A considerable proportion of scientific research results are ignored by the international academic community simply because they are not published in English. There is a long way to go to solve this language dilemma.
| The language dilemma in the non-English-speaking world |
Colombian biologist Ramirez Castañeda has long been studying the reason why snakes eat poisonous frogs without getting sick in the Amazon jungle. Although fruitful, she and her colleagues in the research team have struggled to promote these biological discoveries to the international academic community. Castañeda, whose native language is Spanish, had to translate her paper into English before it could be published in an international journal. Due to limited budgets and tight schedules, many results were lost in the end. “I don’t consider myself a bad scientist,” she says. “It’s a language barrier.”
Castañeda is far from alone in this dilemma. A large number of research results of non-English literature are lost in the translation process, and many of them have never been translated, leaving a blank in the international academic circle. The greater the total amount of scientific research results, the more obvious the gap is, and this problem is particularly serious in the field of biodiversity conservation. After all, local traditional research related to ecosystems is mostly carried out in local languages, and rarely translated and published.
A total of 9 species of amphibians, 217 species of birds and 64 species of mammals have not been reported in the English-language literature so far. “In the international academic community, scientific data published in languages other than English are rarely used,” said Tatsuya Amano, a biodiversity researcher at the University of Queensland.
Amano and his research team searched more than 400,000 papers published in 16 languages and found that , of which 1234 papers on biodiversity conservation were ignored by the academic community because they were not published in English, including Japanese studies on the migration of the endangered wool-legged fish owl (the world’s largest owl), and the use of guard dogs to relieve Patagonian Conflicting Spanish-language findings between subfarmers and Andean tiger cats.
In Amano’s view, although these documents do not use the current common language of the international academic community, people can still take certain measures to reduce the negative impact of language barriers. To this end, he also published guidelines in the journal Science aimed at alleviating this dilemma.
| Does science need a common language?
Some scholars believe that English is the lingua franca of science . According to Scott Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington, scientific research should adopt a universal language from the perspective of the big picture.
”Science is a global science, and it will only become more global in the future. Therefore, it is very important to use a common global language. This is not only for efficiency, but also for close collaboration.” Montgomery said, “English is to science, just like Mathematics, like science, is a basic skill that researchers must have.” He added that if learning English is really difficult, you should find someone to translate non-English literature into English.
Translating scientific literature into more widely spoken languages has historically been standard practice, according to Michael Goldin, professor of the history of science at Princeton University. “Science has been doing this throughout the ages,” Golding said. “The reason why Arabic is so rich between the 9th and 13th centuries is because so much of it was translated from Greek and Syriac.”
However, the number of documents that need to be translated is too large. In Golding’s view, one of the potential solutions is to further promote machine translation, and the second is to apply for financial support for document translation and editing from large international organizations. Of course, there is another possibility: the academic world will slowly transition to a new situation where English, Chinese, and Spanish are divided into three parts, just like the three pillars of English, French, and German once dominated the European academic world in the 19th century.
| Language discrimination exacerbates the North-South gap|
Nina Hunt, a researcher at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said that the issue of language discrimination is important because language differences can further exacerbate the North-South gap. “Just because the academic language of developed countries is not adopted, scientists and their research achievements in developing countries will be buried.” Hunter pointed out in a recent paper that researchers from Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa are being marginalized . In addition, many biologists from South American or African indigenous communities had to learn the colonial language. Many of them were unable to accumulate knowledge for their research because the overwhelming majority of the literature was in a language they could not understand.
Scientists can choose to work with English-speaking researchers or hire translators, but these practices still reinforce the dependence of developing countries on developed countries, Castaneda said. She said: “It is not realistic to translate all literature into English. Science should be multilingual, and scientists should be free to conduct research in their mother tongue.”