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  • Does Science Need a Global Language? English and the Future of Research. by Scott L. Montgomery
  • Linda Billings (bio)
Does Science Need a Global Language? English and the Future of Research. By Scott L. Montgomery; foreword by David Crystal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. xiv+226. $22.50.

There is no doubt that English is now the global language of science. In this book, Scott Montgomery asks whether a global language—a lingua franca—for science is a good and necessary thing and, if so, whether it should be English.

The English-language scholar David Crystal (born in Northern Ireland, educated in England, resident in Wales) notes in his foreword that the first wave of studies of English as a global language were published in the late 1990s, including his own English as a Global Language (1997). Crystal says these early studies were light on data and tended to be “personal, anecdotal, and at times superficial.” He tags Montgomery’s work as a “second-generation” study, providing deeper levels of detail and analysis.

A geologist by training, Montgomery is the author of several books about the history of science, scientific language, and science communication. His newest volume is a pleasure to read, thanks to exhaustive research combined with supple writing. Contributing to the book’s admirably short length is the author’s ability to summarize succinctly complex historical periods and events (such as the “great flowering” of science in the Arabic world and the Rwandan genocide). A judicial use of personal anecdotes about encounters with non–native English speakers in science enlivens the text.

In chapters 1 through 4, Montgomery provides a fascinating history of the cross-cultural languages of science, from ancient Greek and Latin to Arabic to the rise of English. In telling this story he shows how science has always been cross-cultural and transnational. In chapters 5 and 6, he expands on the evolution of English as the global language of science and provides a balanced discussion of the pros and cons of this development.

Montgomery approaches the evolution and function of English in [End Page 261] science as “a subset of English in the world” (p. 8). While acknowledging the role of imperialism in initially spreading English, he homes in on other factors that fueled its rapid global rise in the twentieth century, especially in later decades with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of the European Union reinforcing the need for a common language in economics, politics, and disaster management in addition to science. Today, he notes, native speakers of English are “a small, shrinking minority” (p. 46), outnumbered by non-native speakers 4 to 1.

The author describes the proliferation of “world Englishes”—that is, deviations from standard written English that yet are “fully understandable to any standard written English speaker or writer” (p. 59)—as a positive development for science. “As researchers from more nations employ the English language to communicate their work and collegiality,” he asserts, “science itself will become increasingly globalized” (p. 101).

He also recognizes that the language of science—no matter in what tongue—is not the language of everyday life. Even communication across disciplinary boundaries among native speakers of the same language can be challenging. Likewise, communicating across the boundary between scientists and non-scientists continues to be a challenge. “The barrier between scientific knowledge and public discourse grows thicker, taller,” Montgomery notes (p. 116).

I agree. I’ve attended conferences in the natural and social sciences in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden—all conducted in English. Two of my professional associations, the Society for Social Studies of Science and the International Communication Association, alternate their annual meetings between U.S. and non-U.S. locations, but conduct them always in English. And while English has seldom been a problem, disciplinary jargon almost always is. Montgomery recognizes that the disappearance of native languages from domestic science “is a true diminishment” (p. 116), raising legitimate questions about fairness, marginalization, and bias. Summing up, however, he says that while “lingua francas in science have brought both constructive and destructive effects” (p. 158), the former greatly outweigh the...


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