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SCIENCE: Deposing the Tyranny of English

Adrianne Appel

BOSTON, United States, Feb 22 2008 (IPS) - For scientists around the world, it is publish – in English – or perish.

The English language has come to dominate science around the world, and millions of researchers who don&#39t speak and write English fluently are excluded from recognition, say a group of scientists who are calling for change.

Most professional science journals, where scientists share their research, publish exclusively in English and require that all articles be submitted in perfect English. Scientists also share their work at professional meetings, and these too are often conducted completely in English.

"People like Einstein would be overlooked," Ulrich Ammon, of the University of Dulsburg-Essen in Germany, told IPS. Einstein never learned to speak English well and if a young scientist today, he would be excluded from publishing and recognition.

The global public loses out by not learning about important research underway by non-English speakers, said Jose Vergara, of Puerto Montt Regional Hospital, Chile.

"We are trying to at least raise the issue," Vergara told IPS.


"Science should be for all inhabitants of the world," said Vergara, who spoke during the annual meeting this month of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is conducted entirely in perfect English.

"We need a multilingual and interlingual policy of science," Vergara said.

The dominance of English in science deepens the class divide worldwide, alienates career scientists from their own native languages and inflates the importance of U.S. universities, said Humphrey Tonkin, of the University of Hartford, in the United States.

"Scientists are not aware of the basic discrimination they are propagating. And scientists pride themselves on being an international community and a tolerant community," Tonkin said.

Something must be done, "unless we are content to live with the rank unfairness of English domination," Tonkin said.

Today, more than 90 percent of the science journals considered major or prestigious are those that print in English, Tonkin said.

Scientists who want to be able to read about the research of other scientists around the world must learn English, which can take years of practice.

The journal publishers require that all articles be submitted in perfect English, yet they provide almost no translation or editorial assistance to non-native speakers.

Scientists who are unable to write a scientific paper in perfect English are directed by the publishers to fee-for-service editors and translators who charge extraordinarily large sums of money, Tonkin said.

Once the article is in perfect English, the publisher will consider it, and may decide not to publish it.

Indices are in English and they largely include only science articles and abstracts written in English, Tonkin said.

All of this has helped create a myth among native English speakers that "what&#39s worth reading will be available in English," said E. James Lieberman, of George Washington School of Medicine, in the U.S.

"In Germany it is felt as a serious problem for scientists. German universities rank low in the world because we publish in German," Ammon told IPS.

Scientific journals need to be pressured to provide translation and editing to non-English speakers, the scientists said.

"It would cost the publishers money but it wouldn&#39t harm the industry," which is a very lucrative one, Tonkin told IPS. "If it becomes unacceptable to discriminate on the basis of language, the publishers will come into line."

The de facto requirement that English be used in science deepens the class divide around the world, the scientists said.

"If young scientists wish to enter the English-dominated realm of science, they must spend time and money to translate and edit their work. Their work won&#39t be accessible to their native language peers," Tonkin said.

Universities worldwide that teach science in English are better known, and tend to attract students who learned English at an early age, often those from wealthier families, Tonkin said.

"The dominance of English has elevated the reputations of American universities and self-reinforced the importance of English," Tonkin said.

And since most contemporary science textbooks are written in English, only those students who know English can study science.

Chile "has a huge problem in that English is available only for the elite. Those in university are the students who went to private school," Vergara told IPS.

Requiring young people to forego their own languages and switch to English to discuss science and modern technology may hasten the demise of indigenous and other languages, Vergara said.

According to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, most indigenous languages will die at the end of the century if we do nothing, Vergara said.

"Some Finns worry that their own language may fail to develop new scientific words," Lieberman said.

Vergara speaks Esperanto and suggested that it could become the universal language of science.

There are plenty of answers," Tonkin said. "First we have to get people concerned about the problem."

The scientists vowed to try to make the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) more fair, by pushing those in charge to offer some free translation, and encouraging those with less than perfect English to present their research, which is currently discouraged.

Researchers from all over the world come to the meeting each year to present their research. Only papers submitted in English are considered for presentation.

"This is the first time this topic has been raised at AAAS," Ammon told IPS.

Native English speakers at the meeting will be encouraged to speak more slowly, and to be more patient when listening to a presentation in non-native English.

"They need to understand that if the non-native speakers sound clumsy, they would be too if they were speaking in a second language," Ammon told IPS.

 
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