Since the end of the Second World War, English has become the established language of scholarly communication, but not without controversy. In this article we examine some of the reasons for the rise of English and its consequences in the context of national trends in English and local-language publishing.

The underlying reason for the rise of English as the language of science remains a topic of debate, but most frequently it is acknowledged as an accident of 20th century political and economic history (1). The British Empire, which spanned the globe from the late 16th to the early 20th century, was the largest empire in history and made English a truly international language. Today it is the first language of about 400 million people in 53 countries, and the second language of as many as 1.4 billion more. English was therefore well positioned to become the default language of science in the wake of the disruptive wars of the first half of the 20th century.

Shifting language preferences

Whatever the reason, the use of English as the scholarly lingua franca has become self-reinforcing, with academic reward schemes in many countries placing great emphasis on publication in international (mostly English-language) journals. Figure 1 shows the ratio of the number of journal articles published by selected nations’ researchers in English to those published in that nation’s official language in three consecutive four-year periods.

The Netherlands has always had a strong tradition of publishing in English, and so the ratio of English to Dutch journal articles is quite high and shows no clear trend in this analysis. Conversely, Italy’s ratio has risen dramatically over the period of analysis, suggesting a very strong impetus by Italian authors to publish in English. More modest, but equally important, trends away from local-language authorship are repeated in Gemany, France, Spain and the Russian Federation.

Figure 1 – Ratio of the number of journal articles published by researchers in English to those in the official language in six European countries, 1996–2007. Source: Scopus.

Reference:

(1) Tardy, C. (2004) “The role of English in scientific communication: lingua franca or Tyrannousaurus rex?” Journal of English for Academic Purposes, Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 247–269.
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