Spanish: a language for science

Gonzalo del Puerto - Jefe de Actividades Culturales, Instituto Cervantes en Bruselas | Head of Cultural Events, Institute Cervantes in Brussels · 26-04-2021 10:00 · Science Chronicles

In order to deal, in a necessarily synthetic way, with the topic proposed in the title, it may be useful to begin by quoting some data from the 2020 edition of the Yearbook for the Spanish Language, published by the Instituto Cervantes.

Spanish is the mother tongue of some 500 million people. It is also the third most used language on the Internet, after English and Chinese. Almost 8% of Internet users use the Internet in Spanish.

With regard to the use of Spanish in science, Spanish is the language in which most scientific texts are published after English, although only 4.3% of the world's scientific production originates in a Spanish-speaking country. The 72% of scientific production in Spanish is divided between three main subject areas: social sciences, medical sciences and arts and humanities.

The fact that English is the preferred language of today's scientific community for disseminating research results does not mean, however, that the scientific output of Spanish-speaking countries is small, but rather that much of it is now published in English. The concentration of the world's scientific output in the English-speaking world does not, however, reflect the real scope of English as a vehicular language for scientific communication. This is because an increasing number of scientific publications based outside the English-speaking world are choosing to publish in English. Thus, a large proportion of academic publications by scientists based in countries with an official language other than English are published directly in English even in their home countries.

All of the above provides an overall picture that refines what we already know about the predominant role of the English language, certainly as an international language or lingua franca of science.

This current phenomenon continues the trend towards the concentration of the production of specialised forms of knowledge in lingua francas, which generally reflects the creative pre-eminence, in a given historical period of time, of research communities, to use the term of the American mathematician, logician and philosopher Charles. S. Peirce, in one of these languages and the importance of the theoretical corpus created in them.

In the Western sphere, this phenomenon has occurred in the past in the case of the Greek, Latin and French languages, in which knowledge generated or preserved in other languages has also converged, as is notoriously the case with Arabic and Hebrew. In turn, languages such as Spanish have had a decisive influence on the transmission of Greco-Latin knowledge in the West by serving as a common language for translators of different languages. The best known case in this respect is that of the Toledo School of Translators. Men of knowledge, such as the Segovian philosopher and translator Domingo Gundisalvus, author of De scientiis, the most influential early medieval treatise in Europe in terms of the classification of the sciences, and the Sevillian Juan Hispalense translated, the latter from Arabic into Castilian and the former from Castilian into Latin, the works of Arab scientists, philosophers and mathematicians, in turn translators and developers of the formal and natural sciences, as well as of Greek philosophy. Also from the point of view of Spanish, our language has been a pioneer in the appearance of scientific works, the case of Nebrija's Grammar being the most notorious among the European Romance languages.

In any case, without Latin, the work of Doctor Laguna or that of the Spanish scientific movement of the Renaissance would have had no influence whatsoever on the plurality of research communities of his time. And the same applies to French, which prevailed as the language of science from the 18th to the early 20th century so that if he had not written the most influential of his works in that language, the ideas of Ramón y Cajal could not have influenced the science of his time as they did, nor those of Severo Ochoa, had he not opted for English.

While all of the above is valid with respect to the sciences in general, it should not go without saying that, even in periods of preponderance of the various lingua francas, there have been cases of particular sciences being read in languages other tan linguas francas by non-native readers, including German in the medical sciences and chemistry of the 19th and 20th centuries and Spanish itself as the language of various branches of the social sciences and humanities as from the XIX century.

In view of all this, there is a consensus among scientists, linguists and decision-makers in the relevant state policy domains that the current priority given to science diplomacy in its own field and in the more general field of cultural policy, that it is necessary to continue developing initiatives (by way of simple example, the Corpus Iberia) that promote the normalisation or standardisation of Spanish in its scientific use, both for the various research communities in the Spanish-speaking world and for translation, the dissemination of science to the general public and the promotion of the study of the Spanish language in the context of the university education of foreigners studying and working in the various higher education centres in Spain, This model will in turn serve to enrich the scientific content of the cultural cooperation agreements that Spain has recently signed with sister state entities throughout Spanish-speaking America, including the recent CANOA, of which the Instituto Cervantes is a signatory.


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