Back in 2006 while attending a conference held in Bern in Switzerland, I met an Algerian researcher from the University of Annaba, and what I liked about him was how he communicated with the conference attendees in English. His proficiency in the English language allowed him to share his research results with scientists from all around the world, from China and Britain, to the US, Russia, France, Germany, Jordan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, and beyond. This encounter was a good example of why Algerian researchers should master the English language. However, after a while, I realised that this particular encounter was the exception rather than the norm and most Algerian researchers that I met afterwards either did not have a good handle on the English language or their level of proficiency was poor enough to hinder their ability to adequately express and present their research. This observation has led me to write this short article to highlight the importance of the English language in scientific research.
In early October 2008, the Nobel committee in Stockholm announced that the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine of that year was awarded to three scientists: two from France and one from Germany. The prize was awarded for their discoveries of the viruses that cause AIDS and cervical cancer. My personal research back then was in the area of AIDS and so I was aware of the importance of the discovery of HIV. In fact, I had come across the scientific paper in which the two French scientists presented their discovery. That particular paper was published in the weekly (British) scientific magazine Nature. It is interesting how French scientists published their most important results in English even though there are plenty of French journals they could publish in. As far back as the 1980s or even before then French scientists had realised the importance of publishing in English in order to maintain their status in the forefront of scientific innovation. We, on the other hand, in 2013, are still publishing the majority of our research in French and most of our researchers still do not master the English language in neither written nor spoken forms. If one browses thorough scientific journals published in English, one would find a huge number of publications produced by French researchers working in French universities. To take an example, I used a search engine to search for scientific publications produced from France in English during the month of July 2013 and the result I obtained was 3281 publication. This is an incredible number! There is no doubt that language is a fundamental element of identity, one that an individual holds with pride, but then again the pride of French scientists in their language did not prevent them from publishing their research findings in English because they know that publishing results in English will achieve what publishing the same results in French won’t.
Japanese scientists also publish most of their research findings in English, perhaps more so than French scientists. I conducted a similar search to look up research publications in July 2013 and the results were 5114 publication! Take for example the Japanese scientist Akira Suzuki who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2010 or Makato Kobayashi who also won the Nobel prize in physics in 2008 or many more others, and you will find that they publish most of their research results in English. Surely, the Japanese scientists, just like their French counterparts, take great pride in their language. However, they also realise that publishing science in English achieves what publishing in Japanese doesn’t. And of course, this pattern goes beyond Japanese and French scientists to all nationalities, everybody uses English to publish scientific findings and communicate with their peers.
Algerian scientists publish their research findings in a number of languages including Arabic, French and English. Choosing to publish in Arabic or French is most likely the result of not mastering the English language, at least this is the impression I get from talking to fellow Algerian researchers. However, the issue should not only be about publishing in English since communicating with fellow researchers in English also opens up wider opportunities when compared with communicating using other languages. It is clear, for example, that not mastering the English language reduces the opportunities of Algerian students when it come to their prospects for further studies after graduation. We often find that most Algerian students would choose to attend universities in French speaking countries (mostly in France) to continue their postgraduate studies because they can speak French. I remember when I was working in an American university a while ago, I met postgraduate students from all over the world including India, Egypt, France, South Korea, Japan, South Africa, Nigeria…etc. but I did not meet a single Algerian student. The common denominator between these people I met was their proficiency of the English language. They were also hard working students who graduated from their countries having achieved high grades and were thus offered scholarships from American universities to study in America. Surely, mastering the English language has contributed to increasing their choices and opportunities to study in a wider set of countries.
In my opinion there are two ways of addressing the language barrier faced by Algerian researchers, a short and a long term solution. The first suggestion is to establish a translation centre in every Algerian university whose job would be to help researchers translate their work and the research findings they wish to publish in English. These centres would also help researchers throughout the process of submitting and reviewing their work for publication. In addition, they will provide help during the editorial process when communicating with journal editors. The success of these centres will depend on a number of things, most important of which is the quality of the translations they produce and staffs’ understanding of the publication processes in scientific journals, which can be complicated at times. The second suggestion is to incorporate English in higher education in various ways, and what I think is appropriate is to eventually teach Masters and PhD courses, at least in the sciences, in English. Here I should mention that such approach has been applied in French universities for a while now, particularly with regards to teaching subjects pertaining to science. This will result in forming future generations who are capable of communicating in English with scientists and researchers from around the world, whether in writing or in speaking. In comparison to the first suggestion, the results of the second will take relatively longer to be seen. Finally, I would have really liked to have written this article stressing the need for using Arabic in teaching sciences at the postgraduate level, but the reality on the ground imposes on us that scientific communication is done in English. Perhaps once we become amongst the leading nations in science, we can start publishing our research findings in Arabic, and because of their importance others will translate the studies into their native languages.