11/24/2013 07:00 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2014

The Global Imperialism of English: Impacts on Science

Let's be honest, life is easier as a native English speaker. This is certainly true in science, and it only really dawns on you when you work with non-native English users. Then, you get a glimpse into the extra obstacles they have to overcome, and you are suddenly very, very grateful that you are not expected to do the same in a foreign language. Learning to read and write as a scientist is hard enough in your own language, how about doing it in another language as well?

But, there are downsides to the world dominance of English that affect knowledge, science, policy and ultimately human thinking. This imposition of English upon the rest of the world, as well as being imperialism on a global scale, is also a form of cultural, and maybe even cognitive hegemony...

Here are the downsides I can see:

1) English-language dominance exacerbates and creates inequalities between people, institutions and organisations. Between those who can afford to either employ expensive Anglophones, translators or send their employees to be trained abroad, versus those who cannot. In science, this leads to publication bias favoring work emerging from these more privileged & wealthy institutions.

2) Scientists and academics have to play the international journal publication game to land a permanent job, work their way up the pay-scales, and prove their scientific worth to funders and institutions. As a consequence, the best research often does not get published in the local language. This means it is less likely to filter into national policy documents, and influence national or local policies. Scientist from non-Anglophone countries whose work is known in international circles, may battle to have their research known, appreciated and used at home.

3) Mutual incomprehension: increasingly higher education institutions in non-Anglophone countries offer undergraduate and postgraduate courses in English. This is largely driven by the global economy of higher education. Universities can make a lot of cash by attracting foreign students who don't master the local language. This means that teachers and professors are having to construct courses and deliver them in a language that is not their own, and non-native English speaking students are being taught by other non-native English speakers... What are the implications of this for teaching quality? How is understanding and excellence achieved if everyone is linguistically disabled?

4) Language and culture are intricately linked. The world dominance of English may have consequences on the cultural facets of language seeping into wider society and practices. As suggested by Nicholas Domjancic, the dominance of English means that the cultural values of non-native English speakers become disproportionately displaced in favor of native English speakers.

5) Above all, my worry is about the possible cognitive hegemony that imposing English upon the world may bring. Language is acquired in the first years of life when brain architecture is laid down. While we remain capable of learning languages more or less across life, our maternal tongue affects how we think. Bilingual individuals report expressing different parts of their personality and culture depending on the language they are using. As a cognitive process, language affects how we string thoughts together. Consequently it affects knowledge production and the process of scientific construction.

Is it really desirable then, that English be the only language of science and academia? Is that not imposing a huge limitation on the incredible abilities of humans? Is it not a step backwards?

Communication, of course, does not equate to language. Because you use English to communicate with the world, does not mean that your internal language and thought processes are dictated by the English language or the cultural facets it is linked to. But by providing university courses in English across the world, by forcing scientists to learn and write predominately in English we surely limit our access to knowledge via one language. What are the consequences of this on knowledge once acquired? How does it affect our capacity to manipulate information, transform it into knowledge and develop new ideas?

On a personal level I do sometimes cringe at the global mash-up of my language. That gratitude we Anglophones feel towards non-native English users leads to us accepting that our language will be contorted, bent and warped quite significantly by those forced into using it. Another downside to the global dominance of English for those among us who love the language, is that it has become viewed by many as nothing more than a utilitarian tool for rather basic communication. It is the tool for getting meaning across to others on a large scale, the Babel-fish of global communication. But then, we don't have to bother with learning another language ourselves... so we're ok with it.

It is easy to be complacent about English language dominance, especially for native English speakers. But we could be seriously limiting ourselves by not diversifying the current linguistic hegemony.

This post originally appeared on Michelle's personal blog Notes from the research frontier.