Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research

Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research

Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research

Does Science Need a Global Language?: English and the Future of Research


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In early 2012, the global scientific community erupted with news that the elusive Higgs boson had likely been found, providing potent validation for the Standard Model of how the universe works. Scientists from more than one hundred countries contributed to this discovery—proving, beyond any doubt, that a new era in science had arrived, an era of multinationalism and cooperative reach. Globalization, the Internet, and digital technology all play a role in making this new era possible, but something more fundamental is also at work. In all scientific endeavors lies the ancient drive for sharing ideas and knowledge, and now this can be accomplished in a single tongue— English. But is this a good thing?

In Does Science Need a Global Language?, Scott L. Montgomery seeks to answer this question by investigating the phenomenon of global English in science, how and why it came about, the forms in which it appears, what advantages and disadvantages it brings, and what its future might be. He also examines the consequences of a global tongue, considering especially emerging and developing nations, where research is still at a relatively early stage and English is not yet firmly established.

Throughout the book, he includes important insights from a broad range of perspectives in linguistics, history, education, geopolitics, and more. Each chapter includes striking and revealing anecdotes from the front-line experiences of today’s scientists, some of whom have struggled with the reality of global scientific English. He explores topics such as student mobility, publication trends, world Englishes, language endangerment, and second language learning, among many others. What he uncovers will challenge readers to rethink their assumptions about the direction of contemporary science, as well as its future. 

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226535036
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/06/2013
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Scott L. Montgomery is a consulting geologist and university lecturer. He is the author of The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science, The Powers That Be: Global Energy for the Twenty-First Century and Beyond, and several books on the history of science and scientific language, including Science in Translation: Movements of Knowledge through Cultures and Time.

Read an Excerpt


English and the Future of Research

By Scott L. Montgomery


Copyright © 2013 Scott L. Montgomery
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-01004-5



A New Era

To peep at such a world—to see the stir Of the great Babel ...


When I first met Ben, I thought he must be in customer service, so friendly and practiced was his smile. In fact, he is a biochemist from Uganda. Very dark-skinned and always neatly dressed with a touch of elegance, he speaks fluent and natural English that bubbles with an East African accent. His eyes have a sharp intelligence that can penetrate solid objects. We were forced colleagues, our boys playing on the same sports team, and so I decided to ask how he became a chemist. Every researcher has a story; his was something more.

"I am lucky to be a scientist," Ben began, "but my luck was no accident." Born in 1958, four years before Uganda's independence from Britain, Ben spent his early years near Mubende, a town northwest of Kampala, where Bantu is spoken. He attended a local district school like most other children and was taught English. His father had worked in the colonial bureaucracy and often spoke the language at home with his son. "He had high hopes for me," Ben said, without further explanation. "He saved enough to send me to a private academy, where a British man taught." This man, an expatriate engineer of Indian descent, quickly recognized in Ben an aptitude for math. With the father's permission, he gave the boy private lessons and much encouragement. "He was a mentor," Ben noted, "and a lifeline."

In 1972, the new dictator, Idi Amin, ordered all Asians to leave the country within ninety days. The teacher was forced to flee and never returned. In the face of mounting chaos and murders caused by the regime, Ben's father sent his son to an uncle in Tanzania and then, with help from other family members, to San Francisco, where a relative owned a small restaurant. Ben was granted refugee status and attended school while working part time in the restaurant; since his English was both excellent and polite, he helped conduct business with suppliers. With his earnings, he eventually enrolled in a community college. Ben's parents told him he must remain in the United States, so he eventually transferred to the University of Oregon, where a scholarship helped him earn a BS in mathematics and an MS in biochemistry. Chemistry drew him, he said, because of its powers of transformation. "I know this is the ancient view, of the alchemists. But it is true; in chemistry I found a kind of hope." He studied the biochemistry of plants for his PhD, then took a job with a firm in Chicago.

Since 1990, Ben has specialized in food-related research. When I asked why, he replied, "Because this is what the world needs most." He has had professional assignments in Brazil, India, Japan, Norway, and elsewhere, and has presented papers at many scientific meetings. He enjoys these meetings a great deal and attends several every year, as he almost always comes away with new research ideas and collaborations. Yet he said he had been thinking about returning to Uganda to teach. When I expressed surprise at this desire to end a successful career, he looked at me without smiling. "I feel science must be shared," he said. "It is not mine to keep. I can speak to my countrymen in a language that will not take sides with any group."

