Does Science Need a Global Language?

English and the Future of Research

Ben is a biochemist from Uganda. Very dark-skinned and neatly dressed, with a touch of elegance, he speaks a fluent English, bubbling with an East African accent. His eyes have a sharp intelligence that can penetrate solid objects. “I am lucky to be a scientist,” Ben says, “but my luck was no accident.” Born near Mubende, his father sent him to a local school where an English-speaking engineer of Indian descent taught and became Ben's tutor. In 1972, the dictator, Idi Amin ordered all Asians to leave the country. In the mounting chaos and murder, Ben was sent to a relative in San Francisco. When next he saw his family, "I had a PhD and was a food scientist." Like many skilled researchers, his work has taken him all over the world, to Brazil, India, Japan. He often speaks at international meetings, but now he thinks he will return home, to teach. When I show surprise at this, he looks at me without smiling:  “I feel science must be shared. It is not mine to keep. I can speak to my countrymen in a language that will not take sides.” 

Ben is one of a number of scientists you will meet in this fascinating, provocative, and highly readable book. Each chapter begins with a story like this--equally unique and revealing about the state of science and English today. The rise of English in the sciences, engineering, and medicine defines a global phenomenon perhaps more powerful and meaningful in the long-term than any aspect of worldwide commerce, diplomacy, or cultural exchange. Reasons are not obvious, or to some, acceptable. But they are irrefutable. Life stories like Ben's make it clear:  the future of science and the future of English are related by marriage.

English is not the first international language of science. It is the most recent in a long line of major lingua franca--Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, French, German, Russian. But English is the first truly global tongue of the sciences, and this global dimension marks a difference in kind as well as degree. When combined with the internet, it provides a medium by which any scientist, anywhere in the world, can have access to the data available in the wealthiest nations. As the costs of computer and broadband technology have fallen, tThe result has been enormous new opportunities for collaboration--consider discovery of the Higgs-Boson at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, in which researchers from half the world's countries (~100) participated. Consider too the worldwide contributions being made in key research areas dealing with disease, energy, food, water, and climate change. Publication trends in all these areas (and many others) prove the globalization of science is rising everywhere in English, bringing science itself into a new era, where it is expanding beyond a handful of nations to become a possession of all humanity.

Does Science Need a Global Language? is the first book to discuss this new era for science. In plain and often eloquent language, it tells how and why English attained its status  and what implications and issues a global tongue brings. It takes a close, sympathetic look at the burdens of such a tongue and ends with realistic conclusions about them. No less, the book examines the effects on other languages and cultures that came about from Greek, Latin, Chinese, and Arabic as powerful world languages of science past, and what the history of these languages has to tell us about the present and future of English. An important point is that a "power language" increases multilinguality--it becomes an added tongue in most cultures, though it can also accelerate the demise of endangered languages. But it clearly provides new opportunity for scientific advance by increasing the pool and diversity of participants able to communicate with one another.

This is a book, therefore, that every scientist, engineer, and physician will read with enjoyment and profit. The same may well be said for anyone interested in the sciences, language, and history. Ultimately, it is a book about the nature of scientific knowledge and its human dimension.  


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