Non-English Science Communication: An Overview

Sciolang Room at Science Online Together 2014. Photo: Luis Quevedo (@Luis_Quevedo)
Sciolang Room at Science Online Together 2014. Photo: Luis Quevedo (@Luis_Quevedo)

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Ivan Fernando Gonzalez, a bilingual scientist and science communicator. Gonzalez moderated a session on non-English science communication at ScienceOnline Together last month. He recaps the session here. (This post can also be found on Gonzalez’s blog, ScienceSalsa.)

Ivan Fernando Gonzalez. Photo: Sally James (@Jamesian)
Ivan Fernando Gonzalez. Photo: Sally James (@Jamesian)

The Non-English science communication discussion session at ScienceOnline Together (ScioLang) started as mission impossible. My mission, if I decided to accept it, was to generate a discussion in a room full of strangers about how science is created, shared, and communicated beyond English-speaking audiences. So many languages in the world, so many communication needs, and so many national realities to explore, but only one hour to talk about them. It is just not enough time! But there are always strategies to face challenging tasks, and I called other people for help: The ScioLang volunteer ambassadors became the nexus that made this task less daunting, as each of them brought a unique perspective from a different language. This made the discussion more diverse and gave a voice to people outside ScienceOnline. They started conversations on Twitter and other social media, sometimes several weeks before the live session, and gathered an impressive amount of feedback in their respective languages.

Some of the ambassadors attended ScienceOnline Together, some of them only participated online. With their help we had a total of fourteen languages represented on Twitter and nine languages represented in the room. It is thanks to those volunteers, and the audience in the room, that ScioLang became a very productive space for discussion. In short, even if this is a personal post, and all opinions are mine, they are based on the work and ideas of lots of people.

Seven take home messages from ScioLang:

1. If you want to reach the world, you need to reach beyond English-speaking audiences. National languages are the best way to communicate with decision-makers, the general public, and multilinguals that react more favorably to content in their native tongue. There is a reality that will not change in the near future: native English speakers are less than 6 percent of the global population, and science communication needs to be multilingual to reach global audiences. Even in English-speaking nations, big migrant populations require that science communicators use multilingual channels. By population, United States is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, and those 32 million people are better reached in their own language. In the USA, and other large countries, global considerations become local due to recent migratory patterns: one of the participants in the Sciolang discussion is a teacher from a district with students speaking more than sixty different languages. Even if kids learn English at school, they shouldn’t need to choose between their cultural identity and science.

2. English has become the “Lingua Franca” of science. International science journals are overwhelmingly publishing in English, a trend started three decades ago. English is a great tool for international collaboration, but English proficiency is not universal and creates an uneven playing field for the creation and sharing of science. Monolingual English-speakers are also missing out on global science outcomes that don’t get translated into English. Conversely, scientific papers only published in non-English languages limit their outreach and impact.

3. English has different levels of penetration in science education internationally. While in Germany it is fair to expect advanced science education programs to be taught in English, in Italy those classes are more often taught in Italian. In India, people that have access to science education usually have a strong English-language background, while in Spanish-speaking countries English literacy in science may be high but inability to speak it fluently may be an issue. Often, English-spoken entertainment content is used to improve English verbal proficiency in lieu of formal education.

Image: Ivan F. Gonzalez
Image modified by Ivan F. Gonzalez from Wikimedia.

4. The state of development of science communication in world languages is uneven. German has a vibrant landscape of publications and science communication outlets, but Arabic lacks outlets with original content and most of the top-level science is generated and shared in English. Therefore their communication needs and the audience’s science literacy levels are quite different, even beyond the expected cultural differences. Often countries have well-recognized national champions of science communication, but sometimes they are isolated examples in a landscape where local initiatives are largely non-existent or invisible. Some languages may have several science communication initiatives but lack enough shared references or main outlets to articulate those initiatives in a national movement. I believe the experience in Indonesian and Filipino Twitter discussions, and partly in Spanish too, was that some science communication names started appearing during Twitter exchanges and populating a landscape that initially seemed bare.

5. Translation is second-best to creating original content. Yes, great science communication content is scarce in some languages, and direct translation from English is welcomed, but often this “deficit model” will fail to engage global audiences. Translated material supporting the theory of evolution against detractors will fall flat in a Germany where evolution is just not an issue. If you want to engage German-speaking audiences, then talk about atomic energy or other issues affecting them. If you are going to talk about atomic energy, use footage of an energy plant in Germany and interview German scientists when possible. If you are going to talk about healthy diets after cancer treatment in Mexico, use examples with food that is actually consumed by your audience. If you are going to talk about seed dispersion in Puerto Rico, use plants that are common in the Caribbean as examples.

6. Use the help of native speakers to walk safely between the cultural landmines. Subjects of interest and the way we treat them do matter. From the contentious tone in English-speaking social media that is seen as extremely rude in some other cultures (such as Swahili-speaking cultures), to the sense of humor that doesn’t necessarily translate, treatment of a subject requires the help of a local guide to avoid cultural landmines. Conversely, some subjects are just not appropriate for all audiences, for example, talking about obesity will disengage an audience in Brazil that is mostly concerned about chronic malnourishment and poverty.

7. Context-relevant content is king in science communication. Science is usually contextualized by English-speaking people to English-speaking audiences. If you do a direct translation without review of the subject and relevant context you may end up alienating your non-English-speaking  audiences with a context that is hard for them to relate to. Ask for help from people that know the audience you want to reach. What subjects are relevant to them? What context is significant to them? The answers to those questions are fundamental for successful science communication beyond English-speaking audiences.

What to do next?

Visit the ScioLang forum for more resources of trusted networks and persons that speak different languages. Talk to your friends and neighbors, you may be surprised at the resources around you that have not been taped yet. But more important, enjoy the adventure of learning about the world of science that you may have missed.

For more information about the ScioLang session read Cristina Russo’s notes and Adam Taylor’s Storify. Thanks to Science Online and Karyn Traphagen for the opportunity to have this discussion, Cristina Russo and Tim Skellett for their comments on this post, the ScioLang ambassadors, and specially Cristina Rigutto for her notes on Italian scicomm and Beatrice Lugger for her notes on German scicomm.


2 thoughts on “Non-English Science Communication: An Overview

  1. Yes you are absolutely right. If you really want to reach the world, you need to reach beyond English-speaking audiences. There are lots of interested audiennces. Thumbs up!


  2. Kristianne Bernard

    Reaching beyond English-speaking audiences. Very true. Very real. This is also true for volunteers, especially. I remember my friend who used to work for ( ). She worked as a tutor to those who wanted to talk to native English speakers to learn the language. The majority of her students were South Koreans. This fact made her decide to reach out to the youth in South Korea. She joined a volunteer group to visit the country for a month and teach and help. That is simply a heart of pure gold.


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