The English problem

Daniel Hamermesh asks some interesting questions about the position of the English language in academic circles over on the Freakonomics blog. (Many of the comments are worth reading if you’re interested.) I think it is safe to say that English is the most widely used language in scientific articles these days; maybe some Russian mathematicians still publish in Russian and I think Chinese research is published in Chinese. However, English is the new ‘lingua franca,’ as Hamermesh points out (English dominant position goes beyond the academic world, ofcourse). ‘I feel guilty about this,’ Hamermesh writes,

and all American economists should: It’s easier for us to write our scholarly papers than it is for other economists; it’s easier for us to function internationally.

That exact problem bugs me every single day. In the recent year I’ve put efforts into improving my english; this very blog is one of my training facilities. Had English been my mother tounge I would be able to put more efforts into the research I’m supposed to conduct and less into studying English. Notwithstanding, a lot of American economists could with advantage pay more attention to how they use their language (just ask McCloskey). And, ofcourse, I’m in the same boat as all other researchers who have an other mother tounge than English. Still, however, the English problem bugs me every time I read an English word or sentence that is not immediate to me.

Would I prefer a world with a world language? Well, I don’t know. For one thing, if you don’t know what you’re missing, you don’t miss it. And, an instant switch from 200+ languages (I’m sure there’s more, but I think there’s at least 200 languages around in active use) to one world language is impossible. So the question is hypothetical (I’ve realized that most (philosohical) questions are, and I have to work on my ‘distaste’ for them). Another thing is that in todays world, a situation with one world language is not a sustainable situation; different corners that are more or less unconnected, say, Inner Mongolia and Outer Sahara, would develop dialects and words independent of each other and soon one could not talk of only one world language anymore. But  apart from these problems, I think Yes, I would prefer a one language world.


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3 Responses to “The English problem”

  1. Brian Barker Says:

    I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the World’s “lingua franca” is unethical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Unethical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is long overdue, An interesting video can be seen at Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  2. Economics IS a Science! « Kvams Says:

    […] as the misuse of ’science’ in English has irritated me for a while (and is related to The English Problem). It was then heartening to read Deirdre McCloskey’s ‘The Rhetoric of Economics.’ […]

  3. English is Coming « Kvams Says:

    […] written on the challenges English presents to science earlier. What I didn’t think of then, but have thought of since, is that brilliant researchers from […]

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