I cannot help but admire foreign language-speaking colleagues who are able to write, lecture, study and teach in English. Since the increasing economic and political power of the United States, the results of two world wars and the declining international presence of a postcolonial Europe, English became the major language of science and medicine.
Earlier in the history of Western civilization, Greek was the language of science and literature, in time overtaken by Latin, the knowledge of which was necessary for centuries. It was not until the mid-1800s that French, German, and Russian replaced Latin as common languages for communicating scientific facts and ideas. Scientists were by obligation polyglots, but today, it seems that English predominates,
Studies show that almost 9 out of 10 journals included in Medline are in English. While this is probably due, in part, to the higher impact factor provided to English language journals, it also reflects a bias that scientific materials are more credible and likely to be read if they are published in English. This places authors whose native language is not that of Shakespeare at a disadvantage and creates a barrier for non-English speaking scientists yearning to access scientific literature.
One solution is to encourage everyone to learn English well enough to write, publish, lecture and teach. Some argue that computer-based translation programs will soon provide us with instantaneously accurate translations into virtually every language. Others say that such a bias toward English is unfair, considering that Mandarin Chinese is spoken as a native language by approximately 873 million people, Hindi by 370 million, Spanish by 350 million, and English by 340 million, followed by Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, and Russian.
The point is, if you grow up speaking English as your native language, you can afford to be monoglot, otherwise, a serious mastery of English as a second or third language is necessary to both access and contribute actively to our scientific and medical communities from an international perspective. Personally, I do not think this speaks well for future generations. Latin, after all, is no longer the language of science or medicine, and other languages have had a similar fate. Meanwhile, though, we should congratulate all those who pursue the study of English in order to communicate effectively with a global community and to share knowledge despite the obvious discomfort of speaking and writing in a language other than one’s mother tongue. The courage, perseverance, and generosity of spirit exhibited by such polyglots warrant our sincere appreciation and our utmost respect.
Michael Gordon, How did science come to speak only English. Aeon, February 2015.
Christopher Baethge. The languages of medicine. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2008;105:37-40.
Please subscribe to Colt’s Corner to automatically receive email notification of future posts. Sign up with your name and email on the NEWSLETTER button on the Bronchology International home page at www.bronchoscopy.org.