In the scientific world, English has become the dominant language. Most scientific articles are published in English, most advanced science books are written in English, and most scientific conferences are held in English. In theory, this sounds great. By having all scientists capable of speaking the same language, one basically eliminates this barrier, thus facilitating the scientific process. However, as with pretty much anything else, there are some downsides to having a universal scientific language, with many being caused by ignoring all research that has not been published in the universal language (in this case, English). There have been quite a few pieces written about this which provide an in-depth exploration of some of these disadvantages, such as the detrimental effect of ignoring local research when dealing with ecological research, where one might be interested in species that live only in that area, or the waste of resources which go into repeating studies other scientists had already conducted, but only published in their local language etc., so if you’re interested in these, just follow the links above.
But as this is a blog open to the general public, I would like to examine the situation from a different angle. In particular, I’d like to ask: how does this anglocentric approach to science influence science communication outside of the academic setting? Does it even have any measurable effects in terms of the scientific education of the population and if so, what are these effects and how can we counteract them? (I would also like to mention here that, unlike our other articles, which focus on presenting scientific facts, the next part of this post is an opinion piece, so treat it accordingly.)
From my point of view, yes, having an anglocentric approach in academia has negative effects on the broader communication of science in non-English speaking countries. More specifically, access to scientific information presented in an easy-to-grasp manner and consequently, the scientific literacy of the public are affected by a scarcity of science communicators in non-English speaking countries.
Why science communication happens mostly in English
As mentioned above, most of the academic communication occurs in English, which means that there is no direct reason to invest time and effort in translating complicated scientific content into other languages. In this context, science communicators, although capable of understanding complex scientific content published in English and reporting on it in the same language, might lack the capacity of translating it into their native language (speaking from personal experience, as someone who has completed their higher education in English, all scientific terms sound like made-up words in my native language). This effect is even more pronounced for relatively new and rapidly advancing scientific fields, such as neuroscience, where one would need to create new terms in the native language. As a consequence, they restrict themselves to disseminating scientific information exclusively in English. This, in turn, coupled with the fact that the English-speaking market is larger than most of the others, contributes to the perception that other languages simply “don’t care enough” about science, which further deters science communicators from using them.
The negative effects
Of course, the lack of information, in its turn, leads to a lack of interest and, what is even more concerning, it also leads to a major lack of scientific literacy, which facilitates the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Some people might claim here that, if one truly cared about being accurately informed, one would move mountains to make it happen. While I don’t entirely disagree (extremely motivated people will always find a way), I would argue that not everyone has the time and the energy to “seek out the truth”, and that’s okay. For example, many people work long hours and have to care for their families, which leaves them with little to no time for learning English to a level that allows them to be more informed about science. Most of these people stay informed through their network (either online or offline). And I would further argue that it is exactly these people who suffer most from the lack of accurate scientific content delivered in their native language.
What can we do?
For once, the answer is simple: if you’re a science communicator whose native language is not English, invest a bit of time in translating at least some of your content. As science communicators, we have taken on the responsibility of bringing access to scientific information to the general public and that means not only the English-speaking segment, but everyone else as well. Sure, in the beginning, it will be difficult and it will sound weird, but your mum, your grandma, or that one neighbour who watered your plants when you were on holiday might thank you.
What did you think about this post? Do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments below.
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3 thoughts on “On the English Bias in Science Communication”
Great points and for other formats (esp. podcasts) this is even harder… In any case, I love the fact that you write your articles not only in English – keep up the great work!