It’s no secret that the recent COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the importance of science literacy and the problems surrounding limited language access services in the United States (and throughout the world, even). When public health information is only available in English, it disadvantages the millions of U.S. residents with limited English proficiency — that’s why reporters at Science Friday recently conducted a survey among their readership and put together a report analyzing the demand for multilingual science media.
According to Science Friday’s polling of their audience, approximately 81% of the individuals who responded said they engaged with media such as news articles or videos in a language other than English one or more times per week. About 41% said they engage with and share multilingual content because they “want more inclusive information and media.” Still, English is overwhelmingly the predominant language in the sciences — the reporters at Science Friday note that about 80% of the articles in scientific journals are published in English.
Although English maintains its status as a lingua franca for the sciences (and indeed, the entire digital sphere, really — about 62% of the Internet’s content is written in English), independent creators across the world have been left to their own devices to make their own multilingual science content. YouTube has proven to be a particularly convenient tool for non-English speaking individuals to develop and share content on the sciences in their native languages, with Youtubers like Syrian Salam Katanani and Greek Kathimerini Fisiki (Daily Physics) attaining significant fanbases.
That said, major news outlets would still be wise to invest in producing more multilingual content — Science Friday for example, noted that it began its SciFri en Español series back in 2010, in order to encourage widespread development of science literacy, by giving its Spanish-speaking audience access to high-quality science-focused content in their native language.
The prevalence of English in the sciences creates difficulty not only for consumers of science media, but also for some of the researchers themselves — in April, Roey Elnathan, a nano-biotechnology researcher at Melbourne’s Monash University wrote an op-ed for Nature about his experience as a non-native English speaker trying to write research papers using the proper level of technical precision necessary to convey the scope and findings of his research appropriately in English.
Although Elnathan believes English is suitable as an international language of the sciences, he points out that its dominance still creates a significant hurdle for non-English speaking researchers, especially those in their early career.
“English is the international language of science, for better or for worse, but most of the world’s scientists speak it as a second language,” Elnathan writes. “We shoulder an extra career challenge: not only must we gain command of our science, but we must also be able to write to professional standards in a foreign language to communicate that science.”