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World Englishes, Vol. 1 No. I . pp. 63-12, 1988. 0883-2919/88 53.W+O.

printed in Great Britain. Pergamon Press plc

English, information access, and technology transfer:

a rationale for English as an international language

ABSTRACT:The role of English as an international language has engendered considerable debate

recently [e.g. Kaplan (1983a) science, technology, language and information; Kaplan (1983b) Science,
221,4614; Quirk (1985) in English in the World(edited by R. Quirk and H. Widdowson), pp. 1-6;
Bailey (1983) in Literucyfor Life (edited by R. W. Bailey and R. Fisheim), pp. 30-44; and Bailey
(1987) Resistance to the spread of English]. In this paper it-is argued that English is the major
international language at least in part because it is the dominant world language of science and
technology. In particular, its role in information access and technology transfer is a major explanation
for the rise of English world-wide. Evidence is presented both to support Enghsh as the international
language of science and technology and to explain its essential role in information access globally.
Implications of the analysis are discussed for English language teaching as well as for the role of
language in future information access systems. The arguments presented suggest that no country
can afford to ignore the important role English plays in information access and technology transfer
and still expect to compete professionally and economically.

The spread of English as an international language has become a topic of considerable
interest over the last 10 years as evidenced by such volumes as Bailey and Gorlach (1982),
Brumfit (1982), Greenbaum (1985), Kachru (1982, 1986), Quirk and Widdowson (1985)
and Smith (1983). While most discussions of the status of English view the spread of English
favourably, or at least as a neutral phenomenon, the argument has also been raised that
the spread of English represents a form of cultural imperialism. Such an argument, most
commonly raised in informal discussion, has received serious treatment in a series of papers
by Richard W. Bailey (1983, 1985, 1987). This view, that the spread of English represents
a form of cultural imperialism, is forcefully argued in Bailey’s 1983 article, where he states:
People bent on imposing their ways on others have no difficulty in contriving arguments to justify their
doing so. The historical and present-day spread of English is no exception to that principle (p. 31).
He later concludes:
The hegemony of English that has steadily grown with the increase in global communication is now beginning
to diminish and will shrink further in the immediate future (p. 40).
These two perspectives on English as a world language, as a hegemony and as being in decline,
are serious issues, particularly so for those of us with an interest in the phenomenon of
language spread or the profession of English language teaching, and deserve carefully
considered exploration.
There is clearly much truth to the statement that we English speakers have an interest
in preserving our privileged position. It will be argued, however, that the interests of native
English speakers may well be irrelevant to the real impetus for English language spread
world-wide, and that the circumstances and conditions supporting the spread of English
are unlike any past situation involving a world language [cf. Bailey (1983), Brosnahan (1973),
Quirk (1985) and Kachru (19831. The spread of English over the last 20 years is, in large
part, the result of the need or desire for information access, technology transfer, and
*Department of English, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ 86011, USA.

64 William Grabe

economic development. While such a motivation still suggests that English represents
some form of hegemony, it is not of the type associated with colonial imperialism, nor
is it likely to diminish in the near future, When it does diminish, it will not be in the way
that is most typically envisioned.
It should be noted that Bailey, in the 1983 article cited, recognized the use of English
for information access and technology as a legitimate argument in favour of English as
a world language, though he does suggest that this argument for English is not a strong
one, since any language has the potential to be a vehicle for information access, information
dissemination, and technological development. Nor, according to Bailey, is it necessary
for any country to buy into the English-for-development scenario, noting, in 1983, the
resistance to English in Iran, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.
Such a call for linguistic independence may be reasonable if, in fact, a decline in English
as a world language is in progress [cf. Bailey (1987)], and English is not essential for
scientific development. The evidence to date, however, suggests the opposite-English does
appear, still, to be expanding its role as a world language, thus underscoring the importance
of the argument to be made in this paper. To put the matter simply, English is necessary
for any country wishing to modernize and develop a scientific and industrial technology
which will be competitive in world markets. \This situation will remain until such time
in the future as a different language provides the means to greater information access and
technological development, or until computer capacity develops to the point at which
information becomes independent of any particular natural language. Some have termed
this general position as an argument for EST (English for science and technology)
instruction. It will become apparent that much more is at issue.


