Whether or not science needs a global language -- which, Scott L. Montgomery believes, it does -- like it or not, it already has one: English.
So Montgomery argues in his new book, Does Science Need a Global Language? English and the Future of Research  (University of Chicago Press). Montgomery, who is an affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, lays out a host of data in support of his claim that English has more and more become the language of scientific communication and publication -- and that it is likely to remain so for quite some time to come.
This being the case, Montgomery says, the best course of action is to improve and expand English instruction worldwide, so that no scientist will be constrained or marginalized by an inability to communicate her work.
Montgomery responded via e-mail to questions about the benefits, pitfalls and implications of having a single, universal scientific language.
Q: What have been the key factors in the rise of English as the global language of science?
A: The history here is both complex and fascinating, but I’ll just summarize some of the major points. Both the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, centered in England, were factors early on, though there was much translation and many scientists in Europe could read French, the true lingua franca at the time. By the late 1800s, English was one of several major languages in science, roughly equal with French but well below German. A shift began in the 1920s, as German scientists were blamed for some aspects of World War I (chemical weapons) and for support some of them showed of the conflict. World War II then reduced Europe to ashes, while U.S. science was undamaged, well-funded, and in high gear.
A massive rise in U.S. publications took place, starting in the late '40s. It took a full half-century before Europe could match America in this primary area. By the 1990s and early 2000s, new and forceful elements combined: the fall of communism; globalization; millions of science students migrating to Anglophone countries; and changes in the editorial policies of international journals to English only. At some point, too, the growing use of English became self-perpetuating and expanding. That is, scientists themselves saw what language the writing on the wall was in, and many began to adapt.
The rise of English, it should be emphasized, had nothing to do with the nature of English itself. Any major language — French, German, Russian, Spanish, Japanese — would have done as well. English benefited no small amount from the collapse of its competitors (French, German, Russian). But it also helps to recall what Bismarck said when asked what the pivotal fact of modern history was: "The fact that North America speaks English."
Q: What do you see as the strongest arguments against the use of a global scientific language -- and against that language being English?
A: In view of science’s past lingua franca... I feel these arguments count more as disadvantages, but they refer to very real situations and must be acknowledged. What do they include? First, bias. With a global language, many researchers simply stop reading work in other tongues. There is the assumption, often unexamined, that everything of true merit appears only in the global tongue.
Second, marginalization. Those without skill in this language, however excellent their research may be, are forced to inhabit a borderland, unable to participate at the core of their field and its highest levels. In this way, as with the bias problem, a global tongue can be impoverishing. Third, inequity. By their very nature, lingua franca establish a stratification among researchers, with fluent speakers — not only natives of Anglophone countries, but all who have strong skills in the language — at the top and non-speakers at the base. Fourth, effects on other languages. Speakers of other tongues must choose to try and keep their native language updated, in terms of vocabulary for example, or to stop using it for the most advanced research.
As far as strong arguments against English being used as the global language for science, to my mind there are none. They are all weak, since every expression of this point of view that I’ve seen is guilty of attributing to English a host of evils that actually have to do with the U.S.
Q: You argue, ultimately, that science does need a global language. Why is this the case?
A: A global language is needed for the future growth and advancement of science worldwide. It provides a single medium by which data, ideas, findings, news, and opportunities can be shared with the entire global research community, giving scientists in the developing world access (within the limits of their internet capacity, of course) to same the information researchers have in rich countries. This means creating the conditions for expanding frontier scientific work well beyond a few dozen wealthy nations, where it has been largely confined for the modern era.
A global tongue, that is, does much more than make scientific communication faster and more efficient. It opens up the potential for participation in the scientific enterprise to the greater span of humanity. It cannot, of course, make such participation happen, especially where resources for research are lacking. A global language is itself a resource, an extremely powerful one, for the global sharing of research knowledge, something that will greatly aid the world’s efforts to solve a number of its major challenges involving disease, food, water, energy, and climate change.
Q: What does it mean to say that "Anglo-American speech has retreated as a final linguistic model"? What are the implications of this?
