The Globalization of Science and Linguistic Diversity

In openDemocracy, Ehsan Masood looks at the spread of English language scientific terms and what it may mean for linguistic and cultural diversity.

The issue of language depletion or (at the extreme) language loss is far from abstract. Unesco’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, for example, tells us that half of the world’s approximately 7,000 spoken languages are endangered to varying degrees. 5,000 of the total number of languages are spoken by groups comprising fewer than 100,000 people; 1,500 have fewer than 1,000 (mostly elderly) speakers.

Should that be a problem for science? There are, after all, many who argue that science is a universal way of understanding the world – and that the answers to questions such as “what is a gene?”, “why is our climate changing?”, and “is the universe expanding?” will not be any different if the person trying to answer the question speaks Swahili rather than English or French as a first language.

It may be true that the search for answers to asking some of life’s big questions can in principle be conducted through the medium of any language. But there are many ways in which the existence of multiple languages (each one intrinsically rich and world-encompassing on its own terms) makes this search – and an exploration of its practical, social and scientific subsets – more enlightening.