1.3. Scientific communication without borders

Language is the main vehicle of communication. To gain access to information means to understand the language that information is provided in. Science has always been universal and involved sharing knowledge across languages and administrative borders. From early days, as users and producers of knowledge, scientists have always found ways to share information in a multilingual environment. They knew several foreign languages, acquired by learning, travelling or studying abroad. Knowledge passed from one language to another through books, manuscripts, correspondence and, later on, through scientific journals, international co-operation and new communication technologies. Scientific works were made available by translation into the so-called 'international languages' for a global audience. In this flux of universal communication there have always been ideas, facts and discoveries either ignored at the time they were produced or revealed at a much later date. Language played its role in that process, together with geographic isolation and lack of means of dissemination.

Depending on region and the balance of power, periods in history were dominated by a lingua franca used in diplomacy, religion or culture: Latin, Greek, Slavonic, Chinese, Arabic or French were important vehicles of communication for centuries, over large geographical areas. There were even attempts to create an artificial universal language, Esperanto being the most recent.

At the end of the 20th century, English became the modern lingua franca. American computers and the new communication technologies consolidated this privileged position of English. I do not propose here to explain why English became the modern Esperanto. There is a rich literature on the topic. Some suggest that English has certain qualities to make it more easily accepted as an international medium of communication: it has less confusing grammar than other languages; its vocabulary borrowed many words from other languages, including Latin and French, and sound familiar to other nations; and others. But ease of learning is a false argument:

'A language does not become a global language because of its intrinsic structural properties, or because of the size of its vocabulary, or because it has been of a great literature in the past, or because it was once associated with a great culture or religion A language becomes an international language for one chief reason: the political power of its people - especially their military power. The explanation is the same throughout history.' (Crystal 1997, 7)

Political and economic power is the main support to promote a language on an international scale and English is the language that dominates international communication today. There are scientific disciplines like mathematics, physics or computer science in which two-thirds of the world scientists write in English. In humanities, national languages are still favoured but international co-operation, journals and conferences have become almost entirely English-speaking. Shall we speak a single language in the near future?


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