Does Science Need a Global Language?

Montgomery, Scott L. Does Science Need a Global Language? University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2013; pp. 1-226 + xiii,   ISBN 978-0-226-53503-6 (hardcover). $22.50.

The obvious rise of English as the predominant language in the communication of science has generated quite a bit of commentary in recent years. Beginning with the editorials and publishing practices of Gene Garfield in the ‘60s (he not only observed the rise of English, but championed it), the first books on the subject appeared in the 90’s. The predominance of English in the sciences parallels its predominance in other areas, especially in the arts. In fact, many non-native speakers and authors of English cite movies and TV as their initial exposure to English. Language is indeed power and English has become the near universal language of international scientific conferences even when held in areas where English is not the primary language.  Written publications in English, especially scientific journals, have lagged somewhat, but the number of both journals and articles in English is on the increase. As a result, most scientific communication in English is between non-native speakers. The history of the languages of scientific communication is discussed and the rise of English into predominance has been relatively rapid, similar to the rise of Arabic in the first millennium. Has English become the Lingua Franca of science, similar to Latin and Arabic in the past? It’s not there yet, but may be on the way. Data and discussion are given for the number of English speakers and the number of countries represented as well as data and discussion on global education in and of English. Unfortunately, scientists who are native language speakers of English lag behind the rest of the world in bi- or multilingual capabilities.

Pros and cons of global scientific English are discussed, including Brain Drains, supplantation and even suppression of local languages, perceived hegemony, etc. The latter is not deemed to be happening and communication in local languages is actually encouraged, although global publication of results in English is not only preferred but essential. Occasional fears of non-English cultural suppression are probably unfounded. Translation, especially machine translation, has an effect on the trend, but the author deems the latter to not yet be accurate enough to facilitate scientific publication.  Scientific publication globally has shifted more toward for-profit publishers. Anglo-American English predominates in publication, especially at the hands of editors, many of whom have market and profit motives, and tends to suppress the omnipresent non-standard forms of English. Those versions, being far more common, may have to be accommodated in the future.

Previous Lingua Francas or other dominant languages of science have been supplanted, so what is the future of English in that exalted state? Chinese is currently touted as a possibility, but that probably will not happen given the trend for the Chinese to publish in English.

This reviewer found some topics lacking in discussion, including the rise and effects of open publishing and the hindrance of differing alphabets in learning any new language. However, the book is an excellent treatment of topics very important to scientific research, communication, and education in general. Highly recommended. In the last section, the answer to the title question is given and the answer is “yes.”

Bob Buntrock, Member, CINF Communications and Publications Committee