Is English Important for Scientific Research and Development?, By Mohammed Dahiru Aminu
It is important to note that the dominance of the English language in scientific communication should not imply that people of the world must not develop their ideas in their own languages, if they need to. But to have access to the vast body of scientific knowledge, or to contribute to it, the language of communication, which is English, is very crucial.
Often, there is this back-and-forth argument on whether the English language is even needed for our scientific development as a nation, because being Nigerians, we are not a native English-speaking country by any real definition of the terms. It is a fact that our sense is found in our thoughts, not in our language; even though the language is very critical in communicating our sense. But to be successful in the business of creating knowledge, and especially in science, we must learn to communicate concisely to present our sense.
As a postgraduate student in the United Kingdom, my doctoral progress review committee once told me that 50 per cent of the problems of science and scientists rests on communication. A lot of scientists around the world have brilliant ideas that can change the world in many ways, but for that change to come about, they must communicate effectively in the language acceptable to science. Scientists could have their papers rejected for publication in journals because they did not communicate their brilliant ideas effectively; while some could have their papers accepted even though they may have presented some not-too-impressive ideas, albeit in admirable language.
To have our work published in the top journals of the world, our language is as important as our ideas. How we get to make this effective communication is entirely left to us. Reviewers, who check the sense in a manuscript aimed for publication, do make comments on the command of language. Although we may often mistake the deployment of high calibre vocabularies (read: ‘big words’) in our writings as an indication of a good command of the English language. However, a good command of language is only evident in the clarity of words, and for scientific communication, a good language command is the ability to tell a good story in plain language, while being clear, simple, logical and concise.
It is therefore not a surprise that journal editors and reviewers also request authors to have their manuscripts proofread (sometimes by a native English speaker) as a condition for publication. Amongst my doctoral research objectives included conducting a critical and extensive literature review to appraise the current developments and future outlook on carbon dioxide storage. Before we published the review in a high impact factor journal, I had lost count of the number of times my manuscript was proofread by a native English speaker from Canada, to raise the chances of publishing it. Another manuscript from my doctoral work, which was submitted for publication in a top journal in the energy discipline was returned with a positive feedback from reviewers. Asides commending the originality of work, both reviewers also commended the command of language.
It is for this reason that academic writing is a skill on its own that needs to be learnt as part of the journey to get accepted into the fold in academia. All new research students must develop the skills necessary for scientific research, which include writing skills. Thus, professors are glad to admit students who do not take too long to acquire these skills. For scientific writing, some postgraduate students often master it faster than others, and the earlier the skill is mastered, the faster and better the student can explore the world of science.
I am not sure that anyone can rise to global acclaim in the business of knowledge creation without being mindful of their communication, in effective terms. Those who believe that a good command of English language plays no significant role in knowledge production/portrayal of intelligence are entitled to their own opinions but are not on the side of fact. In the past, during the 15th through the 17th centuries, as the historian, Michael Gorin explained, scientists communicated their works in either their native languages or Latin. The native language was used to discuss science in their conversations with scientists within their own countries, while Latin was used to correspond with the scientific community outside the home country. By the early 19th century however, only English, French and German were used for scientific communication. Today, the situation has changed greatly in the scientific community around the globe. English has become the language of choice, such that academic work published in English outnumber those published in any other language. Scopus, which is the world’s largest abstract and citation database for peer reviewed literature, requires that journal papers written in a language other than English, must, at the minimum, include abstracts written in English.
Thus, as it stands presently, English is the language of science. Making an example from the Japanese and/or the Chinese people as having advanced in science and technology without necessarily being in command of the English language (as an implication, that they do not need the language to be intelligent) is quite a problematic argument. Scientists from Japan and China still derive their ideas from peers around the world who publish such ideas in the English language. The Japanese and the Chinese scientists themselves must learn to write down their ideas in good English before they are accepted in the world of science.
It is important to note that the dominance of the English language in scientific communication should not imply that people of the world must not develop their ideas in their own languages, if they need to. But to have access to the vast body of scientific knowledge, or to contribute to it, the language of communication, which is English, is very crucial. All the scientific ideas that changed the world would not have done so if those who conceived them were not able to communicate effectively, in the language of science. It is important to state, however, that ideas such as those contained in Newton’s Principia paper, for example, was written in Latin. Some of Einstein’s papers were written in German; and Marie Curie’s papers written in French. But, in the world of today, English is the only language of science; and mastering it is critical for scientific advancement.
Mohammed Dahiru Aminu, Ph.D, (firstname.lastname@example.org/@mdaminu), wrote from Yola, Nigeria.