English is widely regarded as the global language of science now. In China, we use simplified Chinese to write scientific textbooks, teach courses and do almost everything. Let's take the simplest example, single variable calculus. I have used both a Chinese version and an English version (Thomas' "Calculus"), and to me, the English version is much, much better than the Chinese version. The technical terms become much clearer. Let's take the example of "Differentiate," "Differential," "Differentiation". When translated into Chinese, they have the same name "微分," and the subtle difference is gone.

And my question is, how can you prove one language is more efficient than another language for science? Like proving English is more efficient than Chinese for science.

Update: Since almost all of you guys agree that any language is OK for science, the question is now about efficiency in scientific contexts.

  • I'm not sure if this question is about linguistics or philosophy of science. Also, I can't see why would you need to prove Chinese unsuitable for science. If you think about your examples, they are words that come from Latin, and they were adapted to English in a scientific context. You don't really need to prove that a language is not suitable for science, What you need is a metalanguage that includes adequate terminology to explain the phenomena you're studying. There are strategies to help any language deal with linguistics: transliteration, coining of new words, paraphrasing, etc.
    – edominic
    Mar 6 '13 at 14:02
  • @KleinePrins Correct me if I am wrong.I think you can prove a relation between Science and Language it used.For example,what if we continue using Latin in scientific context,there maybe no science explosion. Mar 6 '13 at 14:35
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    I'm sorry, I don't understand your comment. Could you rephrase it?
    – edominic
    Mar 6 '13 at 16:46
  • The words you mentioned, differentiate, differential, differentiation, and other such terms are nouns, verbs, and adjectives -- all open class words. That means that if a language as complex as Chinese lacks specific words, its speakers are free to invent them. I cannot read Chinese characters. Perhaps you use other marker words to indicate what 微分 means?
    – prash
    Mar 6 '13 at 23:13
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    You cannot prove a language is more efficient than another because it relies too heavily on personal preference. You prefer English to Mandarin when talking about advanced mathematics but that does not make it objectively better for discussing advanced mathematics. If a language is capable of expressing a concept then it is obviously fit to express that concept. However, you may prefer the way it's expressed in a different language but that's subjective.
    – acattle
    Mar 7 '13 at 9:34

The OP is making a very common mistake when it comes to comparing languages. If you can find a copy of Language Myths by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, I suggest you read Myth #2: Some Languages Just aren't Good Enough. If you can't find a copy then this blog should give you the rough idea.

Let's examine the example given in the question: differentiate, differential, differentiation are all collapsed into a single word, 微分. The OP says that this makes the words lose their "subtle difference". But what is the difference between these words?

Differential is a noun referring to "a change in the linearization of a function." Differentiate is a verb roughly meaning "find the differential". Finally, Differentiation is a noun meaning roughly "the act of finding the differential".

If memory serves, Mandarin Chinese (like English) has a strict word order meaning that the "differentiate" verb form of 微分 should be unambiguous. However, this leave some ambiguity between the "differential" and "differentiation" forms.

Except, such an ambiguity will most likely be resolved though context meaning that there's no real loss of meaning. Even in English there is no sentence using the word "differentiation" that can't be restated using "differential". For example, "Show the differentiation" could be restated as "show how to find the differential". The only reason these multiple noun forms exist is because using "differential" constantly could create some aesthetically unpleasing sentences, nothing to do with meaning.

To give a more generic example, imagine a language spoken by a small tribe of primitive fishermen in the Amazon rain forest. They don't have words for "nuclear power" or "the internet", so that means they're incapable of talking about them, right? Wrong! The wonderful thing about language is it's living and changing. If you said "nuclear power" or "the internet" to Shakespeare, he'd be dumbfounded. English had to invent those words and if you introduced those concepts to our hypothetical Amazonian fishermen they'd invent a word for it too.

Loanwords are a type of invention too. English had to take the word kowtow from Mandarin to describe that act. Similarly, we literally translated the word face to describe the Confucian concept.

Given enough time any language can find a way to describe any concept. Therefore you cannot say that one language is "unfit" to describe something.

However, I will offer one proviso: English is used as the international language of science. This is not because other languages are unable to describe scientific concepts but used in order to promote sharing and understanding of scientific works. The Ur-example is Gregor Mendel who discovered how inheritance worked as early as the 1860s but because he published his work in Hungarian and in an obscure journal, it was not until the 1900s, after his death, that his work was rediscovered and revolutionized the way scientists viewed genetics. Perhaps if he had published in a German or French journal his work would have been recognized sooner.

