Science's Language Problem
By Michael J. Barany
Mathematicians know that to access seminal texts in their original language, one must study Latin and French. Chemists, similarly, must become familiar with German. Economists must be fluent in English. And for humanists, it's Italian.
What is less recognized is that each science's linguistic milieux fundamentally shapes the course of its development. Linguistic communities necessarily isolate groups of investigators. These restrictions both focus researchers' energies and can effectively bar others from entering a field. A central task of science and technology in the global era will be to grapple with the problem of communication as we probe the horizons of human understanding.
At the European Peptide Symposium in Prague last summer, one co-chair wryly observed that broken English has become the most common language spoken in academia. Indeed, the tongue of the British Empire has become almost as important a prerequisite to entering the sciences as a strong foundation in mathematics. As a result, it is easy for scientists, especially those accustomed to English, to recline comfortably in the arms of linguistic homogeneity.
Science is not, however, bound to any single language. Today, scientists may accept this linguistic coercion, even though new concepts often become trapped between two languages and fail to emerge altogether. Tomorrow, when the number of researchers fluent in English will certainly dwindle in laboratories throughout the world, the English straightjacket will become increasingly uncomfortable -- at a time when the volume of scientific information is about to explode.
In China and India, world-class scientific infrastructures are emerging, and more discoveries will be reported in their local languages. These could go unheeded or underappreciated elsewhere -- just as work currently published in Japanese or French often fails to impress American scientists not fluent in those languages. Papers that undergo various translations and interpretations often emerge murky and hard to comprehend.
While automated translation is rapidly improving, it is unlikely that machines can ever attain the nuance and technical accuracy required for the ever-changing vocabulary of science.
The globalization of science offers innumerable new opportunities for intellectual advancement. But unless we build better bridges between linquistic communities, countless ideas and innovations could be ignored and effectively lost. As future generations of researchers don lab coats, we and they must remember that science reaches its full potential as a central and glorious human pursuit only when it transcends language and enters global consciousness.
Barany was a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search