English in science: what about non-native speakers?

The use of a common language is inevitable in international scientific activities. However, the use of a common language cannot be regarded as a technical matter of choosing one language among a range of options. As inequitable international relations are a matter of fact, scientists are not able to deal with each other on an equal basis.

Kumju Hwang, The Inferior Science and the Dominant Use of English in Knowledge Production2005, Science Communication.

English is the default language of science around the world. All of the most influential research is written and published in English language journals, the best scientific career prospects come from highly read English science and the centres of science and technology knowledge production remain in the USA and the UK.

Science in the world today is done in English. What do we know about the people doing the science?

As the global lingua franca of academia, English is spoken much more by non-native than native speakers. Anna Mauranen, Niina Hynninen, Elina Ranta, English as an academic lingua franca: The ELFA Project, 2010, English for Specific Purposes.

Just to make this clear: more non-native English speaking scientists are producing English language science than native English speaking scientists are. This shouldn’t be surprising to us. After all, English is used all over the world in many different situations, including for science. And there are people doing science all over the world. And most of the people in the world who speak English speak it as a second language. And most of the people in the world doing science are doing it in English. So of course non-native English speakers produce more science than native English speakers.

Some of the team from the Indian Space Research Organisation after successfully placing a spacecraft in orbit around Mars. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Some of the team from the Indian Space Research Organisation after successfully placing a spacecraft in orbit around Mars. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

There is only one question to ask here: does this matter?

This is a discussion that can go many directions, and different insights can lead us to different fields of science communication and sociolinguistics, but I want to make the point for now that language is not culture free. Languages are constructed over time by populations of speakers, with their own interests, traditions, cosmologies and environments. They all contain words, sounds and structures that reflect the history that brought it to the form it now has. English is a language like the rest. It too is culturally biased and rooted in its own history.

Science based on English combines two separate cultures:

  • the culture of science – empirical, neutral, accessible
  • the culture of English – Shakespearean, colonial, a lingua franca.

So the question that I want to start getting at is: What does this culture of science based on a language mean for those participating in it?

I’ll follow this soon with a look at what it might mean for multilingual, non-native English speaking scholars, but for now I’d like to suggest that we think about how the very nature of science could make it inaccessible for so many.

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2 responses to “English in science: what about non-native speakers?

  1. Absolutely. The Mauranen et al. paper above is based on a study done in Finland, but the impact of a global English on science is apparent everywhere. I think there’s the space and opportunity for academics to blog or do other science communication projects in their own language, for local audiences.

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  2. Living in Norway I see the effects of this all the time. Norwegian academics have to choose between publishing in Norwegian (=accessible in the home market) or English (=wide readership). Since the lure of English is so strong, finding relevant literature for undergraduates in their native language can be a challenge – even more so for post-grads.

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