The importance of English as the language of science and technology has been discussed
since the mid 1970s by Baldauf and Jernudd (1983a,b), Garfield (1987), Kaplan (1980,
1983a,b), Mackey and Mountford (1976), Maher (1986), Michel(l982) and Swales (1985a,b).
The trend toward science and technology publication in English appears to be increasing
still. Baldauf and Jernudd (1983a) compared the percentage of English publications for
five major abstracting and bibliographic services for the years 1965 and 1981. Results of
their findings are summarized nicely in the following table from Swales 1985a):

1965 1981 (Yo)
Chemistry 50 67 17
Biology 75 86 11
Physics 73 85 12
Medicine 51 73 22
Maths 55 69 14

The trend is not simply toward an increase in the use of English, it is convincingly so.
As Baldauf and Jernudd state in their conclusion:
English is clearly the dominant language of science communication, and the proportion of literature in
English has been increasing in most disciplines over the last fifteen years (p. 105).
Similar data are presented in Michel(l982). Despite some discrepancies with Baldauf and
English, information access, and technology transfer 65

Jernudd, the figures he provides represent equally strong support for English as the world
language of science and technology:

English publications in abstracting

services for 1977 (Michel, 1982)
Chemistry 47
Biology 79
Physics 87
Engineering 83
Medicine 16
Maths 65

In yet another study, Maher (1986)follows the increasing use of English in medical
publications from 1966 to 1980:

Index Medicus
1966 1970 1975 1980
English 53% 59% 67% 72%

The more recent research by Maher suggests that the trend is continuing in general, though
Japan may be an exception [see discussion in Maher (1986)l.
Most recently, Garfield (1987)reported that 88% of all articles in the Science Citation
Index are in English, and data from 1978 and 1982 indicate that this trend is consistent.
He noted further that citation data (referring to articles published) indicate an even greater
English predominance. Some 96% of all citations in the indexed journals (from 1978 through
1982)referred to articles written in English. Garfield also examined the situation where
French, Japanese and Russian scientists had to choose whether to publish in English or
their own language. For French scientists, he referred to Swinburne (1983)who found that
they cited their own English language publication 4 times as often as their French language
publications, suggesting that they, themselves, valued the English language publication more
highly. Similar research from Garfield's own citation research on Japanese publications
revealed that Japanese scientists cite their own English language publications 3 times as
often as their Japanese publications (from 1978 through 1982). With regard to Russian
science publications, he noted a large increase in the use of English as a publishing medium.
Finally, it is noted by both Kaplan (1980,1982)and McCrum et af. (1986)that 80-85'70
of all information stored in computerized data-bases world-wide is either written in English
or abstracted in English.
English clearly is the dominant language of science and technology world-wide. Given
this fact, it must be recognised that any country wishing to modernize, industrialize, or
in some way become technologically competitive, must develop the capacity to access and
use information written in the English language. The increasing speed by which information
is sent and received, the near-exponential growth in published materials in the last 20 years,
the severe competition demands created by government industries and private multinational
corporations all make the position of English as a world language a relatively stable
66 William Grabe


