The English language’s domination of the globe may be skewing scientific research

Artifacts of the future past.
Artifacts of the future past.
Image: Reuters/Andrea Comas
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People speak over 6,500 languages worldwide. Some are known to only a very few while others are spoken by billions. One is dominating.

Increasingly, the world’s common language is English; speaking, reading and writing it are critical skills for workers in the global economy. For example, this month the automaker Volkswagen announced that its official language is now English, not German. Company bosses have been instructed to exchange in the language, whatever their native tongue. The reason for the change, VW said, was to attract employees.

The linguistic switch makes sense. Britain’s Bentley, France’s Bugatti, Italy’s Ducati and Lamborghini, Czech Republic’s Skoda, Sweden’s Scania Trucks, and Spain’s SEAT, are all under VW’s control. A large Volkswagen Group of America operation also makes cars in the US. The German company is a corporate giant with tentacles extending far beyond its original home in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Companies go where there’s opportunity and that can mean making adjustments. Last year, the car maker Honda announced that it was abandoning its native Japanese for English by 2020.

In science, English also is the lingua franca.

Language Gaps

Until English is truly the only language left on Earth, some researchers say language gaps are creating barriers to the transfer of knowledge that are costing everyone. A study by Cambridge University researchers, published in Plos Biology today, explains that scientific information is currently lost when it’s not transferred to the global community when published in a language other than English, and it’s not being transferred to locals for application when published in English.

“While we recognize the importance of a lingua franca, and the contribution of English to science, the scientific community should not assume that all important information is published in English,” said zoologist and the study’s lead author Tatsuya Amano in a statement. ”Language barriers continue to impede the global compilation and application of scientific knowledge.”

To determine the preponderance of English as a research language, Amano’s team surveyed Google Scholar—one of the largest public repositories of scientific documents—in 16 languages, seeking works relating to biodiversity conservation published in 2014.

Of over 75,000 works, about 35% were not in English. Of these, most were in Spanish (12.6%) or Portuguese (10.3%), followed by simplified Chinese (6%), then French (3%). They also found thousands of newly published conservation science documents in other languages, including several hundred each in Italian, German, Japanese, Korean and Swedish.

Random sampling showed that, on average, about half of non-English documents included titles or abstracts in English. In total, 13,000 documents on conservation science published in 2014 were unsearchable using English keywords, the study found.

Skewed Data

Such gaps lead to skewed data. For example, sweeps of current scientific knowledge, or systematic reviews, are biased towards evidence published in English, leading to over-representation of certain results and no representation of others, the researchers believe.

For example, the study noted that important papers reporting pigs infected by avian flu in China initially went unnoticed by the World Health Organization because they were published in Chinese-language journals. Meanwhile, information on areas where English is not the mother tongue is overlooked, which results in unshared knowledge relating to local species, habitats and ecosystems, harming international environmental conservation efforts.

Amano said, “I believe the scientific community needs to start seriously tackling this issue.” He suggest that speakers of a range of languages should be included in discussions when conducting systematic reviews or developing databases at a global scale. His team helped to create an international panel to review non-English language papers for Cambridge University’s conservation science repository.

Another study, published in Plos One on Dec. 15 by climate science researchers in the US, suggests that English alone won’t suffice for success. It found that environmental scientists who wrote narrative abstracts—stories, as opposed to employing a traditional expositive scientific style relying on logical propositions like “if X, then Y”—were more often cited by other scientists, thus influencing research, public opinion, and policy.

In other words, even native English speakers will have to improve their language skills.