English is increasingly the language of scientific writing. Most of the most influential journals only publish articles in English. Young scientists are expected to learn English in order to have successful careers. Some see this as a good thing. How can we build on existing knowledge if its divided up into different languages? English as the standard language of science seems to be an answer to this question.
However, the author of an editorial in the Economist writes that other languages are in fact important for science, too. Rather than English-speakers expecting to be able to read all scientific papers and non-English-speakers being expected to all learn English to do science, multilingualism should be encouraged in the scientific community. This is especially important in fields which are localized to particular places, like ecology. The author writes that because of English-speaking scientists’ lack of familiarity with Chinese, papers on the spread of the H5N1 virus were unavailable to them when that knowledge was needed in the English-speaking world in 2004.
The author also points to a future in which machine translation could play an important role in bringing knowledge to scientists. Because we can’t know every language, scientists could get a sense of what an article says and see whether it is worth a human translation.
The alternative, the author writes, is a future in which languages other than English do not acquire technical vocabulary and are not used in the workplace, which he calls “a shame.” I think that’s quite an understatement.
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