What is mitochondria in your mother tongue?


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A top-down approach of imposing the necessity of polyglot model of scientific communication is likely to be highly unpopular in a multilingual geography such as ours.

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             Credit: Subhashish Panigrahi. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Of late, an important issue being discussed within the scientific community happens to be the (sole) use of English as a language of communication, or even thinking. English enjoys the privilege of being the principal bridge language across the world, i.e., it is by default most commonly resorted to, when even two individuals who don’t understand each other’s native language need to converse. In the field of scientific education and research English is the dominant medium across almost the whole world. In terms of written scientific communication as well, most well-known academic journals use English. International conferences are typically conducted in English, Universities across the world, even in the non-Anglophone corners are increasingly offering courses at various levels in English.


What then is the problem? Simply, because most of the world’s denizens do not grow up learning English as their first language. They learn their first articulations, their first mythologies, and their first lessons in history in their native languages. When it comes to science though, there is a serious paucity of books and teachers who can communicate the same in native languages. Therefore, to learn their first lessons in science means to first learn to read, write, speak and think in, a new language altogether, something their anglophone counterparts do not need to do. It is not wholly ludicrous to imagine if such a linguistic hurdle (among several others) can be a potential challenge in the lack of the percolation of scientific temper within our society. Such a deficiency in penetrability of science, scientific method and a rational attitude associated with it can only foster the growth of superstition, irrationalism, and illiberal thinking.


What is surprising though is that scientific intellectual discourse was not English-exclusive in the past. Writing in Aeon, Princeton historian Michael Gordin talks about how English did not replace just one more dominant European language of choice for scientific argumentation and communication. In fact, the scientist of the 15th to 17th century was a polyglot, discussing and teaching her work within her local society and university confines in her native language, and only communicating with international peers in Latin. Half a century ago, my graduate teachers would tell me that as students in American universities, they were mandated to master either German or Russian as part of their PhD curriculum in order to read the classic papers in chemistry, biochemistry and biophysics, which were written in those languages. In recent times, although it isn’t common to come across papers in Chinese or Russian, the situation has changed considerably. Even in countries where scientific communication used to be common in native languages, the number of papers in English has shot up considerably over the last couple of decades.


There are cultural and political reasons why this change has taken place. The isolation of German scientists by their anglophone counterparts begun with their country’s defeat in the first world war. Germanophobia took on greater proportions with the rise of Nazi Germany. After the Second World, the United States pumped in a lot of funding into building its university system and supporting fundamental and applied scientific research; here the medium of communication was naturally in English. As a result, the density of institutions doing world class research and imparting first class education was highest in the United States. Even in western and central Europe, with an influx of international students, English features prominently among the commonly spoken languages on university campuses. Western Europe and the US also host the highest number of scientific meetings and conferences. Most of the prominent academic societies began, and still exist there.


Among the rest of the countries, it has been easiest for the commonwealth of nations, which were former colonies of the British empire, to adapt English as the medium of communication in occupational spheres such as in science. In South Asia, being able to communicate fluently in English is not just enabling, it is also a symbol of upward -of-middle class, elitist or exclusionary status. Therefore, it isn’t astonishing to come across individuals who can loquace in English but are at ill at ease (or worse, reluctant) communicating in vernacular languages. Due to their disuse within the sociological milieu of science, vernacular languages have lagged in coming up with an idiom that adequately describes the science of today. Therefore, it is increasingly difficult to even ‘think’ science, except in English. As an example, try coming up with appropriate translations of metaphors like ‘developmental program’, ‘genetic code’ or ‘quantum entanglement’ in any Indian language.


Such a phenomenon has been dubbed intellectual colonialism by Prof K Vijay Raghavan, who warns that not being able to think and speak science in indigenous languages will ensure our relegation as followers rather than leaders in our fields. This is primarily because of the huge intellectual investment the student must make in terms of gaining competence in a language that is probabilistically speaking, likely to be unfamiliar to her. In fact, during my time spent on a west coast US campus, several South Asian and Southeast Asian students were spending valuable evenings taking crash courses in spoken and written English in order to become better communicators of their work and compete with their anglophone peers.


