English: the Lingua Franca of Science (2)

Is it positive that English has become the Lingua Franca of Science?

English has been spreading across the globe for centuries, but only became the lingua franca of science around 100 years ago. A lingua franca is a common language that enables people from different countries, speaking different languages, engage in business, trade and other activities. For instance, Latin was a lingua franca in the antiquity. 

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To find out more about what lingua franca is and how English came to be the common language of science in the modern world, check out Part One of this article:
Why is English the Lingua Franca of Science?

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100 years may not seem to be such a long time in the course of human history. However, in this relatively short period of time English has come to absolutely dominate the world of science. Currently, over 90% of research papers are published in English. 

English being the lingua franca of science has both its advantages and disadvantages. Let us take a closer look at them. 

The Advantages 

The general idea of having a common language in any area is a positive one. As it allows people from all over the world to come together and share their knowledge. 

The common use of English facilitates information exchange and scientific research. If a paper is written in English, it is more likely to be published, noticed, to have some influence.

Having a lingua franca for scientific research also makes practical sense. Publishing scientific research solely in English is faster and more cost-effective. Translating the highly technical and precise language of science into many different languages would be extremely time- and cost-intensive.

The Disadvantages

The fact that just one language dominates the world of science, naturally, also has its disadvantages.

Just looking at the surface of things: it puts at a disadvantage anyone who is not a native English speaker. If English is not your native language and you are aspiring to make a career in science, you first need to learn English. This is not something you can do in just a couple of months. 

You will need English not just to publish your own paper. It is a must for all researchers, as most of the materials you need to study are also in English. As a scientist, you will most likely attend English-language conferences and English-language seminars, to advance in your career.

On a deeper level, it creates a bias in the scientific world where papers published in any other language — no matter their quality and importance — tend to get overlooked. This skews the general perspective which may as a result, lack diverse of points of view and ways of communicating. It may also lead to important discoveries being ignored simply because they were not published in ‘the right language’. 

English being the lingua franca of science has also influenced the scientific vocabularies of other languages. They simply cannot keep up with English. In many languages, scientific terms — especially in ‘younger’ branches of science like quantum physics — are simply transliterated from English.

The Lingua Franca of Science — Final thoughts

Using English as the lingua franca has the significant advantage of uniting scientists globally, and facilitating the spread of information. However, at the same time, it creates barriers for many non-English speaking scientists and their work. 

English as the lingua franca of science does not seem to be going anywhere in the near future. Those wishing to advance their career in science may have no choice but to learn English. But it is also important, especially for the native speakers of English, to be aware of the bias and misbalance that English as the common language of science creates, and to be sensitive to this issue.