English is the universal form of communication in science. Although many countries still publish journals in their native tongue, English is currently the best way to share one’s research findings with scientists in other parts of the world. But how did this come about?
Historical Progression of English as A Language of Science
During the Middle Ages, Arabic was the language used for science in all Islamic countries, while Latin was the primary form of communication among scientists in Europe. Later, German, French, Italian, and English were all used in their respective countries, and often came to be associated with a particular discipline, e.g. German with physics or chemistry. The dominance and use of these languages changed over time, depending on the growth and decline of science, which was dependent on the economic state and culture in each country.
Thus, French declined after WWI as German became more dominant, and after WWII English replaced German. As the U.S. became a global leader in technology and research, English remained the primary form of communication among scientists. During the 1920’s, the need for a universal language was proposed, and a new language, Esperanto, was created for this purpose. But it was somewhat impractical and never caught on. Instead English became a universal language of science, technology and business.
Benefits vs Disadvantages
There are of course many benefits to having a universal language. The most obvious advantage is that results can be more widely accessed, and scientific exchange between countries is significantly enhanced. However, we must also consider the drawbacks. Primarily English as a language of science and technology puts non-native English speakers at a clear disadvantage compared with native speakers when it comes to writing and promoting interest in their research. It also makes it more challenging to evaluate a scientific study based purely on the findings. Lack of clarity can take away from even the most interesting study. Imagine if Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, for example, was available only in a poorly translated version for non-German speakers!
English Translation Points
Clarity is rarely a problem when life sciences translation services are performed by professionals. But many scientists attempt to write their own articles. In our experience proofreading such articles, writing expertise varies tremendously, even in countries where English is considered a second language. People on our team are fluent in Spanish, but for them to write a research article in Spanish would require greater skills than they possess.
The best assurance is to allow a skilled provider of translation services to do the job. It is natural that in each country there are institutions that write and publish in their native language, but what is strange is that scientists would risk having their work misunderstood or undervalued due to a poor English translation of their findings.
The use of a universal language to communicate in science is unavoidable. Although English has gained its status without going through a true democratic process, having a universal form of communication does allow for a wider scope and better understanding which ultimately leads to scientific progress. English as a language of science and technology will continue while the U.S. dominates research in those fields, but as we know from past experience, this situation could very well change again.
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