By Andreea Calude 24/01/2020

I’ve been listening to a wonderful podcast this morning which left me thinking. The podcast was a 30-min well-spent break, in the company of Daniel Midgley and Michael Gordin. 

You might know Daniel Midgley from the Talk the Talk linguistics podcast. Michael Gordin is the author of “Scientific Babel”, which concerns the history of how English came to rise as a scientific lingua franca***, replacing other decently-performing and otherwise-delightful lingua francas, like Latin, Arabic, French and German. Apparently some 98% of science is written in English!

How did English rise to be the language of science?

One major trigger for English becoming a scientific lingua franca (spoiler alert!) was the fact that shortly after the First World War, the political situation stirred up a world-wide ban on the German language, with an especially fierce ban of German in the US (who by then was becoming a key scientific player).

Turns out that this ban, implemented in various scary ways (from legislation to quiet snobbery), did not just “kill” German. Americans are not inherently “bad” at languages as the stereotype goes – in fact they used to be rather good at them – but in killing their learning of German, they also killed their other foreign-languages full stop.

Thinking about the New Zealand context, an interesting question is whether the converse works too. Imagine that we encourage and support te reo Māori and increase its acquisition rates in schools. Would the general attitude towards foreign languages in general shift too? After all, we know that learning a third language is made easier once you have acquired a second language, see this paper as an example, but there will be others. As Peter O’Connor writes “arts-rich” schools results in children who do better, and “the arts remind us of our common humanity” (what can be more human than language?).

So what’s so bad about that?

Another interesting point made in the interview relates to the “so what?” bit. Obviously, there are some advantages to having all science literature in one language – you only need to do one literature research. All conferences and meetings are done by default in the one language and the expectation is widely fulfilled so everyone knows what language communication will take place in. And if you are lucky enough to be raised speaking English than “Bob’s your uncle”. Therein lies part of the problem.

So what is the problem? First of all, it’s not equitable. Some people will be excluded from participating in the global scientific conversation because they do not have access to English (an expensive resource for some!). Yes, sure, the world is not fair, but there’s more to worry about than just fairness. What if the world is missing out on a brilliant scientific breakthrough because the person who would be making it is excluded from participating to the scientific debate due to lacking linguistic skills (or resources to learn to acquire these)?

Science is done through metaphors

It is also worth considering that as Gordin points out, much scientific thought is abstract and complex and the language used to construct it draws heavily on metaphors, e.g. gravity pulls the levers down – gravity is not animate so it cannot pull anything.

The use of metaphors in language is an extremely rich area of linguistics research, kick-started (by lots of things, as usual, but most famously) by the much-loved “Metaphors we live by” book written by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. As regards science specifically, see Lakoff and Núñez’s book on metaphors in mathematics (2000). And yet, metaphors are especially hard for non-native speakers to acquire. We prefer to use metaphors in our native tongue as they are more easily recalled and processed.

And this got me thinking too. Given that metaphors influence how we think, using English-only metaphors may also channel scientific research down a single path, thereby obstructing creative ideas. We could also be missing out on the next breakthrough by silencing these different voices. Consider as an example, the Māori’s awareness of the devastation brought about by the disappearance of the moa as the bird became extinct. Te reo has a rich database of whakataukī (traditional sayings or proverbs) which encode this cultural knowledge. But these are not limited to the moa. By studying Māori whakataukī, a team of researchers have managed to look into the past, well-beyond written records, and glean a view of what New Zealand flora and fauna might have been like, based on how Māori mātauranga (traditional knowledge) depicts the environment of the past, prior to various waves of extinction.


*** And if you are wondering about the fancy Latin term lingua franca, it translates to “the language of the Franks (= Western Europeans)” (errrm not the language of the honest, like I first guessed; lucky I have a husband who asks all the hard questions) and it means the language used by people who may otherwise not necessarily share a language; the language of all communication (metaphorically, “a bridging language”). You see, no need to learn a whole language to think outside your own!


Listen to the full interview on “because Language” blog with Daniel Midgley (from the wonderful linguistics podcast Talk the Talk).

Michael Gordin (2015). Scientific Babel: How Science Was Done Before and After Global English. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (2008). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez (2000). Where Mathematics Comes from. New York: Basic Books.

Wehi, P. M., Cox, M. P., Roa, T., & Whaanga, H. (2018). Human perceptions of megafaunal extinction events revealed by linguistic analysis of indigenous oral traditions. Human ecology, 46(4), 461-470.