Wednesday, February 25, 2015
English as the language of science
As a "beneficiary" of the widespread dominance of English in science, I'm often embarrassed by my inability to speak in more than one language. When people apologize to me for their English, my response is always that their English is far, far better than my ability to communicate in their native tongue. I've often wished that we Americans routinely were schooled in another language at the same time we learn our native tongue, as happens in many nations in Europe. A good argument could be made that we Americans should be taught Spanish at the same time as we learn grammar in schools. Spanish allows the easy extension to other European languages: French and Italian, for instance. Of course, it would nice to speak German, and Russian, and Mandarin Chinese as well. The problem is that many people, including myself, have limited aptitude for learning new languages, and the time spent doing so takes time away from things we need to do to advance our scientific careers. It's all too easy for me to defer the effort since most all of science these days is conducted in English.
Forcing non-native speakers to make presentations in English usually results in awful presentations, forcing them to listen to presentations in English inhibits their ability to understand, and forcing them to write in English frequently results in nearly unreadable manuscripts. It's NOT "efficient"! Attending international conferences can be quite painful, as people forced to use English struggle mightily to make themselves understood. I assume they have a genuine wish to communicate their scientific work, but their limited mastery of English makes it very challenging, and often unsuccessful. I cringe during such presentations and breathe a sigh of relief when they finish.
I think if everyone spoke the same language as their first language, that surely would be "efficient" but most people cling to their own native language as a form of tribalism, resenting strongly the forced imposition of another language on them. I've not experienced it directly, but it's not hard to grasp why that resentment arises. Cultural tribalism is inevitable, no matter how much we might hope otherwise. It's not necessarily a completely bad thing: from my perspective, language is intimately tied to culture, and I surely have no wish for all the diverse cultures of the world to merge into a global mirror of American strip malls, American movies, chain stores and restaurants, and suburbs. I like to experience different cultures and learn about other viewpoints.
The ascendancy of a language in science is tied, I believe, to the ascendancy of the science done in that nation. It becomes a self-reinforcing tendency: the more important the science done in your particular language, the more scientific colleagues need to be able to communicate via that language. We Americans have benefited, language-wise, from the rise of England as a world power and its scientific prosperity in the post-Renaissance era. As American science declines in significance, thanks at least in part to economic decline (as well as rampant anti-intellectualism and anti-science campaigns by fundamentalist religious extremists), the use of English as "the" language of science will decline. However, as this article suggests, there's a sort of hysteresis as a result of earlier work forming the foundation for current work. There always will be a need to read foundational scientific works, at least in translation, if not in their original language. Nuances in one language may not be translated properly in another, so there's always a benefit from the ability to read the original works, to see and understand the original presentations rather than subtitles or other translational forms.
It's quite unlikely that a universal native language will ever arise, despite the clear and obvious advantages of having one primary language. Our languages are a big part of who we are as cultures and I doubt that many would surrender that willingly. Hence, I believe it's important to encourage children, whose ability to learn languages is undiminished, to learn at least one other language at an early age. America has "benefited" from the dominance of English far too long and far too deeply. Most of us have surrendered our ability to communicate effectively with the non-English-speaking part of the world. It's bad enough for our society to be in such a position but, beyond that, it's quite detrimental to our science. I envy my scientific colleagues who are fluent in at least one other language.