Science, Globally Speaking

In a globalizing world, language is power. The more human beings and institutions with which we can communicate, the more access to the offerings and agents of the larger world we gain. This may seem merely a matter of numbers, but far more is involved. Language has a role in the oldest dream for a better world: the dream of a universal language that allows people everywhere to commune and work together. It is the vision of a unified humanity, harmony on a planetary scale. In the West, we know this dream through the image of its loss: the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, a great structure erected to reach the heavens, designed no doubt by engineers and scientists of the time, but left incomplete when a jealous God shattered the once-universal language into thousands of tongues that could not understand one another.

What if, after a significant pause, a new chapter and verse might be added to the tale? What if, in our own time, a worthy alternative to Babel has emerged, lacking in arrogance, extending not merely to the empyreal realm but deep into the atom and as far as the distant galaxies? Such questions have already been answered. For the first time in history, science—humanity's great tower of knowledge—has a global tongue. In truth, it is a global language for numerous domains, with science being one case among many. It is a special case, to be sure, but one whose meaning can't be probed without an understanding of this larger reality.

Today, close to 2 billion people in over 120 nations speak English at some level of proficiency. This extraordinary number includes a broad spectrum of ability, without any doubt. Yet it testifies to the global draw this language now commands. For the natural sciences, medicine, and large areas of engineering, English utterly dominates in international communication. This does not mean that it rules in every circumstance, in every country. Its dominance has definite limits, being confined mainly to situations with an international or, especially, a global dimension. Yet this is crucial, as we will see, since science has itself entered a new, globalizing era. English, in short, is the global tongue for this era of globalization.

By the late 2000s, nearly all forms of written output, whether in print or online, whether in person or in video, whether in professional or informal settings, had already come to depend on this one tongue when the intended audience is the larger world community of researchers in any field. Scientists everywhere now recognize this. They would find it necessary to also stress that the global role of this language isn't at all confined to publication. English has become the speech of international scientific conferences, symposia, conventions, colloquia, visiting lectures, workshops, interviews, and more—the oral dimension to global science. When Ben goes to Brazil or Japan to give a three-week minicourse on protein synthesis in dwarf wheat, or when he is hired as a consultant by a German agricultural firm to examine its operations in Southeast Asia, he speaks English. As he explained, this isn't an accommodation by his clients but a requirement, a company policy. "I would not be hired for these jobs unless I spoke it," he said.

Corporate scientific exchanges, whether between European and African firms or among Asian companies from different countries, also rely on English. Indeed, private sector science led by multinational firms that invest in research and development (R&D), training, and new facilities depend on this language. International patents are now overwhelmingly filed in English. Online postings of research jobs, postdoctoral fellowships, new databases and other resources, and international grants all now employ English as well.

Then there is scientific information itself. Websites of major research institutes, organizations, and statistical and data archives around the globe—core repositories of contemporary technical knowledge—have turned to English. A tiny sampling of these might include CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire; now European Organization for Nuclear Research), PubMed (largest archive worldwide for the biomedical and life sciences), ChemWeb (for chemistry), GeoRef (for earth sciences), ENCODE (data from the human genome sequence), OBIS (Ocean Biogeographic Information System), arXiv (preprint archive for physics, mathematics, and other fields), the Max Planck Institute, the European Science Foundation, the United Nations Statistical Databases, and the global Census of Marine Life. For Internet science in general, we need only use a term such as natrium (the Dutch word for "sodium") or RNA as a search word to witness the paucity of sites retrieved that appear in any language other than English. Of course, Internet search engines capture only what has been most often used—but that's exactly the point.

Will science conducted in other languages die out before long? Not at all. Throughout the world, many thousands of technical journals are published in Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, French, Spanish, Korean, Arabic, and so on. Despite the growth in the use of English in scientific endeavors, there is little likelihood that domestic science—fortified by the demands of competitive nationalism and realpolitik—will go away any time soon. Governments fund science less for love of truth than for economic competitiveness, defense, prestige, public health. If such aims remain firm, and if scientific work looks to the embrace of government support in its homeland, a healthy national literature will continue. In a few countries where English is close to being a second language (Scandinavia, for example), it is true that the native tongues are much less used even in domestic scientific communication. On the other hand, in other regions, such as Latin America, the domestic tongue is also a world language. Thus, if English seems an overwhelming force in some places, it is much less so in others. By no measure does it command a true hegemony. Again, its realm has limits. Where it remains unrivaled is in science's expanding global dimension: the greater internationalization of new knowledge and its creation.

At first blush, a new linguistic competitor does seem to have emerged. Mandarin Chinese, with roughly 900 million users and backed by China's own spectacular economic rise, is felt by many to be capable of replacing English in science and elsewhere over the next several decades or so. Between 1999 and 2009, the annual number of scientific publications that included one or more Chinese authors increased from less than 30,000 to nearly 120,000 in international journals—a fourfold leap in a single decade (by comparison, US output grew only 30%, from 265,000 to 340,000). Furthermore, it has become common to hear Chinese spoken in the hallways of science and engineering graduate departments all across the United States. There are numbers to back this up: by 2009, foreign students, especially those from China and India, earned no less than 33% of all doctoral degrees granted by US institutions in the sciences and 57% in engineering. Such are figures to give one pause.