If the concern was simply one of which language the scientists should use for their
publications, the matter would be an important concern but not one with pervasive
implications. In fact, the use of English as the language of science and technology also
means that it is, de fucto, the language of information access world-wide. In order to
understand the implications of this statement, it will be necessary to present a number of
basic assumptions about the nature of scientific research, information access, and
information management. Six assumptions discussed here, albeit briefly, are the following:
(a) Scientific information is cumulative.
(b) The time from discovery to application has decreased markedly.
(c) The rate of information growth is nearly exponential.
(d) A sophisticated information access system is needed to handle the near-exponential growth of
(e) Much of the information available world-wide is in English.
(f) Countries must have access to information to be competitive.
First, it is not controversial that scientific information is cumulative. Scientists operate
from within a complex network of information. Great quantities of information must be
made available to the researcher’s information network before the moment at which he
taps into it to develop some branch of research further (Subramanyam, 1981;Burke, 1978)
[for a more philosophical perspective see Bruffee (1986),Kuhn (1970)and Shapiro (1987)l.
The scientist sitting alone in his laboratory, working in isolation, is not an accurate model
for advanced research and development. Rather, the scientist must be able to call upon
a large body of existing research, to work within this ever increasing body of information,
and to exchange his findings with others who will, in turn, individually and collectively
advance research. Nor is it enough to have access to information; scientists must use and
report the information available, as well as their own findings, within an appropriate
sociology of knowledge framework.* It appears to be the case, from studies on the
sociology of science, that good research is not likely to get published in major journals
without appropriate reference to ‘authoritative’ personages and concepts in the particular
research field (Myers, 1985, 1986;Bazerman, 1983,1984,1985;Gilbert and Mulkay, 1984),
and these tend to be, for better or worse, interpreted through an English world view.
Second, in scientific research, modern management procedures and equipment have
drastically reduced the time necessary to move from information access to scientific
discovery to technical innovation and application. The research needed to develop plastic
can be traced back hundreds of years (Burke, 1978),yet research breakthroughs may now
occur in as short a time span as 20 min, given the necessary access and the appropriate
understanding of the sociology of science (Davidson, 1983). Modern research and
development requires full access to the latest information if the ongoing research is to be
state-of-the-art and economically competitive. Less than state-of-the-art research is not
worth the enormous investment of time, money and equipment.
Third, the rate of information growth is nearly exponential. As Bell noted in 1980,the
rate of information growth is such that the quantity of information doubles every 4 years
and the cycle length is decreasing. The consequence of this trend is not simply that more
information is available every year, but that the gap between any two countries, one with
access to the latest information and one without, will grow wider as each year passes. If
a country is 1 year behind and gains access to all the relevant information to cover the
past year, that country will fall further behind because this year’s quantity of information
is much larger. Thus, if one country practices state-of-the-art research and another does
English, information access, and technology transfer 61

not, the second country will fall consistently further behind every year as the rate of
information growth increases.
Fourth, in order to handle the near-exponential growth of information, a country must
set up a sophisticated information access system. Such a system would be composed of,
minimally, six levels of information access:
(a) Books.
(b) Journals.
(c) Secondary publications.
(d) Tertiary publications.
(e) Information circulated among less accessible sources.
(f) Computer information network systems.
The notion of access to books and journals, while requiring a large commitment of money
and space, is just the tip of the iceberg. Yet even within this small domain, Naisbitt (1982)
noted that over 7000 science articles were published daily; this number can only have
increased in the intervening years. Beyond the level of these primary publications are
secondary publications (abstracts, textbooks, bibliographies etc.) and beyond these are
tertiary publications (title-and-content pages, bibliographies of bibliographies, etc.). In
addition there is information circulated in private technical reports, government documents,
patent documents, conference papers, and the private circulation of manuscripts; few of
these are likely to find their way into major data-bases. Aside from the publication array
itself are the many applications of the computer, for more rapid bibliographic search and
access, for on-line abstract and full-article access, for domain-of-knowledge research, for
access to computer information network systems, and for inter-data-base link-ups. The
notion of information access takes on new and complex dimensions in the light of the sheer
mass, the technical expertise, and the enormous costs, especially for the planners responsible
for developing new information systems, or expanding ones which have been static (i.e.
in developing nations).
Fifth, much of the necessary information in publication form and in computer access
systems is in the English language, as the evidence discussed earlier indicates. Thus, the
need for access entails persons capable of using and translating English. This situation
does not entail that all persons in a polity must be English users, or even that all scientists
be English users. It does, however, require that English-based information be widely
available and convertible into forms that are ready to be used.
Sixth and finally, countries are competitive to the extent that they have access to
technological information, which is primarily in English. If a modern business or industry,
public or private, wants to compete in world markets and expand production, it must have
access to the latest research and technological applications. To have access, researchers,
managers and administrators must use English to search for the information, to get to
it, and even to utilize it initially. Whatever the mother tongue of the scientist, English is
, the language which he will normally use to get information out of the system.
These six assumptions about science and information access lead to a set of relatively
straightforward implications. In any non-user (non-English) country, there are certain
minimal needs that follow from the above conditions on technological development, First,
the information must be accessible. Second, there will be a need for many qualified
information managers to sift through the maze of information and select material. Third,
there will be a need for ‘appropriate-technology’specialists who can convert available science
information into usable forms consistent with the human, ecological, economic, political,
English, information access, and technology transfer 69

