Languages of science Scientific Multilingualism Promotes Innovation

Does it make any difference to the knowledge gained whether scientists carry out their research in English or German?
Does it make any difference to the knowledge gained whether scientists carry out their research in English or German? | Photo: James McQuillan © iStockphoto

German scientists and scholars are increasingly publishing their work in English, and ever more frequently, scientific symposia and conferences held in Germany, too, are in English. Some scientists now assume that English will eventually prevail as the lingua franca of European science.

While some people welcome this development, others view it with concern. Chemnitz German scholar Winfried Thielmann fears that languages of science such as German will become less and less significant, endangering the multilingualism of European science. In his habilitation thesis, he has now studied the differences between German and English as languages of science.

Does it make any difference to the knowledge gained whether scientists carry out their research in English or German? To get to the bottom of this question, Winfried Thielmann’s habilitation thesis compared German and English articles from disciplines in the natural and social sciences and the humanities. He came to the conclusion that the differences between the two languages of science are much greater than generally assumed. The use of conjunctions such as “weil” and “because” seem to be completely different in the two languages and nouns deriving from verbs, such as “Verlauf”, “Vorstellung” and “Gefüge”, for which it is difficult to find English equivalents, are regularly used in certain contexts in German scientific articles. Also, because German texts, particularly scientific introductions, are structured differently, they cannot be directly translated into English.

What is behind the linguistic differences?

Thielmann firmly believes that the linguistic differences are due to a fundamentally different understanding of science: “The language of science is embedded in an understanding of what is a good scientific argument and it also has a major impact on the theory-construction process.” Ralph Mocikat, Chairman of the Working Group on German as a Language of Science, argues similarly in an article in Zeit Online: “Our thought patterns, the way in which we set up hypotheses and our lines of argument are always remain rooted in the thought patterns of our mother tongue, even in the natural sciences. Scientific theories always use words, images and metaphors borrowed from everyday language. (…) Since each language allows a different perspective on reality and offers individual patterns of argumentation, it amounts to intellectual impoverishment when teaching and research are limited to English”.

Why do German researchers write in English?

In practice, scientific work is often judged on the basis of the scientific journals in which it is published. Thielmann regards this practice as problematical because all the leading journals are based in the United States of America: “German scientists have to write in English in order to be published in those journals. So they write in a foreign language, in competition with scientists whose mother tongue is English. This also means that scientific standards are laid down by academics from the United States. In the long term, this leads to the diversity of scientific cultures being limited internationally.”

English: The international lingua franca of science?

But is there any alternative to English as a lingua franca if one wishes to ensure the speedy exchange of information among scientists from all around the world? “The English language can certainly be helpful for announcing the latest scientific discoveries internationally,” admits Thielmann. But for him, that does not mean that other European languages should be allowed to lose their significance in scientific research and teaching: “For decades, it has been possible for scientists to take note of articles published in a different language. In doing so, they noticed a difference that aroused their curiosity. And curiosity is the mainspring of science. A diversity of languages and cultures of science promotes innovation.”


Winfried Thielmann:
Deutsche und englische Wissenschaftssprache im Vergleich. Hinführen – Verknüpfen – Benennen (Synchron Wissenschaftsverlag der Autoren, 2009)

Ulrich Ammon:
Ist Deutsch noch internationale Wissenschaftssprache? (Gruyter, 1997)