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Why is English the language of science?



We know that one of the foundations is the sum of the efforts of the scientific community. The great pyramid of knowledge is built from the building blocks created by researchers around the world and put together through the sharing of research results.

However, that does not explain why we use English as the language for science. It is very easy to say that the only reason for this is universality, because we have already seen that there have been very important releases in other languages. Even many scientific texts from just 100 years ago are written in English, Japanese or Chinese. The subject is much larger, but let’s start at the beginning.

1. The War of Languages

Michael , a historian at Princeton University, reports that in the 1950s about 50% of scientific texts were written in English. The next largest language is Russian, but with only 20% in comparison. In just 20 years, English has established itself as the language of science, almost ousting French and Chinese from scientific texts .

To get to this point, the story went something like this:

By 1880, English, French, and German were of equal importance in scholarship . At the beginning of the 20th century we saw a slight decline in French, a slight rise in English and an almost overwhelming spread of German. The question here is rather what is happening to the German language?

2. A boycott against German academics?

The First World War was the cause and origin of strong nationalist antagonisms. The French, Belgians, Americans and British joined forces to push back the influence of German and Austrian academics.

The blow to the German language was devastating: fewer and fewer people published in German journals unless they were native German speakers, and fewer people chose to read German publications.

Although everything seemed to be recovering and even the German currency was slowly stabilizing, everything changed in 1933 with National Socialism and the whole picture changed back to a wartime atmosphere.

Jewish scholars, socialists, and opponents of the new regime emigrated from the country and went to the United States or Britain , where they adopted English as their primary language. The new German regime imposed severe visa restrictions that slowed the arrival of new students, not to mention thorough scrutiny of publications.

Here the communication networks of academics collapsed, especially among German-speaking academics. After some time they were re-established but this time with venues in cities like professional simultaneous translation, San Francisco and Boston replacing Frankfurt, Cologne and Vienna.

3. The disadvantages of English as the language of science

We know that a uniform language for scientific publications brings great advantages, because around 90% of the most important publications are in English today. We’ve already mentioned that communication between scientists is the cornerstone of progress, but what are the other implications of this unified action?

Perhaps the most important point is that the diversity of records is lost . A person who does not write in their native language does not have the same ability to describe and capture their ideas, and native speakers need to simplify and streamline their writing to make it easier for a non-native speaker to communicate. This is where communication perishes at the expense of accuracy.

On the other hand, people with great potential for science are sidelined (or even eliminated altogether) because they are not fluent in English. This is an obstacle to scientific progress.

4. Conclusion

English as the universal language of science is a relatively recent development, driven by political and war-related reasons. It’s these kinds of factors that determine the importance of one language over another. Without these two wars we might be publishing in German today.
On the other hand, having a common language in science is good, but at what cost? The balance seems unpredictable.

It is clear that languages ​​continue to develop. If you need an legal aid translation of your scientific article, simply contact us at AbroadLink. We will help you!


Mack Thomas

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