The dominance of the English language Almost ten years ago, the defenders of German as a scientific language were speaking up and calling for more research papers to be published in German. Today, those voices are almost nowhere to be heard. They had to capitulate to the seemingly unstoppable march of English as the scientific lingua franca.
Visibility – the barely visible third While non-English-language journals and scientific publishers of course still exist, the key word is “visibility”: any researcher who wants their work to be seen and cited nowadays is effectively obliged to either publish in English or have their work translated.
Nevertheless, according to a 2016 study carried out by Tatsuya Amano, a zoologist at Cambridge University, almost a third of published material relating to the natural sciences is not written in English. But this work is read and cited far less than work published in English, meaning that scientific breakthroughs may go months or years without being discovered and indigenous knowledge is lost – until someone translates the text.
“Native English speakers tend to assume that all the important information is available in English,” he says, while acknowledging that he, as a non-native speaker, is also part of the problem: he often ignores non-English publications because English is his “first priority”.
Changing trends in scientific locations It wasn’t always this way, however. Up until the two world wars, German was, alongside English, one of the world’s major scientific languages. And change may be in the air again: The American National Science Foundation has just announced that, for the first time, China published more academic papers than the Americans. India overtook Japan, while more and more research reports are also being published in other emerging countries. China is currently pursuing a dual-track policy, with research results being published in both Chinese and English-language journals.
Venturing to promote greater diversity – the benefits of native-language scientific work So perhaps the proponents of linguistic diversity in science can soon raise their voices again. To strengthen their arguments, they might refer to the results of a study carried out on Swedish physics students which showed that the students learned less when they were taught exclusively in English and had to carry out all their tasks in the foreign language. The fact that an increasing number of scientists are unable to adequately explain their insights to the general public due to their native language lacking the required terminology is another argument in favour of once again publishing in multiple languages.
When it comes to ensuring that knowledge remains accessible to a large number of people, Amano sees these latest developments as a challenge – but also an opportunity: “Overcoming language barriers can help us achieve less biased knowledge and enhance the application of science globally.”
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