Should the Scientific World put all its Eggs into the English Basket?

Monday, May 21st, 2018 @ 2:44AM

If consciousness is an illusion then who is being fooled? It is all a matter of definition. As Frederick Douglas proclaimed: “once you learn to read, you will be forever free”; access to information is crucial for a free and better world. If there be any “oughts”, then all people ought to have access to the world’s information riches while striving to discern what is viable and true.
Academic writing faces a myriad of issues in a world balancing practicality with the ideal, and identity with globalization. The use of English as the lingua-franca in business and academics is the result of historical events, many of which were unjust. Others, were appropriate responses to further unjust acts or should be washed in the spirit of the times.
Perhaps both ignoble and noble actions have led to the same result, but what is most certain is that English is ever cementing itself as the most practical, international language (cf. Coleman, 2006). I propose that this situation is largely uncontroversial for most non-native English researchers who are concerned with solving the scientific questions of their respected disciplines. The cost and time to persuade the world to shift rapidly to another common language is large and one may find such efforts misplaced when facing more problematic issues (e.g., climate change, poverty, etc…). Perhaps a better, alternative solution is to speed up what has been a gradual push to have articles written in both English and other languages. This conclusion leads, however, to another problem entailed from justifying the value of expanding multilingual research: which alternative languages should be used for top-tier peer reviewed journals?
Claiming that there is value in having more international research in languages other than English is in part predicated on the belief that different languages have different value or unique characteristics from which greater understanding could be derived. That is, our so-called objective, scientific knowledge that fundamentally relies on metaphor (i.e., the laws of physics) for understanding and hypothesis formation may be enhanced by framing and explaining such observations in different languages.
We currently live in an age of language extinction. There are roughly 6000 languages and as many as half of these are expected to disappear in the next 50 years. The famous linguists Kenneth Hale likens losing a language to dropping a bomb on a museum. Despite this, the most likely languages to be used in addition to English as an international language are healthy languages (i.e., French, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, German, Dutch, Swahili etc…) that like English are responsible for pushing out vast numbers of smaller languages. It is unclear if a push for multilingual diversity in research by promoting the value of another healthy language will only further hurt the status of these endangered languages. Let’s say that Japanese and German gain an edge in several top-tier journals in civil engineering. Someone who grows up in Guam speaking Chamorro and wants to research civil engineering would then need to learn English for school at home (and for general life in Guam) and German and Japanese to read and publish their work. This would likely result in even less attention and value being given to the endangered first language. One can easily imagine how complicated this could become if there are multiple competing lingua franca’s. It may be possible to have more than one and this could benefit speakers of these languages, but it will likely further marginalize the place of the truly endangered languages.
Accordingly, I propose that one lingua franca is optimal under the premise that information should be available to everyone and that English is currently best situated to serve that function. This, however, changes what it means to be a native speaker of English. Unlike other languages, English culture is separated from the English language. It is also possible that machine translation will solve this problem in a more ideal fashion. Instead of perfecting the translation of other languages to English, it may work by fluidly processing any language via AI’s knowledge of all languages to a specific language or dialect of. This also sound frightening, though. Perhaps we will lose something all important by trying to save everything.

Coleman, J. A. (2006). English-medium teaching in European higher education.
Language teaching, 39(1), 1-14.

Gustafson, K. L. (2014). Translation, Technology, and the Digital Archive:
Preserving a Historic Japanese-Language Newspaper. American Journalism, 31(1), 4-25.

Shih, C. L. (2016). Can machine translation declare a new realm of service?
Online folktales as a case study. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 6(2), 252.

Van Parijs, P. (2000). The ground floor of the world: on the socio-economic
consequences of linguistic globalization. International Political Science Review, 21(2), 217-233.

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Categories: Featured, Joel Deacon

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