Suppose that German was the new world language and all U.S. scientists had to publish in German
journals to have the research recognized and receive university promotion. Consider also that our whole country began teaching German from kindergarten through senior high school to all students—a fantastically impossible event for the monolingual U.S. But that high school language ability still does not provide the accuracy and elegance to write academic-level research in German. That would require more years of advanced German study, years that would take away from conducting research.
That is the situation here in China. Before their Cultural Revolution from 1965 to 1975, Russian was their second language, studied in schools nationwide. When Chinese academic life started up again, their leadership saw the growing dominance of English in both business and science. They re-directed their education system to teach English K-12. If everyone in America studied Chinese, we still could not match them because more Chinese learn English than the total population of the United States!
They also adopted our Research I university system that rewards professors only for research. Publication in English journals is critical for promotion.
English-speaking scientists are lucky. English is becoming the international language of science. Discover something important and publish it in another language and it will go unnoticed. Another researcher who discovers the same thing later but publishes in English will get the credit. So isn’t it great that most of the world’s scientists have to publish in our language? No it is not, and it deserves the full condemnation that the word "imperialism" brings.
This was not always the case. Up until the 1970s, American doctoral students were often required to complete FLORS (foreign language or research skills) either in German or Russian but substituting electron microscopy, etc. But computer programming came along and the next generation learned BASIC or PASCAL. Today, American-born scientists are barely more multilingual than the general American public where about 7 percent speak a second language. (This compares to 49 percent of Europeans who are multilingual.)
But English is one of the most difficult to learn as a second language. It violates the rules of grammar more than it follows them. Irregular verbs. Conjugations. Tenses. Prepositions whose usage is only determined by whether they “sound right”—hopeless if you don’t grow up as a native speaker. Even with the added academic years spent learning English, a Chinese researcher is still going to be speaking and writing what they call “Chinglish”—English with Chinese characteristics.
Most Western journals state up front that they will not accept articles by non-native speakers until the author has them cleaned up by a native speaker. So there is an online industry that offers English grammar clean-up for a fee. But alteration of grammar by non-scientist grammarians can change the meaning of scientific results that rely on precise language. Accumulate enough published results that are a little “off” due to grammar revision and it can taint a country’s science reputation.
Despite these extra hoops to get research published, Chinese authors are rapidly becoming more common in premier journals such as Science and Nature.
Why should we preserve science in many languages? Both English and Chinese are the richest major languages in the world, with about 400,000 words and combinations in a unabridged dictionary. And they are the most “inflated” languages—that is, deep and complex meaning is conveyed by very few words.
But most of all, different languages "chunk" reality differently. In science we use the German "gesthalt" because it has a meaning close to "general image" or "pattern" — but means more. We use "bauplan" for the evolving platforms of body design in animals; it is close to our word "blueprint" — but it means so much more. Chinese has far more terms for relationships than do Western languages. There are discoveries to be made in ecology, the study of living relationships, that can be expressed in Chinese, but not in English.
This conundrum — where there is no good solution — is expressed perfectly by the Chinese term: "dzema ban?" But it really does not have an equivalent in English.