English is the Language of Science – and that’s OK

The language of science

On January 2, 2017, Smithsonian.com ran an article called “English is the Language of Science. That Isn’t Always a Good Thing,” in which the author cites studies showing how English centricity can cause important research reported in foreign languages to be overlooked. The piece makes some good points: plenty of important science is done in non-English speaking countries and the prevalence of English tends to create higher visibility for work done in America, the UK and other anglophone regions compared to elsewhere in the world. 

However the Smithsonian article also went on to offer a substantial critique of the original research, citing the work of University of Washington science communications expert Scott Montgomery. Montgomery pointed out that the existence of a standard language – in this case English – facilitates the spread of ideas rather than constricts it, and is a faster and more cost-effective alternative to translating the highly precise and technical language of science into multiple languages: 

Scientists in all fields would benefit from learning another language, Montgomery says—including native English speakers. But he believes that the best solution to science’s language barrier is encouraging scientists worldwide to study English. This may seem unfair to say as a native speaker, he concedes, but as English continues to spread and thrive worldwide, he says it is increasingly necessary. “It is a difficult process, with a rough justice to it,” Montgomery says. “But it is profound, human and repeatedly proven.” [emphasis added] 

The Smithsonian article highlights an important feature of the language debate: the contrast between the aspirational ideal, in which every expert can communicate freely in their native language and be understood worldwide, either via technology, translation, or widespread multilingualism – and the reality, in which the costs, complexity and practicalities dictate the compromise of a standard language across the discipline or profession. 

English, for better or worse, has emerged as that standard language, not just for science but also for business. That advantages native English speakers, and one can question the justice of that across a range of issues, including the visibility of research. But it is an advantage that non-native speakers can readily overcome. 

One solution to closing those linguistic gaps? Business English training designed specifically for professionals like scientists. With the right kind of learning program geared to adult learners, scientists and other technical professionals can rapidly gain the confidence and competency to express their ideas in English and get the global attention their insights deserve.

 

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