Why Is English the Language of Science?

November 23, 2016 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

why-is-english-the-language-of-science-artPractically every major science journal you have ever heard of is in English. This isn’t exactly a coincidence, however. Since science is such a broad and collaborative field, it seemed necessary at some point in the past to decide upon a sort of scientific lingua franca and stick with that. As with many other fields, English was chosen and remains the bridge language of science.

There are some obvious advantages of having English as the language of science. First of all, it is already widely spoken and learned as a second language around the world. It is used in business, medicine, and many other fields already, so why not science too? Having just one language as the “official” scientific language also expedites the process of communication between scientists, who all have crucial new information and research to share with the rest of the world. On the surface, it seems very inclusive as well; as long as you are a scientist and have a certain level of English, you can participate internationally in science.

The disadvantages of having a “primary” language for scientific communication are not entirely obvious at first, but once you start to analyze and think about how it probably affects scientists who don’t speak English as their first language, you begin to see where problems might arise. To start, we all express ourselves differently in different languages, even if we aren’t aware of it. If you know a second language and take a moment to try and write out anything complex or technical in that language, you will see just how difficult it can be. This means scientists from different linguistic backgrounds have to spend extra time and energy when they are writing up their research papers in English.

Not only does it take more energy and time to write in a language that isn’t your native language, it also might not end up conveying exactly what you meant to convey. There is more to language than just putting words together to form cohesive sentences and phrases; there is also the cultural and contextual aspect that all language feeds off of and floats around in, which means we tend to favor things written in our native language as we can immediately connect with the culture and context. When you add complicated scientific terminology into the mix, you end up with scientific writing that doesn’t express itself as authentically as it would if it were written in the scientist’s native language.

To expect everyone in the scientific community all over the world to be proficient in English as well as be an expert in whatever they are researching is to expect a lot, especially from scientists in countries where getting any kind of decent education at all costs a good chunk of change. By limiting the language of the scientific community to just one, English, we are not giving space for brilliant minds that just happen to not have the right level of English to share with the rest of the world. If we could figure out a way around that, we would advance much more quickly as a society in terms of scientific research and discoveries.

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