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Language barriers for “Non-native English speakers” in science 

Non-native English speakers face several barriers in conducting activities in science. They are at disadvantages in reading papers in English, writing and proofreading manuscripts, and preparing and making oral presentations in conferences in English. With little support available at institutional and societal levels, non-native English speakers are left to overcome these disadvantages in building their careers in science. Given 95% of world population is non-native English speakers and general population is the source of researchers, it is imperative to address the issues faced by them in conducting scientific activities because science can ill afford to miss contributions from such large untapped pool. Use of AI-based tools could reduce language barriers for “Non-native English speakers” in science education and research by providing good quality translations and proofreading. Scientific European uses AI-based tool to provide translations of articles in over 80 languages. Translations may not be perfect but when read with original article in English, it makes comprehension and appreciation of the idea easy. 

Science is perhaps most significant common “thread” that unifies human societies ridden with ideological and political fault lines. Our lives and physical systems are largely based on science and technology. Its significance is beyond physical and biological dimensions. It is more than just a body of knowledge; science is a way of thinking. And we need a language to think, to access and to exchange ideas and information and to disseminate advancements in science. That’s how science progresses and takes humanity forward.  

For historical reasons, English emerged as lingua franca for people of many different ethnic groups and medium of science education and research in many countries. There is a rich knowledge and resource base in English for both “people in science” and “scientifically minded general audiences”. By and large, English has served well in connecting people and disseminating science.  

As a non-native English speaker from a small town, I remember putting extra efforts in my college days in comprehending English language textbooks and scientific literatures. It took me several years of university education to be at ease with English. Therefore, based on my personal experience, I always thought non-native English speakers in science must put an extra effort to come at par with native English speakers in terms of ability to comprehend relevant research papers and communicate effectively through written manuscripts and oral presentations in seminars and conferences. A recently published survey provides substantial evidence to support this.  

In a study published in PLOS on 18th July 2023, the authors surveyed 908 researchers in environmental sciences to estimate and compare the amount of effort needed to conduct scientific activities in English between researchers from different countries and different linguistic and economic backgrounds. The result showed significant level of language barrier for non-native English speakers. The non-native English speakers need more time to read and write a paper. They require more efforts to proofread a manuscript. Their manuscripts are more likely to be rejected by the journals due to English writing. Further, they face major barriers in preparing and making oral presentations in seminars and conferences conducted in English. The study did not factor in mental stress, lost opportunities and cases of those who dropped out due to language barrier hence overall consequences on non-native English speakers are likely to be more severe than found by this study. In the absence of any institutional support, it is left on non-native English speakers to make extra efforts and investments to overcome the barriers and build careers in science. The study recommends provision of language-related support at institutional and societal levels to minimise the disadvantages for non-native English speakers. Given 95% of the world population is non-native English speakers and general population is the ultimate source of researcher, provision of support at institutional and societal levels is imperative. The society can ill afford to miss contributions in science from such a large untapped pool1.  

Artificial intelligence (AI) is one scientific development that has potential to address some of important problems faced by non-native English speakers at very low cost. Many AI tools are now commercially available that provide good quality neural translations in nearly all languages. It is also possible to proofread manuscripts using AI tools. These can reduce amount of effort and cost in translations and proofreading.  

For convenience of non-native English speakers and readers, Scientific European uses AI-based tool to provide good quality neural translation of articles in over 80 languages covering nearly whole mankind. Translations may not be perfect but when read with original article in English, comprehension and appreciation of the idea becomes easy. As a science magazine, Scientific European is geared to disseminate significant developments in science and technology to scientifically minded general readers especially young minds many of whom will choose careers in science in future.  

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Source:  

  1. Amano T., et al 2023. The manifold costs of being a non-native English speaker in science. PLOS. Published: July 18, 2023. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3002184  

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Umesh Prasad
Umesh Prasad
Science journalist | Founder editor, Scientific European magazine

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