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    And trust me,you don't know how terrible to look at advanced mathematics in Chinese. Mar 7 '13 at 7:21
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    @AveMaleficum That's a subjective statement. I know it sounds "wishy-washy" or "too polictically correct" to say this but there is no such thing as better or worse when comparing languages, only different.
    – acattle
    Mar 7 '13 at 9:36
  • The Chinese team keeps winning all gold medals in the International Mathematical Olympiad. They must be making up for their unsuitable language by all mastering English as well as maths to overcome this disadvantage (-; Jun 4 '13 at 15:46
  • The political correctness expressed in this answer and in many of the comments is too thick for my taste. The notion that a given language is better for practical communication about whatever subject should not frighten us. Despite its status as the international language, English could be made much, much easier to use and thus better if its spelling were reformed. Native and nonnative speakers could learn English more easily. Its practicality as the international language would increase. Other languages have been quite capable of reforming their orthography (e.g. German, French, Russian). Apr 5 '14 at 22:02
  • Looking at Chinese from my naive perspective, I can well imagine that nonsimplified written Chinese is more difficult to learn than languages that use the Roman alphabet due to the large number of symbols and combinations of symbols that one has to master. That probably makes nonsimplified Chinese less suitable as an international language for science and otherwise. Apr 5 '14 at 22:11

A language is a tool for conveying meaning. If you can convey the meaning then the language is a good tool for that.

All (really, all) modern languages are good for scientific expressions. If they weren't, they would have already died by today.

Chinese and English are very different, for example, Chinese is much more idiomatic. And yes, the way you convey a meaning is different. There are thousands of examples of Chinese terms that don't translate to English accurately:

  • 火车 doesn't mean 火 (fire) + 车 (cart);
  • 网路 is not 网 (net) + 路 (path);

I'm sure, you can give many, as well.

Difficulty to translate does not mean uselessness for science.

Yes, it is possible that some terminology in scientific books is based on English, and, sometimes, is using English idiomaticity ("net" is a good example — computer network has nothing to do to fishnets and spider webs). For a foreigner, it may become a difficulty to grasp an entire meaning. But again, it does not mean the language is useless for science.

  • It may not be useless,but it lacks efficiency. Mar 7 '13 at 1:15
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    Does it lack efficiency? An English learner has to learn the relationship between 'dividend' and 'divisor': why does the 'd' become an 's', the layperson asks? In Chinese, the relationship is obvious: 被除數 'dividend', 除數 'divisor'.
    – jogloran
    Mar 7 '13 at 6:39
  • @jogloran In advanced concepts,especially in chemistry and biology,using Chinese is completely disaster. Mar 7 '13 at 7:17
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    If you start with the idea of "conveying meaning" then you're already lost. There's no way to measure "meaning", and there's no way to measure "rate of conveyance". And beside, there's no conveyance to measure. This is strictly Conduit Metaphor thinking, and does not describe natural language.
    – jlawler
    Mar 7 '13 at 16:46
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    Amusing that chemistry in Chinese is so often used as a negative example. I've heard this from Chinese speakers and I don't doubt it's true. The funny part is that much of chemistry can so easily be expressed across language barriers due to the pictorial representations.
    – igelkott
    Mar 29 '13 at 22:41

I think this is a very interesting question, though I have no idea for an objective way of assessing experimentally the scientific efficiency of a language, and even less for theorizing the results of such an experiment.

However the answers already given and their comments are rather surprising to me as they appear almost exclusively concerned with terminology.

Terminology seems to be the easy part. It does matter to some extent, as science is always in need for new words. For example, it seems that English does not mind too much creating new words, or assembling them into new expressions. French (at least in France) seems more reluctant and less flexible. Neologisms are more awkward. It may be related to a traditionally more prescriptive view of the language, possibly due to the creation of the French Academy in the 17th century. It may also be due to even more centuries of efforts to unify the country (which lead to political centralisation), and unifying the language was one way to achieve that (though Language Myths has arguments that may indicate that these considerations were not relevant). Still, France has managed to do reasonably well in the sciences.

Terminology hurdles are somewhat easy to overcome. If a word is needed, one will be found or created, or borrowed.

I think the issue of suitability for scientific thought has more to do with morphology (inflexion) and syntax, inasmuch as they are the main vehicle for expressing relations in the semantics of sentences.

Scientific thought is about establishing and organizing relations (temporal, causal, hypothetical ...) between facts and phenomena, about organizing the world in a net of relations. If the kind of relation that is needed is not expressible in the language, it will not be available in the thinking and the scientific knowledge will not be able to develop.

This connects somewhat to the ideas of Thomas Kuhn regarding scientific revolutions which, according to him, are based on a conceptual change of perspective. But to work with new concepts, you must be able to express them in your language. Progress in the mathematics has been highly dependent on the development of mathematical notation (the language of mathematics) to express the needed concepts (the notation for zero is a classical example).

The significant development of scientific reasonning in ancient Grece seems directly related to the development of rethorics, the art of discourse, which goes much beyond a mastery of terminology.

To get back to more direct experience, the difficult part in learning a new language (say Russian or ancient Greek, for example) is not so much learning the vocabulary, or even the morphology and syntax rules. It is to grasp the semantic relations that are expressed with the morphology and the syntax, and can be significantly different from other languages (I am thinking for example of verb tenses).

