Has English always been the lingua franca of the scientific community? What other languages have had a similar function in the past? How did English achieve this supremacy? And, above all, is it really essential the existence of a unique language for the scientific community? Or there could be negative side effects?

Well, there is really a lot to unpack about this topic… so let’s go to dig into it!

Let’s start with the basic. A possible definition of academic lingua franca is:

A language used by scholars with different linguistic backgrounds that is neither native nor official for at least some of them, and is not the official language of the institution where they work. Given the degree of complexity required, an academic lingua franca is not a pidgin but a full-fledged (dead or alive) language ( Björkman 2013)

Marble bust of Cicero, Rome, Musei Capitolini
Marble bust of Cicero, Rome, Musei Capitolini - Credits

The state of the art

Nowadays, excellent knowledge of English is a fundamental skill for entering the job market. As we stressed in another post, to develop a good command of this language can indeed boost your carrier path, not to mention your economic well-being. This is even more true if you are working in scientific research.

Even though less than 5% of people speak English natively, the number of people who use this idiom as a second language makes it one of the most widely spread worldwide. According to official data, almost 14% of the global population is able to understand and communicate in English or, more probably, a simplified form of it denominated “ Globish”. Also, as if it were not enough, English is currently a language of primary importance when it comes to culture and science, and it is the foremost language used to disseminate scientific research.

One may wonder, at this point, how such a situation came about and whether it has always been so.

Justus Sustermans - Portrait of Galileo Galilei, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Justus Sustermans - Portrait of Galileo Galilei, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

When in the Western world Latin was the lingua franca of science

If we focus just on the so-called Western world – and it is certainly a huge limit since there would be so much to say about several diverse realities, such as, for example, the role of ancient Greek or Arabic as the language of science – once, the main language used by intellectual elites was Latin.

The prominence acquired by Latin is to be linked to the Roman Empire first and, then, to the spread of Christianity. Latin was in fact the official language of the Church, and the more the Church gained power, the more Latin gained cultural hegemony as a lingua franca for cultured people. The whole educational system was based on the knowledge of this language and if you wanted to be considered a cultured person you had to learn and write in Latin.

Latin was the go-to language not only to deal with religion but, more in general, to communicate “smart stuff”. People used it to write down important things like science, laws, and medicine. So, if you wanted to read about anything important, it was probably written in Latin and you had to learn it.

Then, from the thirteenth century onward, things became to change gradually. Several scholars began writing in their native language to spread the results of their own research. Just to provide a few examples, Galileo Galilei , who lived between the 16th and 17th centuries, wrote most of his scientific production in Italian, even though he did not entirely disdain Latin. During the same period, the philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) published his first work, Discours de la méthode, which was written in French, his mother tongue.

Frans Hals - Portret van René Descartes
Frans Hals - Portret van René Descartes

These choices reflected a wide change that occurred within society. The invention of printing transformed the possibilities of the written word. Moreover, there was now a wide audience of people who, although lacking a traditional education, were enough literate to read and were potentially interested in new discoveries or new kinds of philosophical discourses.

It was the whole cultural world that was about to change and the intellectuals who preferred their mother tongue to Latin were often the same people who proposed a new way of approaching nature and science: the empirical method, based on direct observations of the facts, and logical arguments rather than on authoritative ancient scholars.

A statement written by Galileo in a missive addressed to his friend Paolo Gualdo is quite explanatory in this regard:

I wrote in the vernacular [Italian] because I must have everyone able to read it, and for the same reason I wrote my last book in this language. I am induced to do this by seeing how young men are sent through the universities at random to be made physicians, philosophers, and so on; thus, many of them are committed to professions for which they are unsuited, while other men who would be fitted for these are taken up by family cares and other occupations remote from literature. Now I want them to see that just as nature has given to them, as well as to the philosophers, eyes with which to see her works, so she has also given them brains capable of penetrating and understanding them.

Nevertheless, Latin continued to play a role of fundamental importance in communicating science, and even the scholars who decided to publish their main works in their mother tongue, continued to use Latin, especially when they had to communicate with colleagues of other nationalities, or reach a foreign audience. However, starting from the mid-1800s onwards, the four major languages for scientific writing slowing became English, French, German and Italian.

So, should I publish it in English?
So, should I publish it in English?

How English gained its hegemonic role in science

The wars and conflicts which characterised the 21st century, including the two World Wars and the Cold War, saw the rise of both Great Britain and USA as world powers.

One has also to take into consideration that colonisation played indeed a huge role in spreading English around the world. So, because of a number of political and socio-economic reasons, by the mid-1990s, English had become the first and foremost language of science.

Just Let’s take a look at the numbers: currently, more than 98% of scientific publications are written in English, and this language plays a foremost role also in the field of investigative journalism and entrepreneurship.

This can be indeed a problem for all the scholars who are not native speakers, increasing disparities that are undoubtedly problematic, especially if we keep into consideration that the rise of the hegemonic role of English in the scientific discourse is also linked to colonial abuse.

Yet, given the actual status quo, the presence of a global shared lingua franca is not necessarily a bad thing. Currently, a large debate is developing in the academic world about this topic. If, on the one hand, it is inevitable the rise of a common lingua franca to communicate science and research and the status gained by English could have a positive effect for the scientific community, on the other hand the possibility of publishing in one’s own mother tongues should not be dismissed a priori.

It is indeed important to consider the possibility of disseminating the scientific production in more than one language, or at least to use more than one language for the abstract.