Does the rise of English mean that knowledge is being lost?

Spanish dictionary with 'knowledge' to share. Photograph: Horia Varlan

If you’ve ever told anyone you’re studying a new language, the chances are you’ve had at least one person reply with, “What’s the point? Everyone already speaks English.” It does seem that English is becoming more and more dominant, especially in the world of academia. A recent article suggested that we may well be losing out on knowledge due to the emphasis placed on the English language within academia.

It’s almost impossible to find a completely accurate total, but it’s thought that there are roughly 840 million English speakers worldwide. At first glance that might seem like a lot, but when you take into account the global population is over 7 billion, 840 million starts to look a lot smaller. With that in mind, it’s almost obvious that the number of academic publications that are written in English is widely disproportionate. In 2000, 96% of journals recognised by Journal Citation Reports were written in English.

Part of how universities are ranked is based on getting published in these journals. A higher ranking means a university will get more funding, and more funding will attract the best scholars and researchers. It’s not difficult to see why universities might be inclined to encourage people to write and publish in English. Out of all the articles published in the Netherlands, the ratio of those written in the English language to Dutch language is around 40:1. And so the cycle of English dominance reinforces itself.

But there’s a serious argument to be made, that by just sticking with English as the language of academic research, we are losing unique perspectives that could come from using so many different languages. In Brazil, the majority of its 6,000 scientific journals are published in Portuguese, but only a few of these journals are actually recognised by the International Index of Journals. As a result, the research struggles to have an impact outside of Brazil.

Some linguists go as far as saying that the way we understand things, how we perceive the world, and even how we think depends on which language we speak. Maybe speakers of different languages could have different ways of approaching research questions, or might be able to draw conclusions that English speakers wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Or maybe some languages encode information in such a way that the English language lacks.

There was the case of a team of Western biologists who went to Australia to try to classify the different species of plants and animals. After substantial work using complicated computer vision technology, they discovered that in order to identify different species of wallaby, they couldn’t rely on appearance and they instead had to look at how the wallabies moved. Had they taken the time to try to talk with the local people, they might have saved themselves quite a bit of time. Their local language already contained separate verbs for the different ways each type of wallaby hopped about.

Looking at the rate at which the number of English speakers has been growing, it could seem inevitable that sooner or later English will take over completely. But if you look back just a few years, the picture is less clear. For the early part of the 20th century, it was German that was thought of as the main language of science. Go back a bit further and it would have looked as though French was about to take over the world.

So if you ask me it isn’t time to rip up your French text books or scrap your Spanish vocab work just yet. We shouldn’t resign ourselves to letting English takeover. If we limit ourselves to research written in English we will be losing a whole lot of potential knowledge, and it really does become clear that we are just another cog in the ever-changing cycle of research.