But to think that they reveal a new tide of favor for the Chinese language over English would be naïve. Impressive as the publication statistics surely are, what they show is the success of Chinese researchers in English—the language of international journals in science—not Mandarin. The speed with which Chinese representation has risen in measured publications reflects directly how rapidly English has been accepted by Chinese scientists as dominant in the global context. As for Chinese students in America, it would be an error to think of them as "agents" working on behalf of their native tongue. Even the most informal survey will show that their goals include gaining a higher level of scientific training and improved English-language skills, not least a stronger ability to write and publish in this language. By far the largest source of funding for these students are their own families, not the government (they are not linguistic infiltrators!). Ask them the language in which they wish to publish their research, and you will find a single answer. "If we want a research job here or in Europe, or in an international company, or even a high level job back in China, too, we must publish in English," a physics PhD candidate told me recently. "China's best scientists do this. They want international audiences, and this means English." Recognizing this truth, most of China's top research journals—over two hundred by 2010—are themselves changing to English-only publication. Most major research institutions in China, not least the Chinese Academy of Sciences, now have versions of their websites, journals, papers, and databases in English. Dozens of major Chinese universities offer science and engineering courses in English, to both foreign and Chinese students. One would be hard pressed to find even a single institution in North America or Europe following this course for Chinese. Meanwhile, English-language courses in the sciences now appear in the curricula of universities worldwide, from Finland to Korea.

We can approach this phenomenon from a different angle. It is estimated that over 1.5 billion people worldwide, including schoolchildren, are learning English to varying degrees, while about 30 million to 40 million can be counted as studying Mandarin, with a far smaller number (in the low thousands) learning Cantonese and other Chinese languages. Thus, the number of Chinese learners would need to grow by about forty times to compete with English at a significant level. According to a speech given by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao in 2009, more than 300 million of his countrymen were studying English that year, compared with about 50,000 Americans learning Chinese. This figure for Chinese learners of English is likely exaggerated; yet common estimates by those less engaged in political speech making begin at 100 million to 180 million and go up from there. Then there is the fact that English has become a required subject in Chinese schools starting in grade 3; only 4% of US middle and high schools were even offering Mandarin as a choice by 2008–9, when the news media spoke of a "great surge" in interest for this language. An important work on the status of English in China published in 2009 made the overall point even more forcefully.

It is clear that English learning is unlike the teaching and learning of other FLs [foreign languages] in ways beyond issues of scale or size.... China is regarded as an EFL[English as a Foreign Language] country, but the depth of penetration and the variegated roles assigned to English, the "local reward systems" available through English, point to levels of domestication more typical of English as a Second Language settings. This implies that English is imagined to have, and Chinese society has taken steps to bring about, domestic social functions for English: English for Chinese purposes in Chinese settings. In a key, if limited sense, this aims to make English a Chinese language.

None of this is to say that the situation is final. Major changes can certainly occur during the present century. Yet any such changes would have to reverse a momentum of profound, global extent. Empirically, the dominance of English in science stands beyond question. From lab to classroom, democracy to autocracy, researchers can and do communicate well in a language accepted as a kind of universal currency.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that scientists everywhere possess this coin, or possess it to the same degree. They do not. And as with any form of capital, uneven possession is widespread and means inequality, with large implications. There are realities that a story like Ben's doesn't bring to the eye or ear. An international tongue can be a hard master. Those who have it, as Ben did from an early age ("my luck was not an accident"), may gain opportunity, mobility, and more. But consider the young Korean biochemist whose English is poor, who must struggle or pay to get her slides translated for an upcoming meeting, to work on her script, pronunciation, anxiety. Those who do not possess command of the dominant tongue find themselves limited, confined, even disenfranchised, ignored. Much forced accommodation exists among scientists who do not know English well. Local tongues and possibly cultures are affected. A language that spreads to many nations is one toward which many millions of people will migrate, perhaps leaving behind part of their native linguistic heritage. Casualties exist, in other words. History (as we will see in chapter 5) suggests that they may not be avoidable.

Excerpted from DOES SCIENCE NEED A GLOBAL LANGUAGE? by Scott L. Montgomery. Copyright © 2013 by Scott L. Montgomery. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by David Crystal  

A New Era

Realities and Issues in Global English

English and Science
The Current Landscape

A Discussion of Limitations and Issues for a Global Language

Past and Future
What Do Former Lingua Francas of Science Tell Us?

Does Science Need a Global Language?

Notes      Index

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