when they're children. And everybody else comes by it laboriously.

Now the fact that there is a problem in accessing scientific data right now stems primarily from the fact that there's so much science being done. So it's impossible, even just looking at the English language literature, to master everything that's there. That's compounded if there's some important material, say, on the nature of the tropical rain forest published in Portuguese in Brazil and you don't know Portuguese.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I was based in Brazil. And covering the Zika virus, which of course got a lot of attention, there was a lot of research being published in Portuguese. And it wasn't getting the attention that, possibly, it should have. Does this have real-world implications?

GORDIN: Absolutely, especially in the area of health emergencies. In areas that are closer to practical application, like agronomy and clinical medicine, a large amount of material is published in local languages because you need to be able to talk to your patients or talk to farmers or peasants. And that information takes some time to percolate up into English.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are the suggestions in your mind to sort of bridge some of these language barriers?

GORDIN: I think the dominance of English in the world today is, for the near future, irreversible. On the other hand, we could do things to make it fairer and to ease the barrier of publication in English. In oral communication among scientists right now, people will tolerate a wide array of fluencies in English. But in written science, we privilege a very high standard of order. That could be relaxed and enable people with a lower level of education to participate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michael Gordin is a professor of history at Princeton University and author of "Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before And After Global English."

Thanks so much for being with us.

GORDIN: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.