here, requires a sophisticated group of English language users in many knowledge domains.
There is no question that English is a necessary if not sufficient part of information access,
technological development, and world-market competitiveness. It is not clear how far such
an argument for English instruction goes. Clearly, countries around the world that do see
the benefits of modernization have found ways to cope with this issue.
Japan, Taiwan and the Soviet Union make extensive use of translation specialists (at
considerable expense) to gain access to information, and many scientists in these countries
manage quite well in English. [Many Taiwanese scientists enjoy joint citizenship in Taiwan
and the US, thus acquiring direct access to the sophisticated information storage of the
US science community - (Kaplan, 1987).] Most European scientists accept English language
training as a basic part of their professional skills. Countries such as Singapore, Malaysia,
Hong Kong and India represent countries in the outer circle of English [to use Kachru’s
(1985) terminology] and have training in institutionalized Englishes which will allow access
to information. The People’s Republic of China, with millions of people trying to
learn English, may eventually reach the same capabilities as T a i ~ a n . ~
It is clearly not necessary for all citizens of developing nations to become fluent users
of English; it should be equally clear, however, that countries refusing to use English deny
themselves access to the sorts of information and technology which are critical for economic
development. To compensate for the information load carried by English, the choices are
limited; either use massive translation efforts at great cost or reinvent all science from classic
antiquity to the present.


The description presented to this point may strike some readers as a rather dismaying
one. The logic of this argument suggests that English may have a greater lock on its position
as the international language of the world than other arguments would indicate. The cost
of access to information without using English is beyond consideration, particularly
so for developing countries. The cost of access to information via English is enormous
for developing countries, and this is only one condition for access. The lack of access for
a developing country, however, has ominous implications. The question becomes whether
or not there is any way out of the dilemma posed by English, if it is to be seen as such.
In fact, there is a possible change emerging in the knowledge industry, though perhaps
not much more appealing as an equitable resolution. It seems apparent that Japan has
recognized the overwhelming importance of information access and control of the
computerized information systems which organize and define the sociology of scientific
knowledge (Galinksi, 1982; Kaplan, 1983a). After World War 11, with massive aid from
the US, Japan evolved a development strategy which focused primarily on improving science
and technology research. This strategy consisted of four elements:
(a) Concentration on technical information acquisition and management.
(b) Directed investment in academic research based on selected national goals.
(c) Government participation in selected industrial initiatives.
(d) Heavy investment in education at every level.
(Kaplan, 1983a)
Each of these elements has required substantial investments of scarce funds, and each
has required a careful consideration of language needs and language policies (Grabe and
Kaplan, 1986). These policies are coordinated by government agencies in close cooperation
with industry and research institutes: two agencies in particular, MITI (Ministry of
70 William Grabe

