In order to change the world, we have to start by accepting it where we find it. When it comes to content on the Internet, the vast majority of it is written in English. Even non-English speaking countries like Germany, France and Spain produce much of their scientific literature in English. Eighty percent of articles, for instance, collected by the SCOPUS database of peer-reviewed articles, were written in English according to a 2012 study by Research Trends.
These objective facts point to the need to learn English to access the latest research, provocative thinking, and new insights. Research, provocative thinking, and insights aren’t exclusively written in English, but it is difficult to find them in many native languages, so the English articles, while they may bias perspectives, are the most accessible and easily found.
This leads to three important challenges that learning English can overcome. The challenges that can only be met through continuous learning and collaboration.
First, if you want to understand the state of an industry, a scientific or other academic domain, knowledge of English will provide access to the majority of the work available.
Second, if you want to discuss this work, even to add your insights, knowing English is a near imperative. If you plan to publish in another language, the work you cite will likely include English-language publications. It is nearly impossible to contribute to scientific and technical literature without knowing English.
The final challenge is about the transformation of the perceived English-language bias to include more languages. Part of this, of course, is due to the economic dominance of the United States, and before that, of England.
As other nations assert themselves, their scientists, researchers, writers, and thinkers, need to assert themselves too, because each language offers unique subtleties that are difficult to capture in other languages. In some ways, especially outside of science and math, English has made some of the work less precise since the language cannot capture the true meaning of a point or insight.
For that to change, people need first to be recognized for what they know and gain the respect of their peers. And that will likely, in part, be associated with English scholarship. Then, perhaps, those scholars can break the cycle, encouraging, even demanding publication in the best language for the content. It may be, however, that for the next several decades, even the work written in your native language will end up being discussed more in English. But at least a few young researchers will write more in Swahili or German or Vietnamese. And that is a start.
Karine Allouche Salanon
Senior Vice President, General Manager
Pearson English Business Solutions