How Societies are Contributing to Multilingual Science
English is undoubtedly the lingua franca of academic communication. Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, and German have each previously enjoyed this status, but none became so deeply entrenched as English. In fact, English is so pervasive in science and academia in many countries that English-language papers outnumber those published in the native language. For example, English-language papers outnumber Dutch ones by over forty times in the Netherlands. This development has been favorable to native English speakers. However, only around 6% of the global population speak English natively, and around three quarters speak no English at all.
Despite the increasingly monolingual nature of scientific reporting, the world remains multilingual. Many languages have millions of native speakers, yet very few available publications are ever translated, creating a substantial knowledge gap. A multilingual approach can greatly boost audiences and create a more equitable flow of information with less bias towards native English speakers.
The multilingual advantage for research societies
Academic societies exist to promote their fields and support researchers therein. As such, using multiple languages can greatly increase their audiences, help them meet their goals more effectively. Indeed, many have recognized this need and are offering more multilingual materials than ever.
While researchers around the world would appreciate materials in dozens of languages, translation is a time- and resource-intensive process. Before any multilingual initiative, it is worthwhile for an academic society to research the current landscape of information for target languages and identify gaps in currently offered resources. Additionally, societies will benefit more from targeting large countries such as China (home to more researchers than even the US), or languages that are shared by many countries, such as Arabic, French, or Spanish.
What research societies offer
Translated versions of society journals
Creating an entire new edition of each journal issue in another language would be prohibitively expensive. However, offering digest versions for international audiences can greatly cut these costs. For instance, select articles from Gastroenterology are printed in a Spanish-language quarterly digest. Furthermore, a society can select different strategies depending on the language; Gastroenterology is compiled with Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology into a single quarterly Japanese-language digest.
Digests can also include abstracts and other content unique for the target language or geographical area, further improving relevance for the audience.
Translated news and newsletters
Many journals have dedicated news sites, which can be great for reaching new audiences, as news articles are both shorter and more layperson-friendly than traditional academic papers. Furthermore, these articles can be distributed as email newsletters, which also have the benefit of “teasing” the audience with information to draw in traffic to your website.
One example of this is Chemical & Engineering News, the news site for the American Chemical Society (ACS). This site is now offered in four additional languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, and Arabic, providing impressive coverage for billions of non-English speakers. Much like digests, these international versions also have the opportunity of providing tailored content.
Videos are increasingly popular online, not only for entertainment but also education. Younger people increasingly prefer video for their online media. Videos are also “shareable,” which fits well with strategies to improve awareness of societies and their work.
Translating existing content can affordably help you reach new audiences. YouTube also supports user-submitted translations of content, which allows volunteers to broaden the scope of languages on offer. The Royal Institution offers subtitled versions of some of its well-known videos.
Publishing multilingual video abstracts, as the American Gastroenterology Association has done, is an excellent way of expanding your scope of video content and providing researchers with a new avenue to make their research known.
Multilingual learning materials
Societies have increasingly produced many learning materials for many audiences, ranging from children to professionals. Translated versions of these materials are an affordable way of expanding audience reach and awareness outside of your traditional range. Some successful examples include Spanish-language education materials offered by the ACS or American Phytopathological Society.
While English will remain the leading language for science for the foreseeable future, a multilingual strategy can broaden your audience and address gaps in academic contributions between native English speakers and everybody else. Offering multilingual resources is a great opportunity for societies to fulfil their core mission of promoting their field worldwide.