Copyright: Maren Winter

Is German a dying scientific language?

German scientists have been discussing whether their mother tongue still is (or should again become) an important international scientific language.

German was, alongside French and English, one of the leading scientific languages in the 19th and early 20th century. Scientists like Max Planck and Sigmund Freud even spoke German at US American universities. Then the allied academies of science imposed a scientific and linguistic boycott against German and Austrian scientists. With a dampened international importance after the First World War, German was excluded from international scientific federations, congresses and publications. This has been a loss that has not been compensated later on.

Later, the USA advanced to become the most important scientific force and English to the most important international scientific language essentially knocking French out of the running.

Some scientist state that today, even inside Germany, English is increasingly used as the only scientific language. Ralph Mocikat from the German Research Center for Environmental Health says that this is mainly true for natural science and technical disciplines. At conferences with only German speaking participants, speeches are almost always given in English and applications for research funding must be submitted in English. Mocikat also observes that more and more universities convert their study programs into English. The philologist Jürgen Schiewe believes that German, as a scientific language, is being replaced by English and that this process is being pushed by the Bologna process which aims to produce a European Higher Education Area with US American standards. Other scientists doubt that the German language is completely lost in the natural sciences and the technical disciplines in German universities. Most scientists agree that German is inside Germany still the most important scientific language in the humanities, the social sciences, in law and economics – and even internationally used in philosophy.

Still, German apparently cannot compete with English as international scientific language and will not be able to do so in future. Instead, it seems that German will be abandoned in more and more scientific fields. Alexander Kekulé of the Medical Faculty at Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg says that by using English as a lingua franca scientists from all over the world can communicate fast, precisely and with consistent definitions. Only because of the collective language and the internet, Kekulé says, scientists from developing and threshold countries can participate in the global discourse. But there are many scientists who do not agree with Kekulés perception. Most of them are convinced that content cannot be perfectly translated from one language into the other and that monolingualism has a negative effect on scientific creativity and innovation. And there are also some scientists who are anxious that this might disservice German scientists who are forced to do research in a foreign language.

Featured image credit: Maren Winter via Shutterstock

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3 thoughts on “Is German a dying scientific language?”

  1. This the glacial process by which one language is superseded by another. Not only in science is German being superseded but also in pan-European venues, where multi-language audiences are addressed in English, is English taking precedence over the languages of Europe. It is not hard to conceive that every decade of further European integration will see as a by-product the use of English superseding Europe’s own languages. Pretty much as in India and Nigeria, and other multi-language states, English has been used to enable differing linguistic groups to communicate on a national level. Unless Europe and its states sees this issue as something that needs to be addressed then it is inevitable that in a century English will be the language spoken by Europeans when they talk and write to each other. It is only a problem if Europeans see it as a problem. Personally, after spending years trying to learn German and becoming somewhat acquainted with German literature it would be the loss in human diversity if German or French or any language is displaced by English. But it seems inevitable if Europeans continue on the course they are on, where language is not an issue that is being raised. Wouldn’t Europe be better served if French, German and Italian, and possibly Spanish were the languages used when communicating across the EU?

  2. German will rise again. In the footsteps of the german Wirtschaft and military power. You will see it. German will be the frabca lingua in EU because UK will leave the EU. God save the queen. 🙂

  3. This is nonsense. There is much more invented in Germany than in France and GB. In 1900 each second book in the world was written in German!