International Trade and Industry) and STA (Science and Technology Agency), play major
mediating roles (Suttmeier, 1986). The most visible indication of these policies is the Tsukuba
Science City and the planning being made for other similar research centers (World Press
Review, 1987). More specifically, with respect to language policy, the Japanese governmental
organization JICST (Japan Information Center for Science and Technology) was funded
specifically to identify, translate, store, retrieve and disseminate scientific information.
Through this fully subsidized agency, all scientific and technological information available
anywhere in the world is available in short order in Japanese. Japan has established a goal
to place itself among the world leaders on the emerging knowledge industry by 1993,and
is well along its way toward this goal (Kaplan, 1987).
Pursuing the logic of the arguments for the role of English presented earlier, Japanese
may become the managing language of the new fifth-generation computer information
access system, which would make Japanese a prime candidate as the new language of science
and technology world-wide. Whether many scientists around the world will see sufficient
advantage in accessing such a new system and, at some time in the future, decide to publish
their important research in Japanese remains to be seen. Surely, if such a change were
to take place, it would be more of an evolutionary process than a revolutionary one. It
may well be the case that both Japanese and English will some day share roles as world
languages. The sort of concerted effort being undertaken currently, and for the last 30
years, in Japan is beyond the resource capacities of all but a handful of countries. The
conclusion which might be drawn from this brief discussion of Japan’s prospects is that
the hegemony of English as a world language may be broken someday, but not as a result
of some improbable translation machine allowing every country access t o all information.
Rather, English is likely to remain, but it may be joined by Japanese because massive
investments have been and continue to be made to develop independent access to
information in Japan.s

That English is truly a world language and will likely remain one in the foreseeable future
is a reasonable conclusion to draw from its role in information access and retrieval, as
well as from its role in science and technology research. It should be clear from this paper,
however, that such a statement is not a simple one t o explore, nor are all the specific
arguments as clearly delineated in reality as they have been here. In many cases I have
only touched upon the surface of exceedingly complex issues, any one of which could have
been the entire focus of this paper.6 Nevertheless, the cumulative weight of evidence
suggests that this line of argument for English as a world language represents a strong
explanation for the current dominant position of English, not only as the language of science
and technology, but also as the dominant world language more generally. As Kaplan (1983b)
has noted in an editorial in Science:
It seems reasonable to assert, however difficult it may be to accept, that knowledge of a world language,
especially English, is essential to the welfare of the new nations . . . New nations must find a balance between
the cultivation of indigenous culture-rich language and the need for a world language . . . Any other course
is tantamount to restricting their capability for modernization.
This statement accurately sums up the current position of English as the world language
of information access and technology transfer. Such a preeminent status for English is
likely to continue in the foreseeable future.’
English, information access, and technology transfer 71

Acknowledgements-I would like to thank Bob Kaplan and Fredrika Stoller for reading and commenting on
earlier drafts of this paper.

1. In this paper I will not attempt to treat such terms as science, research and development, technology, and
technology transfer as distinct phenomenon. It must be recognized, however, that they typically are treated
as distinct terms, and entail important conceptual differences. For a brief discussion of this issue see Grabe
and Kaplan (1986).
2. It should be noted that the terms sociology of science and sociology of knowledge may at times be
interchangeable, and at other times not. In this paper, I am assuming their interchangeability.
3. The use of machine translation, while progressing, is still a long way from ideal where any information
required is readily accessible in a number of languages.
4. Estimates of English language learning in the people’s Republic of China vary widely. It is apparent, though,
that the Four Modernizations campaign of the late 1970s and early 1980s has fueled a phenomenal interest
in learning English throughout the country. Even if the English language emphasis continues in the People’s
Republic of China, however, it is not likely that their access to US information data-bases will match Taiwan’s
capabilities in the foreseeable future.
5. An argument could be made that Chinese, as the language with the largest number of speakers world-wide,
is also a prime candidate as a future world language of science and technology. Given the limited economic
resources for basic research in China, the probability that China could commit funds to a research and
information access program to the extent of the Japanese commitment is not likely.
6. I have also not addressed in any detail the economic forces which support tt,e current dominance of English.
The aggressive exportation of US goods, and the value revision that result over time in importing societies,
carry English everywhere. How such an economic argument would fare under careful scrutiny is an open
question for the moment.

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(Received 10 October 1987.)