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Lost in translation: why the lingua franca of science matters

13 October 2020
How does language affect modern science?
The dominance of English in high impact factor journals may cause important research in other languages to be disseminated to a smaller audience, resulting in the potential distortion of research in some fields.
If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.
Sir Isaac Newton

These are the immortalised words of 17th Century scientist Sir Isaac Newton. Throughout history and in modern times, most scientists have chosen not only to ‘stand upon the shoulders of giants’ but also, stand shoulder to shoulder with each other to push the frontiers of human knowledge further.

A critical element of this is how scientists communicate with each other.

In Newton’s era, Google translate, nor the fantastical babel fish, were available to communicate with one’s international peers. For centuries, scientists from across the world shared their findings and worked together through the common language—or lingua franca—of Latin.

Think of canonical scientific works written in Latin such as: Bacon’s Novum Organum, Kepler’s Astronomia nova or Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica­—which the University of Sydney has a first edition copy of with annotations by Newton himself. The legacy of this Lingua Franca has crept into modern science through the long arm of history, from the scientific naming of animals and plants to the symbols for chemical elements.

Latin was superseded by a mixture of predominantly French, English and German as the languages of science. However, owing to a series of tectonic 20th century geopolitical rifts and shifts in the form of two world wars and the rise of The United States as a world power—and as a scientific power—English emerged head and shoulders above the others as a linguistic giant—as the modern lingua franca of science.

The prevalence of English in contemporary science has been highlighted as important for facilitating progress by breaking down language barriers to collaboration and worldwide information sharing and access1, 2, 3, however, this is not without caveat or controversy.1, 3, 4

There is concern that the dominance of English in high impact factor journals may cause important research in other languages—especially from scientists in lesser developed countries—to be disseminated to a smaller audience and receive less attention than English publications, with the possibility this research may not become available in English at all, resulting in the potential distortion of research in some fields. 3, 4

An alarming example of this happened in 2004, when there was a delay of more than 6 months  in the World Health Organisation’s and The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s awareness of pigs infected with avian influenza, due to papers reporting the discovery being published in Chinese4. This was a public health concern as pigs may have the potential to make the fatal disease more infectious to humans.

Another concern is that researchers who lack English are less able to access key research developments, which tend to be published in English, and are thus less able to cite these sources and be published.3

Research has also stressed the lack of publications and scientific knowledge available in other languages may impede non-English speaking practitioners and public policy makers from implementing scientific, evidence based policies and practices.4

This may be exacerbated by the incentive to achieve more citations through publication in influential journals—which are predominantly Anglophonic.4

Thankfully English isn’t the only ‘language’ of science: Physics, mathematics and chemistry, for example, are more universal scientific lingua francas

The equation and reaction mechanism depicted below should be understood in the same way by a physicist or chemist (respectively) irrespective of the languages they speak, underlining how the fundamental nomenclature and information systems of science can help bridge communication gaps.

The consequences of a global collaborative approach to scientific research cannot be understated.

There are a myriad of examples illustrating how our shared natural curiosity and innovative spirit as a species has transcended cultures, space and time to result in great international scientific achievements, from the quest to understand ourselves through the human genome project to the global race to save ourselves with the rapid development of treatments and vaccines for Covid19.

Critically, communication underpins international, collaborative scientific endeavours. That being said, spare a thought for those ‘giants’ whose shoulders we could stand upon, or stand shoulder to shoulder with, if it were not for their wisdom being lost in translation.

 


1 Drubin, D.G; Kellogg, D.R. English as the universal language of science: opportunities and challenges. Molec. Bio. Cell. 2017, 23(8),1399.
2 Kamadjeu, R. English: the lingua franca of scientific research. Lancet. Global Health. 2019, 7(9), e1174.
3 Tardy, C. The role of English in scientific communication: lingua franca or Tyrannosaurus rex? J. Eng. Academ. Purposes. 2004, 3, 247-269.
4 Amano, T; Gonzalez-Varo, J.P; Sutherland, W.J. Languages Are Still a Major Barrier to Global Science. PLOS. Bio. 2016, 14(12), e2000933.

Written by Louis Casey

Second-year student, Bachelor of Science and Advanced Studies, University of Sydney