Interview

Should english be the only language of science?

The playing field is not level, say the advocates of plurilingualism.

In a recent speech, European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, asserted that “English is losing importance in Europe” – whereupon he switched to French. This view is mirrored by a working group formed from the science councils of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, whose publication, Wissenschaftssprache: Ein Plädoyer für Mehrsprachigkeit in der Wissenschaft, pleads for plurilingualism in science. Mario Saraceni, Senior Lecturer in English and Linguistics at the University of Portsmouth, addresses the implications.

Technologist: Is plurilingualism damaging to science in Europe?

Mario Saraceni: The dominance of English in the scientific community goes back to the Industrial Revolution, when English was the language that gave access to technological advances. That legacy never went away, so most academic scholarship is published in English. A common language helps communication within the scientific community. It helps the circulation of ideas. But monolingualism produces a one-sided version of science, knowledge, and the world in general.

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T. What’s the impact for non-native speakers?

MS. Without English, your chances of being published or obtaining research funding are severely limited. There’s also the deep-rooted belief that native speakers of English are inherently better at it. This often creates discrimination against those who are regarded as non-native speakers. These notions are sometimes based on traits – such as nationality, even ethnicity – that have nothing to do with actual proficiency. While I don’t wish to suggest that there’s widespread or deliberate discrimination, the playing field is far from level.

T. Many scientists in Europe argue for plurilingualism in science. Do you?

MS. While I agree with the principle, I think that what is even more important is that there’s a genuinely broadened perspective on the production and diffusion of science in general. We need to take into serious consideration other traditions and perspectives. Plurilingualism facilitates that, but it is crucial that it’s not just a matter of using more languages. There wouldn’t be much point if the frame of reference was still the same.

Mario Saraceni (Senior Lecturer in English and Linguistics at the University of Portsmouth)