September 19, 2019

How Did English Dominate Science?

If you can read this sentence, you can talk with a scientist. Well, maybe not about the details of her research, but at least you would share a common language. The overwhelming majority of communication in the natural sciences today – physics, chemistry, biology, geology – takes place in English; in print and at conferences, in emails and in Skype-mediated collaborations, confirmable by wandering through the halls of any scientific research facility in Kuala Lumpur or Montevideo or Haifa. Contemporary science is Anglophone.

More significantly, contemporary science is monoglot: everyone uses English almost to the exclusion of other languages. A century ago, the majority of researchers in Western science knew at least some English, but they also read, wrote and spoke in French and German, and sometimes in other ‘minor’ languages, such as the newly emergent Russian or the rapidly fading Italian.

The past polyglot character of modern science might seem surprising. Surely it is more efficient to have one language? How much time would be lost learning to read and write three languages in order to synthesise benzene derivatives! If everyone uses the same language, there is less friction caused by translation – such as priority disputes over who discovered what first when the results appear in different tongues – and less waste in pedagogy. By this view, contemporary science advances at such a staggering rate precisely because we have focused on ‘the science’ and not on superficialities such as language.”

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