A: There are two important answers to this question. First, there is the reality today of world Englishes, meaning local and regional varieties (not dialects) of the language that reflect its nativization to different settings. These different Englishes break from Anglo-American speech in various ways, e.g., when Jackie Chan says, “My role model for the last years has been Superman… I wish I could have his strength to not having to stand by helplessly in the light of disaster,” we know we are hearing a different English, though one we can fully understand. Second, in science, there are many journals in non-Anglophone countries that publish papers in non-Anglo-American English. Even in the U.S. and Britain, some journals now do this, allowing for a degree of rhetorical flexibility when authors are non-native speakers. The papers are fully comprehensible, but their grammar and syntax are not what English teachers in New York and London would call “correct.”
How far might this kind of flexibility go in the future? No one can say. I tend to think it will not go very far, since comprehensibility for the greatest number is the goal of any international journal. One long-term implication, however, is that regional standards will develop for different world scientific Englishes.This may already be happening to a certain degree. Diversity is part of the reality.
Q: Why do you say that "the real casualty from the global spread of English may well be the native speaker himself"?
A: Because the rest of the scientific world will be multilingual and will have access to scientific material in at least two — but often three or more — languages. The native speaker, feeling encouraged to resist the learning of other tongues (everyone wants to learn his language, after all), will be without this capability. Put differently, the rest of the world will have access to everything s/he does, but s/he will have access to little or nothing beyond the edges of his own tongue. This might upset some, like Larry Summers, who recently spoke against the need for native English speakers to learn foreign languages. Perhaps it should.
Q: You seem optimistic that "the problems of marginalization represent a temporary stage in the historical fulfillment of a global language in science." What indicates to you that this is likely?
A: Yes, you’re right. I am optimistic about this. But with a large caveat. It will take decades before ... young people around the world — people who wish to pursue science — will have good enough instruction in the language. When this happens, marginalization will be greatly reduced, though it will perhaps never be erased entirely. These conclusions are based on past international lingua franca of science, such as Greek, Latin, and Arabic, and the stages they have gone through. This is something I’ve researched to a significant degree and written about before, in my previous book, Science in Translation. Such languages have never been very kind to their foreign speakers; the accommodation has always gone in one direction. But there is no evidence that learning such a language of power has been an overwhelming burden. Throughout history, a majority of the world’s people have been multilingual.
Q: What do you see as the major issues of language bias in scientific publishing? How might they be remedied?
A: This is a very important question. Certainly there is an overriding bias toward English, though this bias has a decided practical aspect given the global importance of material in this language. Still, in nations as different as Spain and China, there has been a move by government to impose policies that would transform national journals into international ones, specifically by turning them into English-only periodicals. The motives are clear: to enhance the stature of each nation’s scientific image, but also to improve the visibility of domestic researchers and universities, thus to elevate opportunities for future students. It is an attempt, that is, to both obey and take advantage of the global role of English in science. Calling it “bias” therefore can give the wrong impression.
A more serious detriment comes from the bias against allowing work published in national languages, say in a local journal, to be translated into English and republished in an international periodical for a global audience. Most journal editors are less than enthusiastic about this, either due to copyright laws or to a desire to publish only “original” work. Yet, it might be pointed out that scientific journals began by including exactly this kind of material and continued to do so from the late 17th century well into the 1800s. It always served a valuable function and was appreciated by readers. If the motive and (of course) the funds could be found to do it again, considerable service would be rendered to the scientific profession.
Q: You argue that English should be "fully integrated into the science curriculum." What would that entail?
A: It would entail treating English as a core subject of scientific training for non-native speakers. It would also mean unburdening English of any necessary association with a specific country or set of countries, so it could be handled as a normal and necessary skill, like mathematics. This is already done in a number of countries, like the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, and Switzerland. All of these have succeeded in teaching their scientists to use English and to publish at the international level. What their success shows, however, is that a significant amount of investment has to be made here — good teacher training, student motivation, adequate classroom facilities, good instructional content, are needed. There is no way all of this can be done overnight, especially in developing nations, where resources are lacking. It took Finland over two-and-a-half decades to put everything in place. But if scientific work is to become truly global, something like this has to happen. Otherwise, in many countries, scientists will only ever emerge from the rich elite — something we all hope the world has largely left behind.