Multilingual Science (English)   многоязычная наука (Russian)


Ronald LaPorte, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, USA

Ismail Serageldin, Ph.D. Library of Alexandria, Egypt


English Version


Nature's mission statement

“First, to serve scientists through prompt publication of significant advances in any branch of science, and to provide a forum for the reporting and discussion of news and issues concerning science”


Russian Version


Заявление о миссии природы


Во-первых, для оказания помощи ученым путем оперативной публикации значительных достижений в любой отрасли науки, а также для обеспечения форума для освещения и обсуждения новостей и вопросов, касающихся науки



Only 3% of the scientific literature comes from developing countries despite 80% of the world’s population living there.  There are many barriers to careers in science in developing countries.  One of the most difficult is language.  There are 6500 different languages in the world, but only one for science, English. A student in Egypt is at a major disadvantage to become a scientist, as she has to learn both English and Science.  In contrast, an English speaking student in the US needs only to learn Science.  A student looking for a career in science often may not develop the English skills, and thus fall by the wayside despite being excellent scientific potential. Many areas of science such as statistics are difficult topics to learn.  Having to master the concepts of statistics being taught in English by a non-native speaker of English makes the learning of statistics and methods doubly difficult.

Figure 1


English is the lingua franca of Science. Figure (1) shows how rapidly and completely English has taken over Science and scientific careers.  In 1910 only 28% of the articles were in English.  By 2005 a whopping 93% were in English.  Moreover, most advanced level graduate courses are taught in English, with the books, and the lectures also in English taught by non-native English speakers.


Recently Nature published 3 articles (2-4) on translation focusing on learning a second language for scientists. Our focus is different as we argue that science is rapidly becoming multilingual because of Machine Translation and how this will alter research, training, and careers.


 Not only is this an issue in science, Title VI of the civil rights law indicates the US government should take steps to make programs available to those with Limited English Proficiency.   This is clearly a problem with Science and Scientific. We have done little to help scientists with limited English proficiency.


Science cannot be blamed as the tools of human translation have been slow,  expensive ($100 per page) and inaccurate. It takes over 2000 hours to become fluent in English. However, translation has rapidly evolved with the development of AI Neural Machine Translation.  Google initiated a machine translation effort in 2006.  The translations often were gibberish with inaccurate grammar.  Ten years ago, Google started to use brute force translation. This approach markedly improved accuracy by providing the “Gist” of materials but still, accuracy was not high. After 2015 Google, Microsoft, IBM, and about 10 other translating systems started Neural Machine translation and other AI approaches.   This has produced an enormous increase in accuracy.  It is not perfect as yet, but incredible strides have occurred in less than 5 years and promise for the future is amazing.  It is now time for science to break through the language barrier.

The Library of Alexandria has improved science and training in developing countries.  During the past few years, we built one of the largest scientific networks with over 1 million email addresses, 200,000 scientific PowerPoint lectures have been collected and used to teach 60 million students.  It has created the largest research methods library in the world, and the first scientific interlibrary loan system in Africa.  Now we plan to move forward with the establishment of multilingual science and teaching, especially for Africa. We have built translating systems, such that all of these features can be instantly translated.

In order to establish multilingual science, we need to define the need for multilingual science. The 3 previous nature papers help to understand the problem.  We need to examine the accuracy of the current and future modes of translation. We need to understand the structure of language in science.  It will also be very important to examine multilingual science through the lens the 1964 civil rights act focusing on Limited English Proficiency. It will be important to center much of this at the Library of Alexandria as a means to build scientific and career capacity in developing. Finally, guidelines for multilingual scientific communications need to be established

With these new machine technology tools, we now have the ability to translate any of the 200,000 PowerPoint lectures in the Scientific Supercourse into 60 different languages. The Science Supercourse at the Library of Alexandria is a very large collection of scientific PowerPoint lectures available for free.  We now established a system for teacher and student to unshackle content from English to their native tongue. Thus students will be able to master even the most difficult scientific concepts into their native languages. This can be powerfully seen with a lecture by Nobel Laurette John Mather We can thus take any PowerPoint lecture and slides and convert it into many different languages for teachers of the world to use. The barrier of language in teaching begins to disappear.

Overall significance:  If we can reduce the barrier of language in science, teaching, and careers, many more scientists worldwide would be included in the global dialogue. Also, for those of us who only speak English, this would for the first time give us an understanding of science in China, Brazil, Mexico, etc. Teaching will flourish as one can learn just about any topic in one's native language.  We will greatly help limited English Americans to participate more fully in the scientific community. We would be on the road to scientific equity



 (Mather J., Cerf V., Omenn G., Roberts R., Sauer F., Marler E., Shubnikov E., Linkov F., Tilves C.)

1.      Ammon, U. “Linguistic inequality and its effects on participation in Scientific Discourse and on Global Knowledge Accumulation –With a closer look at the problems of the second-ranked language communities”  Applied Linguistics Review 3, no.2 (2012):  333-355.

 CAREER COLUMN  17 June 2019

2.  Lisa Liu.  Six tips for adapting to a new language and culture


CAREER NEWS  10 June 2019

3.   Harina Barath            Indian initiatives aim to break science’s language barrier


       4. Chris Woolstone and Joana Osorio          When English is not your mother tongue


Search inside of Supercourse and lectures in HTML and PPT format