Changing the language of science

In a recent post, I made the claim that “We can be sure that science would discover new and different things by working in different languages (other than English) “. This might be a new idea for some people, because we tend to think of language as a straightforward tool for describing the scientific reality around us and not as a lens through which we see the world.

Of course, language is a tool used to describe the world, but it is not a perfect one. Each language is unique and has its own peculiarities, meaning that its description of the world will necessarily be different to the description made in any other language. A language’s description of the world (its lens) is grounded in the history, the culture and the geography of its speakers. For English, this might mean its Germanic origins, Shakespeare, the Royal Society, colonisation, and globalisation, to name a few. We need to recognise that discussing science through the lens of English comes with its own cultural baggage.

Discussing science through the lens of any other language also comes with its own cultural baggage, it’s just a bit of cultural baggage that we might not have experienced for a while. Imagine empirical research in a language that forces you, for each statement you make, to specify how you know it: I saw it, I got told it, I heard it, it happened to me,… (this is evidentiality). Imagine biological research in a language that has identified hundreds of distinct plant and animal species in its small local region.

The kind of scientific research done in one language is in some ways directed by the culture and interests of its speakers. We choose to focus on some things and not others. We decide against asking certain kinds of questions. For example, it’s only recently that scientists have started to get interested in the knowledge of indigenous people around the world. For a long time, their stories were treated as purely cultural artefacts rather than descriptions of the world.

What I’m talking about is changing the way that science looks at the world by adding different perspectives to the mix. This is why it’s so important to get people from different cultural backgrounds participating in science, and why there is value in using a variety of languages as well.

 

Imagine scientific research in a language that is not the language of the people who have set the agenda of global scientific research for centuries. What could that look like?

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3 responses to “Changing the language of science

  1. Pingback: Changing the way we talk when we study the world | Words apart

  2. Hmm… There are at least five more languages that are significant to advancements of modern science: German, French, Russian, Japanese and Chinese. Should not be difficult to conduct a comparative study. These languages vary wildly in the grammar and cultural context.

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    • Yes indeed, those languages have all played a part in the development of modern science. I still wonder at the dominance of English in global science currently though. It would be interesting to look at publications and journals in those languages. Maybe the next post will look at examples of science being done in those different languages.

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