#ScioLang, a Grand Project to Share the Fun of Science with Non-English-speaking Audiences

Folks, folks! I have gotten myself involved in a grand and rather exciting project related to Science Communication, which followed my getting acquainted with Seattle-based scientist and science communicator Dr. Ivan Fernando Gonzalez (NOTE) quite accidentally, on Twitter. This project I referred to is borne out of Ivan’s desire to bridge multicultural communities in science. Christened Sciolang (its twitter avatar, of course, comes with its own hashtag, #Sciolang), this project aspires to initiate and sustain a conversation about sharing and extending science beyond English-speaking audiences. To the same end, Sciolang has been merged with a session taking place at a major science communication event, ScienceOnline Together 2014 (#scio14 on Twitter), scheduled for the end of February at Raleigh, North Carolina.

Ivan has been working for long to promote science communication to Spanish-speaking audiences. As an extension of those outreach efforts, to make #ScioLang a space for Twitter discussions on science communication enriched by non-English-speaking perspectives, Ivan has brought together volunteer #ScioLang Ambassadors, bilingual scientists who, amongst themselves, speak 12 languages other than English; I am glad to say that I am in this august company, pitching in with my mother-tongue, Bangla (ranked 7th in the world with more than 200 million speakers), and Hindi (the official language of India, also with close to 300 million speakers inclusive of various dialects).

This is Ivan’s instructions for the #ScioLang Ambassadors:

First of all, I am requesting your personal input. I want to learn from your experience as consumers and generators of science content, in English (as a second Language), and in your target Language. Second I need you to be a contact person, somebody who can give non-English speakers a voice in an audience of mostly English-speaking science communicators.

For that role I am asking you to help me reaching out on Twitter using your language and collecting the thoughts and voices of people, translating to English what you think it would add value to the conversation.

The linked instructions page has a weekly time-table, and the clock has already started ticking. I shall circulate this post to people I know, and try to see if they can contribute to this discussion prior to the conference. Ivan has suggested a gamut of possible conversation starters suitable for people in various professional roles:

To Editors:

  • Do you perceive a bias in international journals towards preferentially publishing native English-speakers?
  • What would you think is the value of publishing in the national language but adding abstracts in English?

To Scientists:

  • When do you use English and when your national language in research?
  • Should English proficiency be a requirement for the scientific professionals?
  • Do you think speaking English has given you international mobility, to do your research around the world?

To Science Communicators:

  • Is it enough to translate from English? Do we need content made in the national language for a national audience?
  • Why do you to communicate science in your chosen language?
  • How many languages you deal with during your daily life? How do you deal with them?
  • Tell me the most amazing science story that you know that never made it to the international news because of a language issue.

… And so forth.

If you speak a different language than ones in the list, please feel free to contact me (@kausikdatta22 on Twitter); also, don’t hesitate if you do find your language in the list. We are always interested in hearing from a diverse group of people. Please read and share as much as you can with people who you think would be interested to participate, perhaps even contribute, to this discussion. Together we can make this an informative and thought-provoking collaborative effort.

I realize that not everyone may be on Twitter. If that applies to you, please drop me a line in the comments, and I shall share my email address with you, and you can email me your suggestions and questions. Don’t worry; I am very new to this sort of effort, too!

QUESTION UPDATE: English as a medium of curricular instruction? See post.

NOTE: Many of you may be already familiar with Ivan; for those who don’t know him, Ivan is an enterprising researcher of many talents and great ideas, with a passion for Science Communication. Of a Colombian/Peruvian heritage, Ivan is fluently bilingual in English and Spanish, and one of his personal missions has been the sharing of the fun of science, unhindered by language barriers. Ivan is industriously active on various social media platforms (@gonzalezivanf on Twitter), and is associated with several blogs focused on science and science communication, such as his personal blog, ScienceSalsa, and the Seattle Chapter of the Science Online community, ScienceOnlineSeattle.


  1. Subhra Priyadarshini

    Thanks Ivan and Kaushik for this brilliant effort!

    For me, the challenge has always been to reach out to non-English speaking audiences across India. Since the language of science as well as science communication (predominantly) in India is English, a huge chunk of India’s billion plus population falls out of the purview of such communication.

    The vernacular media in India does suffer from the common problems of translating from English, missing out on science news due to the effort involved and sidelining science coverage due to market pressures (well, actually the last one applies to the English media in the country too). On BBC Hindi’s radio programme ‘Vigyan aur Vikas’ (Science and Development), I have tried getting across to Hindi speaking audiences translating tough scientific jargons using metaphors that the Hindi audience can relate to and giving it a local flavour. In such efforts, you always walk the tightrope trying not to ‘dumb down’ the science. Nonetheless, its worth the attempt when your audiences tell you that they discovered a new thing or understood a tough concept.

