English and science

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m currently reading Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow’s The Story of French, which continues to be delightful.

That delight is sometimes interspersed with moments of fascination and concern, though. Consider this passage on the relationship between the English language and science, which I read on the bus ride home from work yesterday:

Scientists also played a part in spreading the influence of English, and pretty much on their own. In their book Alerte francophone, former French diplomats Alfred Gilder and Albert Salon point out that the Anglo-American Conference of 1961 produced a confidential report to the British Council that recommended the use of only one language (English) in the field of scientific communication. Starting in 1967, most American universities suppressed the mandatory foreign language tests for PhD candidates. During the same decade, American, British, and Dutch scientific publications began refusing papers that had been published in any other language than English. They also developed systems for measuring scientists’ influence, such as the Science Citation Index. Such reference systems, which are regarded as objective, count the number of times scientists are quoted by other scientists—in English-language publications. All these self-reinforcing mechanicsms managed to produce a belief that no science is being done in any other language, even among people who speak other languages. And that belief is stronger than ever today.

This was an especially interesting passage to read given that I’d spent much of yesterday morning in a workshop inviting us to consider the power structures that exist in our disciplines and a brief moment yesterday afternoon pushing back against the idea of allowing computer science courses to count toward a foreign language requirement. I’m fascinated by the idea that PhD candidates of yesteryear were required to demonstrate some ability with a foreign language and somewhat disappointed that the practice stopped so long ago.