The Language Of Science And Math

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The United States does not have an official national language, but did you know that there is an official language of STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine)? As a matter of fact, English has been the leading language of scientific communication since the 20th century, at which time the current political and economic conditions created demand for a widely accepted language. English is certainly the dominant language within STEMM fields, but there are differing opinions on the effect this has on a scientist’s individual identity.

“The story of the 20th century is not so much the rise of English as the serial collapse of German as the up-and-coming language of scientific communication” – Michael Gordin, Professor at Princeton University’s

When looking at the history of language in STEMM, one notices a transition through the ages from Latin to German, and finally to English. Latin lost its dominance in the 17th century when scientists began translating their works into their own native languages. Germanic languages became standard until World War I, when Anti-German laws were created in the United States and official organizations to govern science were formed. By the 1920’s, English started to take precedence and the international language of STEMM was solidified.

Those in support of English as the official language of STEMM speak of how much smaller the reach is for publications written in other languages. A 2007 European study of 210,433 scientific publications found that 96.5% were published in English, and additionally it is the most commonly spoken language at many scientific conferences. Proponents also find that scholars may be less confident at these conferences, and may have difficulty understanding commentators if not fluent in the universal STEMM language. For this reason, they believe that STEMM students should be taught science and mathematics in English rather than their native language.

On the other hand, it has been argued that not being able to learn scientific and mathematical knowledge in your native language may decrease innovation. Your culture can determine how ideas are communicated, and by streamlining education to a more “Americanized” model the scientific community loses differentiation. A prominent example would be several ancient tribes in India that were able to use oral traditions in order to recognize and prepare for a deadly tsunami. Such cultural insights are typically lost in English translation.

No matter which argument you support, the fact remains that English is the most commonly used language when it comes to scientific publications and the scientific community in general. However, there are initiatives that aim to satisfy both parties by providing a common ground while also still fostering originality.

Sierra Kennedy
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