Sunday, April 10, 2011

Barrier to Entry

Let me start this with a disclaimer: I’m not a linguist, nor am I particularly in touch with scientific publishing norms. I’m making a lot of assumptions here, and if they turn out to be wrong, well, caveat emptor.

The claim is that we have absolutely no appreciation for the benefit we’ve been given due to the fact that English has become the de-facto global language. Yes, we get to watch most of the best movies without subtitles, and there’s tons of music that we can understand the lyrics to. That’s nice, and it’s probably played a large part in why English has remained the dominant language around the world. But it’s not the biggest impact by any means.

Really, the thing we should be thankful for, and the thing we should be determined not to lose at any cost, is the access our language gives us to science.

This idea sparked for me while reading an article about an old Harvard entrance exam from the 1860s. The exam required extensive translation and generation of prose in Latin and Greek. And, predictably, there were a number of comments following the story about how ridiculous it was to require students to learn dead languages, and how even at the time there was no practical application for this habit.

One of my favorite quotes when talking about people in historic eras is, to paraphrase, “why would you assume that they were all idiots who would waste their time on useless things?” Indeed, why would anyone think it reasonable to assume that Harvard required fluency in Latin and Greek just for kicks?

This is where I start making some assumptions. Specifically, I’m making an assumption that Harvard was not staffed by idiots, nor by intellectual snobs. Further, I’m assuming there was a damn good reason they required proficiency in Latin and Greek, namely that this was the dominant language of scientific publication in that era.

Remember, English wasn’t always the global force it is today. Yes, Great Britain controlled a large portion of the world at that time, but a number of the scientific powerhouses of the time had their own culture which hadn’t yet ceded the language war. Italy, France, Germany, Russia, and any number of other countries participated in the scientific explosion surrounding the Industrial Revolution.

Naturally they wanted a common language to avoid having to translate every publication, and that common language was Latin or Greek. Further, with the revival of interest in the Latin and Greek philosophers and scientists during the Renaissance, being able to read the source material was nearly as relevant as being able to read the latest new discovery.

Far from being dead languages, for at least 500 years Latin and Greek were the international languages of science. It was absolutely critical that you be able to read and write in order to exchange ideas with the scientific community around the world.

Which brings us to today, and our great unrealized advantage. Because in the 18th century, anyone who wanted to be taken seriously in science had to learn another language. Which means the average layman, who doesn’t have time for years of study just to be able to understand the text, let alone the subject matter, is out of luck.

Only then something shifted, and English became the common language of scientific publication. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t particularly matter. The cultural roots of the shift don’t change the fact that suddenly every single English speaker could pick up the latest scientific publications and read them. Granted they might need special training to understand advanced topics, but still, what a huge barrier to entry was suddenly removed from our collective scientific growth.

Because at the same time as we gained this incredible advantage, every other culture remained in exactly the same situation. Every non-English-speaking country in the world still exists in a state where the majority of scientific publication is impenetrable to the “uneducated” citizen. Despite the extent to which we mock the idea of Latin fluency as an entrance criteria for a university, the rest of the globe is still forced to do roughly the same thing. In fact, today it’s so much a fact of life that ESL classes are common well before college age.

How many millions of dollars have we saved in education costs? How many scientific breakthroughs have been built on top of research that the discoverer could not have understood if the language of science had been anything other than English? How much has our national intellect been improved by access to scientific insight as readily accessible as the air we breathe?

Of course it’s not the only reason that the USA does well in scientific advancement, but I can’t imagine that the effect is trivial. And yet it’s something that seems so natural we barely notice it. What a slap in the face to every foreign scientist who’s struggled to learn our convoluted language so they can access the wealth of scientific knowledge that has built up over the years, and continues to accumulate more and more, like a planet forming out of interstellar dust.

And not to be cynical, or overly patriotic, but what a huge strategic advantage this is to go unnoticed. If I were involved in government, or if I were someone who viewed other countries with less faith in humanity, I would be strongly tempted to say we should be spending massive amounts of resources to help ensure that English continues as the global language, at least of the educated classes.

As it is, I’m mostly curious to see what happens over the next couple decades. Chinese is spoken by only about half as many people as English, but if the current shift in American education away from scientific careers continues, it could become more prevalent as the language of science even without a majority of speakers. Imagine Yale requiring Chinese proficiency on their entrance exam in 50 years, and then tell me if you think we’ve taken our current situation for granted.

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