In the world of research, English proficiency has become a necessary skill, putting considerable pressure on scientists who speak a different first language. A recent study published in PLOS Biology sheds light on the immense language barrier that non-native English-speaking scientists encounter.
English has become an indispensable part of academic life, required for understanding others’ work, publishing findings, participating in international conferences, and collaborating with peers worldwide. However, for the over 90% of the global population who are non-native English speakers, this poses a significant challenge.
The TranslatE project, initiated in 2019, aimed to understand the consequences of language barriers in science. Environmental scientists from eight countries, both native and non-native English speakers, were surveyed to compare the efforts required to achieve scientific milestones.
For non-native English-speaking PhD students, reading papers is a major hurdle. The study found that compared to native English speakers, they need 91% more time to read a paper in English, translating to an additional three weeks per year for the same number of papers.
Publishing papers in English presents another significant obstacle. Non-native English speakers require 51% more time to write the paper, often needing a professional editor, which can be financially challenging in some countries. Furthermore, their papers face rejection 2.6 times more often, and if accepted, they are asked to revise them 12.5 times more frequently than native English-speaking counterparts.
Participating in international conferences is essential for building research networks, but non-native English speakers often feel uncomfortable and embarrassed speaking in English. Preparing for a presentation takes 94% more time for them than for native English speakers.
These language barriers have far-reaching impacts, leading to stress, anxiety, and feelings of incompetence and insecurity among non-native English-speaking scientists. Such negative experiences might drive talented individuals away from scientific careers.
The consequences of language barriers extend beyond the individuals, affecting scientific communities and research itself. Diversity in science fosters innovation and impact, and the contributions of non-native English speakers are crucial in addressing global challenges such as the biodiversity crisis.
To address these issues, the scientific community needs to provide more genuine support for non-native English speakers. Journals can offer English editing support and accept multilingual publications, while conference organizers can implement initiatives like multilingual buddy programs to enhance inclusivity.
Artificial intelligence (AI) could also play a role by providing affordable editing services to those in need. Although some journals have banned the use of AI tools, exploring their effective and ethical use could help break down language barriers.
Instead of viewing non-native English speakers through a deficit lens, the scientific community should recognize their asset lens, appreciating the diverse perspectives they offer. By overcoming language barriers, non-native English speakers enrich humanity’s knowledge base and contribute significantly to the field of science.
Urgent action is required to address language barriers, enabling future generations of non-native English speakers to contribute proudly to the scientific community and unlocking the full spectrum of knowledge generated across the globe.