Challenges facing non-English speaking scholars

Share this on social media:

Vivek Mehra explains how the English language is dominating global communication and changing school structure

English is the dominant language – not just for global communication but also for disseminating scholarly works.

For many educated in Western (primarily American and British) institutions, structured communication and appropriate language is a given.

But for the vast majority of global scholars, English presents a real barrier to dissemination.

The barrier has evolved over time and has large influences from the development of both pure and social sciences. From the late 19th century onwards, mankind made significant strides in innovation, product development and, as the industrial age developed fastest in the West, English became the dominant language of communicating these developments.

Over the years, and especially with the development of multi-lingual computers, there is an increase in the number of non-English research articles (in journals). Unfortunately, these aren’t treated on a par with English journals. They are generally bunched together as databases, and not all libraries prioritise access to them. It is almost like a fait accompli for research scholars to publish in English, and their karma to face up to challenges in disseminating their work.

Here are the top three challenges they face.

Grammar, syntax and nuances
In almost all education systems outside of the USA and UK, English is taught as a second language.

There exist a significant number of curricula where English is the primary medium of instructions. However, even here education is imparted by non-native English speakers.

They are handicapped by not being taught phonetics and over the years the focus on core grammar has only diminished. The end result is a gap in understanding the nuances of the language that starts as early as nursery school (kindergarten).

The gap only widens as one progresses. By the time a native language educated individual becomes a scholar (research or otherwise), the gap is more akin to a canyon! With the popularity of social media and communication becoming more informal, English is morphing into a new, perhaps unknown and definitely more confusing entity, for formal researchers.

The most common problem faced by such a writer is the readability of the scholarly text. This begins with basics such as sentence structure, followed by problems with grammar. Even before these are mastered, syntax and idioms pull the scholarly presentation out of the race to get recognition.

While the scholar ‘does his best’ to record his research, the end product in the hands of the reader is anything but a work that works.

Thinking vernacular, writing English
A significant problem that has not been hitherto given due recognition is the issue of how a scholar thinks.

There is an automatic assumption that scholars across the globe think in a similar fashion, whereas research suggests otherwise. It is believed that humans use language as an aid to memory and think their primary language, even if they speak the same thought in a different language1.

This then creates an additional hurdle for disseminating scholarly research in a non-native language of the researcher. While it is easy for us to club all non-native English speakers as vernacular, practically they are an extremely heterogenous mix. Culture and informal communication, such as speaking at home, build foundations that are distinctly different from that of English as a language.

This problem is larger than what is currently believed. It manifests itself in manuscripts (book and article length) where a reader is confused with the intent of the statement. ‘Lost in translation’ is the most apt phrase to describe this problem.

The scholar thought in his native language, then translated it into English before recording it on some sort of medium. This is a particularly large problem when the native language has grammar and syntax distinctly different from English. To the scholar, the written conforms to the original thought in his native language ‘suitably translated’ into English.

But for the reviewer or reader, it almost reads like a foreign language (and not English). The result is that the scholarly work loses credibility, simply because it isn’t readable or comprehensible in English.

Structuring scholarly writing
Scholarly writings, whether full book length or article length, follow structures that have their origin in practices of writing by English speakers. These structures don’t necessarily exist in native languages.

In fact, many Asian languages don’t have writing structured the way manuscripts in English are. Add to this the fact that writing scholarly works is not a formal subject in most curricula and you have a compounded problem. The effect is that the writing appears to be traveling ‘all across the universe’ and unable to cohesively convey the thoughts of the author.

It is difficult to estimate how much of these problems affect scholarly publishing, but there is secondary evidence to suggest that it is a big problem.

The most common indicator is the high rejection rate that scholars face when submitting multiple articles to multiple journals. When submitting book-length manuscripts, the role of language and structure comes to the fore easily. It is then up to the author to take action to put this right. Here is what publishers are doing about the problem.

Book-length manuscripts:
1. It is a given that a ‘badly written’ manuscript is summarily rejected
2. Where the author has built up a reputation and the work is below par on language, publishers find means to get the language edited.
3. Publishers are getting more restrictive on how they accept submissions. Automation is filtering out content and the most commonly used filter is language and structuring.
4. Providing language-related services to authors is becoming more sought after.

Article-length manuscripts:
1. Journal editorial boards looking for additional ways to help young researchers structure their writing
2. Research institutions bringing language editing and structuring into basic requirements of conducting and writing articles on the research.

The problem, however, isn’t being solved in a hurry. There are signs that research from Asian countries is growing and countries like China lead the pack.

The drivers of this growth are clearly in sync with the provision of article structuring and editing services being experienced by publishers. What was earlier a service publishers shied away from, is now a steady revenue stream for them. But this works where researchers have the money to pay for these expensive services. In African countries, for example, the sort of funding available doesn’t leave much room for paying for editorial and manuscript structuring services. In Asia, South Korea and China lead the pack in paying for these services and getting research published. The rest of the nations are much lower in paid publishing output.

The answer is to visit the problem from different angles. Publishing in English has acquired the prestige by which academic excellence is measured. But is this a fair way of evaluating research?

In a world of thousands of languages (around 7,0002), why do we measure global research in just one? As the world readjusts to growing economies beyond Europe and the Americas, it is time to review the benchmarks used to measure research.

Vivek Mehra is the CEO of SAGE Publications India


1 Filipović, L. (2018). Speaking in a second language but thinking in the first language: Language-specific effects on memory for causation events in English and Spanish. International Journal of Bilingualism, 22(2), 180–198.