In the winter of 1953, Vladimir Nabokov finished writing the work, Lolita, in English, nearly a year after the first showing of Waiting for Godot, an absurdist play written by Samuel Beckett, an Irish writer, in French. These two authors chose a foreign language to express their theses, and they translated the works themselves back into their native tongues. While it is rare for writers to elect to weave in and out of their natural languages, scientists today do so quite commonly.
In the world of science, where English journals (especially American English ones) are seen as more prestigious, authors of alternate native tongues draft manuscripts in English, and afterward frequently translate these works back into their home country’s language for publication in smaller regional journals or conference proceedings. The art of language-hopping is not a carefully selected device to produce a creative effect, like those employed by Nabokov and Beckett. Rather, it is a necessary procedure used to achieve readership recognition from colleagues and the scientific community at large.
What impact does English have on the global scientific community? For one, it severely limits the participating population to those who can gain the requisite skills. We worry about the influence of socioeconomic class in the United States on determining opportunity to engage in science; however if we add the impediment of speaking and writing science in a foreign language, there is no doubt that we are scraping only the creamiest social classes.
In fact, if we look at the fortunate populations that have had access to English lessons from a young age, even those who have excelled still have to admit an obvious thing: speaking and writing in a foreign language (well) is hard! Give it a try! For those of you blessed with a second language, try writing about any scientific concept in that other language, and then in your native language. The second will likely slip right off your tongue at a speed that puts the first to shame! Writing and talking about science in a foreign language is an energy barrier, in addition to the barrier just brought down with your groundbreaking discovery.
A non-native English-speaking scientist must force his/her natural words into a rigidly structured alternate lexicon, and this process inherently changes the way science is recorded. We express science not only through words, jointed by the nuts and bolts of conjunctions and conjugations, but in the points we emphasize, the form of the storyline we tell, the way we view and perceive communication. Samuel Beckett consciously chose to write in French, and when asked why, he responded, “because it is easier to write without style.”
A language conveys information but in its native form, it infuses its nouns, adjectives, and verbs with a richness bigger than the meaning itself. It gives words a sense. Though science itself attempts to root out the un-quantitative, the way we conceive of science is drenched in the cultural environment where we produce it. These cultural subtleties manifest themselves in oral and written communications of scientific work, and bias the way we assess intellectual merit, so that even as objective judges we prefer the “American scientist”.
Having a default language has its obvious benefits. It streamlines the communication within the field and on the surface provides more inclusivity than exclusivity. How do the benefits of a primary language balance the costs of a non-native scientist’s translation? The reality is that the benefits to a monopolistic language system are very clear while the costs are more obscure.
Ultimately the purpose of examining the role of language in science is to point out inequities that prematurely determine the success of a scientist. The role of the English language as a source of potential injustice is just one part of the conversation we need to be having about an equal-opportunity global scientific community. The language we use when we speak science is as important as any other part in a methods section and should be deliberate and fair.
Since the integrity of our scientific process depends upon the rigor of peer review, perhaps any verbal biases should be taken into account in that process--just as the “structural integrity” of any other “vessel” would be considered an article’s review. Keeping a constant critical eye on our methodology helps us strive for scientific excellence and objectivity.
The self-imposed language barrier embraced by Nabokov and Beckett produced works of brilliance, acclaimed for decades following their publication. It’s about time we give the same recognition to the scientists who perform this act every day.