To drive home the point, the monoglot model of scientific communication is a recent one and more importantly not a ‘default’ one: if anything, it is the emergent outcome of the sociopolitical history of the world. However, are there benefits to getting back to a polyglot regimen of scientific education, communication and thinking? First, the penetrability of scientific education and temper potentially increases manifold. Second, the permission and privilege of scientific discourse in vernacular language will increase the diversity within academia, of students, teachers and researchers in ethnic, class and linguistic terms: such an increase in diversity has always been in keeping with societal progress and egalitarian milieus. Third, the polyglot model allows the scientist to be relatively less vulnerable to the analogies and metaphors that are copiously (ab)used in English scientific communication and can present a distorted imagery of a given scientific ideation. Alternatively, one’s science can be better imagined and represented through a combination of vernacular metaphors/analogies along with those from English. Fourth, the polyglot model of the distant past was destroyed by a hegemonic Anglophone world order. That world orders and the domination by single nations are transient within a grand sweep of civilizational progress is obvious to any keen reader of world history. If in the near future, the fictional country of Syldavia were to be the new hegemon and replace English with Syldavian as the language of international scientific discourse, would the non-Syldaviophone academia subsequently adapt to exclusively communicating in Syldavian from English? Fifth, traditional knowledge systems and protosciences, untested, but accumulated over thousands of years, are written in vernacular languages. Accessing such knowledge systems, benchmarking them and using them in combination with modern technologies (such as the combination of traditional medicine with molecular- and synthetic- biology) requires interacting with chroniclers and practitioners of such traditional knowledges and protosciences. Such knowledge integrations require a mindset that is more consonant with  being able to communicate scientifically with vernacular languages. It takes one glimpse at the inspiring and humbling Nobel lecture of the Chinese phytochemist Youyou To (co-awarded the Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for the discovery of the antimalarial artemisinin) to realize the importance of a polyglot approach to scientific communication and exploration.


What can be done to remedy this hangover of intellectual colonialism? On an institutional level, there is a need for textbooks and teachers and polemicists, to increase the bandwidth of scientific discourse in vernacular languages. An important role in this direction can be played by digital content platforms that can host popular pieces, scientific debates and insights in multiple languages. A commendable international effort in enhancing the linguistic outreach of scientific education has been taken by the University of Santa Catarina, where scientific content is being translated into languages of ethnic and linguistic minorities in order to provide access to the most vulnerable of social sections. In India, people’s science movements and scientific societies have traditionally taken a lead role in translating English texts into vernacular languages so that scientific temper and rationalism reach the countries’ nooks and crannies.


The writer however suggests a certain pragmatist view in the matter and cautions against top-down approaches. In a country like India, identities of individuals are constantly remodeled through migration across regions where different cultures and languages prevail. Let us take a hypothetical case. A student who linguistically affiliates herself with a community that speaks language “A”, moves because of her parents’ transferable jobs to a state where the dominant language for discourse is “B”. Subsequently having grown up, her job takes her to another state where language “C” is spoken. In what language, other than English should she be able to communicate the elegance of the astronomical system, or the intricacies of the cellular organelles, or say the distinction between the elements of the periodic table? The point being made here is that a top-down approach of imposing the necessity of polyglot model of scientific communication is likely to be highly unpopular in a multilingual geography such as ours. On the other hand, if scientists, teachers and communicators take it upon themselves to make an effort in expressing themselves in languages other than just English, the reach of science and its associated values could reach farther and wider than they are at present.


A second cautionary note is struck by Prof John Matthew. Writing in Confluence he warns that the practice of science in vernacular languages should ideally take place only after our society looks at scientific practices in an objective way and does not seek to posit any and every bit of scientific marvel as having been already discovered by our forebears in a bygone era. I would argue that such “cultural cannibalism” has taken place despite an English-exclusive scientific-social milieu prevalent in our country. Perhaps if the polemics and argumentations on scientific policy and education were to be carried not just in English but in other languages, the universalist and uniformitarian nature of science would be better conveyed to the impressionable minds, foreclosing the temptations of endlessly pinning down scientific knowledge to specific cultures and geographies.


Ramray Bhat is an Assistant Professor at MRDG, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

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