Jan 022017

In my previous life, I was a mathematical logician specializing in theoretical computer science. I got my Ph.D. in 1986, so I saw the aftermath of the Soviet-Western thaw in science, when scientific articles in Russian were translated into English. One consequence was that a number of major discoveries were made independently in the USSR and in the West; the former published in Russian and the latter in English (or occasionally French – by that time, the German mathematicians were giving up and publishing routinely in English). Thus the large number of articles whose citations of previous work leads to two primary threads, one in English and one in translations from Russian.

With the growing research activity in East Asia and Latin America (and perhaps with activity to come in the Middle East), we can expect a recurrence of this phenomenon: Brazilians are unlikely to learn Chinese, who in turn are unlikely to learn Portuguese, and of course Americans know only their own language (assuming that we Americans actually know English – a controversial assumption).

In East Asia, India Today reports that less than two thirds of all scientific reports are published in English. Considering all the MOF and other crystallographic activity in China and elsewhere in Asia, this probably affects us as well.

No doubt the problem is complicated by the fact that unlike Chinese and Portuguese, English is not so much a language as a Frankenstein monster of ancient Danish and German in conflict with French, with Arabic cream and a Latin cherry on top. (And that doesn’t even count the Americanisms.) This can lead to communication problems. Last October, BBC reported that Native English speakers are the world’s worst communicators. “Non-native speakers generally use more limited vocabulary and simpler expressions, without flowery language or slang. Because of that, they understand one another at face value,” reported BBC, while native speakers are more prone to confusing embellishments.

For those readers who are not familiar with the language wars, the alleged cure is William Strunk and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style (this link is to Wikipedia’s page; Strunk’s original notes are posted on Gutenberg and someone has posted the joint version on Google Documents; but it is a cheap paperback you can get anywhere). Journals that prefer English submissions may want to recommend using it.

Dealing with English as a lingua franca – at least for the sciences – is different from protecting, preserving, and strengthening languages around the world. Languages reflect the societies that created them, and when UNESCO reports that many languages are dying out, that means that major parts of our heritage are disappearing. And fluency in foreign languages provides some familiarity with different modes of thought. That is different from a lingua franca, which provides a common basis for communication and reduces the chance of important discoveries being ignored.

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