Farewell to Babel

Will science become monolingual?

Jack Woodall
Jun 30, 2006

Microsoft recently announced that it is developing a voice translator that will accept spoken English and convert it into spoken Chinese, and vice versa. The demo shows a spoken sentence written out in English, so the speaker can correct it if necessary. Then the program translates the sentence into Chinese, and back-translates it into English for further correction, if necessary. The final version is spoken in Chinese by a voice synthesizer.

The translator is still years from launch, but the idea is that by the time it's debugged and beta-tested, most international business will be conducted in those two languages. One wonders whether, by that time, most scientific literature will also be published in just those two languages, and what this will mean for the other written languages of the world.

I have recently returned from Norway, where I learned that there is a movement to preserve the use of scientific terms in Norwegian, and encourage the discussion and publication of scientific research in the national language. At the risk of opening a can of worms here, I should say that I have never understood the French mania for inventing French equivalents for perfectly good English technical terms, for example "ordinateur" for "computer" and "logiciel" for "program."

I'm willing to bet that the French information technology community blithely ignores the dictates of the French Academy of Letters and continues to conduct their informal technical discussions on computing using the English technical terms, just as (I am reliably informed) Norwegian scientists do in this and other areas of science and technology, where "computer" is often used in preference to the Norwegian "datamaskin." Similarly, voices have been raised in Brazil, lamenting (to little avail) the growing tendency to publish in English rather than Portuguese, to the detriment of the Portuguese scientific literature.

So just why are scientists outside the Anglophone countries turning increasingly to publishing their results in English rather than in their native language? The answers have to do with the prestige that comes from being published in a journal in English, linked to the wider readership and higher impact factor of many such journals. I suspect that the only reason some papers are published in the national language is to get double duty out of the same piece of research, and thus expand the writer's bibliography.

Returning to the subject of French, our aim at ProMED, the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (www.promedmail.org), was to post reports of outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases and toxins on the Internet in the six official languages of the United Nations, namely English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese. So far, we have achieved English, Spanish, and Russian, but we've also veered off into Portuguese, Japanese, and Korean, while missing French, Arabic, and Chinese.

Years ago, I wrote to the French Microbiological Society to ask if they thought there was a place for a French edition of ProMED. I was rather surprised at the response: All French microbiologists read English, so a French edition would be redundant. The correspondent missed the point that some contributors might feel more comfortable writing in French even though fluent in reading English. With regard to Portuguese, I was surprised to discover that all the subscribers to ProMED from the Gulbenkian Institute of Science in Lisbon are subscribed to ProMED in English and not to the Portuguese version.

Clearly, it's too late to try to turn back the tide. Ever larger numbers of young, upcoming scientists competing for ever scarcer research funds are just not going to publish their findings in a non-English language journal, if they can get it accepted by an internationally respected journal in English. This may even apply to the new generation of Chinese scientists.

Those who lament the shrinking of the national scientific literature would do a service by spending their energies on writing reviews in their national languages of developments in fields of their expertise, for the edification of masters and doctoral students entering their research field who are not yet proficient in English. In addition, as suggested by a Norwegian university administrator, they could support the publication of journals that publish the same paper in both English and their native language.

Jack Woodall is director of the Nucleus for the Investigation of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the Institute of Medical Biochemistry at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.