Science speaks many languages—let’s show that

Title: Science Communication in Multiple Languages Is Critical to Its Effectiveness

Author(s) and Year: Melissa C. Márquez and Ana Maria Porras (2020)

Journal: Frontiers in Communication (open access)

TL;DR: English’s dominance as the language of science makes it harder for people from non-English speaking cultures to engage with science. Making science more multilingual, both in the way research is spread and the way we view science culturally, can help to minimize those gaps. Why I chose this paper: Growing up, I always found it strange that all the research I ever heard about seemed to be happening in America. Realizing now that there are complicated cultural dynamics that informed that view, I wanted to learn about the thought that’s been put into changing it.

English as the International Language of Science

In 1967, English was deemed the “international language of science,” allowing for more fluid transmission of knowledge across the world. It’s likely not a surprise then that 80% of the scientific journals indexed in SCOPUS, the world’s largest citation database, are published in English.

Yet, only 7% of the world’s population speaks English as a native language. So while selecting an international language for science offered advantages, it also came with significant drawbacks for non-English cultures.

In this opinion article, Márquez & Porras used the number of Google search results for the word “science” in 11 different languages to investigate the gap between English and other languages. Even when they corrected for the number of native speakers in each population, ‘science’ dwarfed the other words.

A bar graph showing Google search results data for 'science' translated in 11 different languages. In both the raw data graph and the corrected data, 'science' produces overwhelmingly more search results.
Top graph: absolute number of Google search results for each translation of 'science'. Bottom graph: number of Google search results per translation of science, corrected for the number of native speakers of each language.

Worldwide, only 1.5 billion people speak English. That leaves over six billion people who cannot. Márquez & Porras note that many communities lack the resources and tools required to learn a new language, which means that the language barriers to science are economic in nature as well. Research has found that science communicated in an audience’s native language elicits greater participation, motivation, and optimism around the subject—in other words, strong reasons to increase science communication efforts in languages other than English.

Scientists who speak English as a foreign language (EFL) also face obstacles. In submitted manuscripts, EFL speakers often face more criticism on the quality of their English than on the science itself. Many EFL scientists choose to write in English to get their work published in larger English journals, which then limits publications in their native language. This, just by virtue of the systems we have in place, reinforces the dominance of English as the international language of science and excludes non-English-speaking populations.

The Recommendations

The repercussions of English’s dominance ripple through scientific literature, mass media, and the way we view science worldwide. Márquez & Porras offer three major recommendations to increase the multilingualism of science:

  • Expand access to scientific knowledge in traditional publishing and mass media

  • Train STEM professionals and communicators

  • and encourage grassroots efforts.

These recommendations emerge from the authors’ experiences spending their careers away from their birthplaces and families, the experiences of their colleagues, and evidence-based best practices.

Expand access to scientific knowledge in traditional publishing and mass media

The authors first recommend that scientific journals offer translations of abstracts and articles in various languages. These translations would enable more communities and individuals to access the information, including those who might benefit most from it.

The authors also make a number of recommendations to combat the bias towards English and English-speaking cultures in science content. They ask science journalists to devote more space to highlighting scientists working in non-English settings and increasing local science coverage in societies where English is not the native language. These efforts would improve representation of various cultures and communities in science, as well as help scientists who aren’t fluent in English gain traction without having to publish in English.

The authors further recommend the creation of culturally relevant content by using metaphors, storytelling approaches, and experiences that resonate with the relevant cultural audiences.

Train STEM professionals and communicators

Márquez & Porras next recommend diversifying the communication strategies taught to science communicators at all career levels. Organizations such as the Biota Project and the “Communicating Ciencia” workshop are already working to implement inclusive training strategies, and the authors recommend that this work expand and continue. Additionally, they recommend encouraging STEM students to pursue communication opportunities in their own native languages to help democratize the spread of scientific information.

Encourage grassroots efforts

Social media represents a robust, low-cost opportunity for researchers to interact not only with the audiences of scientific journals, but also with other scientists and the public at large. The authors recommend using these platforms together with efforts to support languages other than English, whether through science YouTube channels like Ciencia Café Pa Sumercé or through Instagram and Twitter pages.

Lastly, the authors recommend creating spaces for science communicators who speak different languages to interact with each other. Allowing space for collaboration across these language barriers, whether through unified hashtags or in-person events, would help increase the visibility of non-English languages and allow non-English researchers to share science with the greater public in their native languages.

Marquez and Porras grew up speaking Spanish but spent their professional careers in English-speaking settings and reflect this experience in their recommendations. Much of the world’s science is communicated in English, but that fact obscures the rich cultural diversity that has informed science for generations and will continue to do so. Rather than suppress that diversity, we need to find ways to highlight and promote it - for the sake of the communities excluded by the ‘international language of science’ and for those that are not.

Edited by Stephanie Deppe and Tony Van Witsen

Figures used under CC BY 4.0

Cover image credit by