I believe that it is precisely these structures that are essential for scientific thinking. Now, it would require more knowledge than I have to assess the suitability of this or that language, or language feature, for science. It could even be that it depends on the kind of science or of scientific activity.

Added after comments (June 7, 2013) :

I am adding this to reply to comments. But I feel pushed to the limit of what I can assert credibly.

I made the assumption that discourse structure and expression of relations is expressed through syntax more than through terminology. The assumption is likely to result to some extent from my ignorance and biases, and it would really require a systematic analysis in a variety of languages. This analysis itself would demand knowing/identifying the fundamental semantic concepts and relations that are essential for science, probably through synchronic and diachronic, and probably cultural (I am not sure what is the correct technical term) analysis scientific texts. They might even differ somewhat according to the scientific areas concerned. I would be suprised if nothing had been done/published already.

Contrasting it with texts that give non scientific (to be defined, without anachronisms) explanations of the world might be useful too.

The work of historians of science would probably be an important starting point.

Regarding isolation vs inflection, I have little to say. I am not competent to speak, but my intuitive understanding is that they both have expressive power for structuring a sentence, which is really what I was trying to say. For example, if you cannot express clearly what is implied when you state that all linguists are liars, I am not sure you will be able to develop modern scientific knowledge and discourse.

I am also wondering whether some languages might have a greater affinity for ambiguity or multiplicity of meanings, and whether it could have an impact on scientific thinking.

Regarding the tenses of verbs, it was in my personnal experience the first thing that struck me as capable of impacting systematically the way some people think of (for lack of a better expression) correlation of events. How much these variations may affect scientific thinking, I do not know.

Not totally unrelated reference. There was a SE discussion on programming languages and natural language: Are programming languages becoming more like natural languages?

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    Morphology ≠ inflection. Chinese, like many languages, does not have inflection, just as English does not have agglutination. But Chinese certainly has morphology with 被除數 : 除數 being an example. Morphology is basically everything related to morphemes. Inflection is the use of morphemes which encode multiple categories at once, just as the s in eats encodes 3rd person + singular + present tense. In fact English is famous among European languages for having so little inflection. Are you suggesting that languages with more inflection, or more tenses, are even more efficient for science? Jun 4 '13 at 15:57
  • @hippietrail Morphology ≠inflection: of course; I meant to say that inflexion is the part of morphology I am interested in, because my own bias is to see inflexion as part of syntax, since its categorization is achieved syntactically in more isolating languages. I am really after syntax (btw, inflection does not always encode multiple categories at once, e.g., Finnish, but it matters little). I am not saying "the more, the better". I am saying that you need a minimum of conceptual expressiveness regarding various types of relations to be able to express effectively scientific thinking.
    – babou
    Jun 4 '13 at 16:52
  • Finnish is the perfect example of an agglutinative language which shows exactly this difference from an inflected language. (Now it's true that these typology classifications are not always cut and dried but, just like the concept of the phoneme, it has proven its usefulness despite its limitations.) Since you believe there to be a "minimum" perhaps you can enumerate them. Some people would hold that English is very minimal - more isolating than inflecting. Is this the minimum of which you speak? Jun 5 '13 at 2:33
  • @hippietrail - To be honest, I mentionned Finnish because I had just read about it. It is not in my area of competence. For your other remarks, I try to reply in the text of my main answer, to avoid space limitations.
    – babou
    Jun 7 '13 at 12:49

The OP seems to be bilingual in English in Chinese. Perhaps they think that being bilingual equates to equal mastery of both language in ALL domains (social, scientific, political, economic discourses, and so on). However, the notion of a balanced bilingual is mostly a myth. My point is that you (the OP) seem to favor English for mathematical and scientific discourse. I would put your original question to a Chinese scholar in variable calculus or any other field and ask them if they think their language isn't good enough to handle the concepts.

  • What seems to be missing from all the answers and comments is the notion of ease of learning. In my view, the easier a language is to learn and use, the more suited it is going to be as an medium for communication in science and otherwise across cultures. The easier it is to learn and use, the more people worldwide there will be who can use it. Apr 5 '14 at 22:27

let me give you a maths example: pentagon, hexagon, heptagon, octagon, nonagon, decagon,???-gon 五边形,六边形,七边形,八边形,九边形,十边形,一百边形

Chinese does not need to invent new words as English needs to. Think about it, which is easier to understand - lard/suet/talon or 猪油/羊油/牛油?

  • Welcome to the site! Could you please provide transliterations for your Chinese examples? Those who don't read Chinese (such as me) won't be able to fully understand your answer otherwise.
    – robert
    Nov 4 '13 at 17:03
  • This answer leaves me hopelessly confused - a transliteration would definitely help. Downvoted until clarified.
    – P Elliott
    Nov 4 '13 at 20:04

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