    To answer some of your questions, as an editor and someone associated with a peer-review publishing house, I do not really see international journals being biased towards English speaking countries. Take the case of Asia. If that were the case, China and Japan (where science is done in regional languages) would not be publishing the phenomenal number of papers they do as opposed to India, which has a long history of doing science in English.

    I think the idea of adding English abstracts to papers in regional languages is worth exploring but I don’t see local languages taking over English as the medium of science in the global context anytime soon.

    I have proficiency in Hindi, Odia, Bangla and English (and I have working knowledge of some other Indian languages an learnt Italian as well — not enough to communicate science though). I don’t know if it helps here but a lot of publishing houses, such as Macmillan Science Communication, do offer full fledged language editing services (http://msc.macmillan.com/en/editing/language-editing) for scientists who might want their papers published in English.

    • Kausik Datta

      Thank you for that detailed response, Subhra. I really appreciate it. I understand exactly the kind of problem you are referring to. When I was doing my graduate studies in Delhi, I became a kind of unofficial translator for my divisional or departmental staff, in order to explain microbiological concepts in Hindi. But the problem is that – as you have seen, too – I don’t see this effort bearing any kind of serious fruit regarding elevation of the overall level of science-based dialog in the country. Which is sad, because science is often wrongly seen by the masses as an extension of Western ideas and Western languages, and the practice of science is considered to be placed beyond an insurmountable linguistic barrier. This breeds mistrust of science and scientists, and makes the efforts to dispel harmful myths and superstitions that much difficult.

      I would differ slightly from your understanding re the publication scenario. While international journals may not be biased towards English-speaking countries, the case of China is substantially different from, say, Japan or Korea. It is true that the Chinese have a huge volume in terms of publications in the Chinese language, but is there a metric to (a) evaluate the quality of papers published in Chinese-language-exclusive journals, or (b) ascertain the circulation of those papers? I don’t know. Simply providing an English abstract to a regional language paper may not serve either purpose. Also, those scientists who engage exclusively with such journals – are they missing out on broader perspectives, ideas and necessary interactions in scientific research, and thereby failing to derive an intellectual benefit from science?

      I learnt of an interesting situation from my Korea- and Japan-born researcher friends. Apparently, English language training is mandatory in these countries, and the quality thereof is really emphasized as well. In the science-classes from elementary-to-higher classes onwards, scientific terms are taught in English, with the explanation being given in regional languages. This mixed-mode instruction, in addition to the mandated English training, helps the students adapt relatively easily when in their higher studies, the language often switched exclusively to English. I have received an exact same picture from a colleague who is from Turkey, where the basic education medium is Turkish (which, interestingly, is written in a Roman script), but with emphasis on learning and expressing in English. A similar situation seems to exist in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well.

      My Asian friends are of the opinion that this may reflect in a way the relative affluence of a country as well as how much of the national finances is spent on education. I don’t have the respective numbers to evaluate that opinion. But some of my colleagues from mainland China have mentioned an interesting way in which the Chinese scientists overcome the language barrier while considering publication in international journals: by evolving a kind of buddy-system, which works by virtue of sheer numbers. They would write their manuscript in Chinese, and at the near final presubmission stage, send it across to someone in the same field – usually a personal friend of the authors – who has been living and working in the US or Europe for a long time. This person would translate the manuscript in English and submit it. This seems to work pretty well.

      In contrast, the Korean and Japanese scientific and educational bodies apparently make a conscious effort to publish in journals that are bilingual, with the same article presented in the vernacular as well as in English (often in the online version). Bilingual publication is a hallmark also of Canada as well, which is officially bilingual as a matter of course.

  2. Subhra Priyadarshini

    Thanks for responding Kaushik.

    “Do you perceive a bias in international journals towards preferentially publishing native English-speakers?” I thought the question meant if more English speakers get published over non-English speakers. My assessment of China was based on the very same contention that you make — maybe it did not get across as that. Or perhaps I got the question wrong in the first place.

    Yes, I know of the Chinese buddy system and my in-house sources also vouch for their substantial reliance on language editing services (of the kind I mentioned earlier). Scientists in that country are smart enough to have recognised the linguistic barrier and embraced these opportunities.

    International journals are primarily published in English. Asian scientists not doing science in English and yet getting published by using new tools not earlier available is remarkable.

    All the best for your ventures!

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