The use of English in South African science

  • Jude Edmund Cobbing Metago Water Geosciences
Keywords: Language, English


Scientific reports, articles, strategies and plans in South Africa (and elsewhere) are often written in unnecessarily confusing, complex and obscure language. While this is often unintended, it can be used by some to assert authority and discourage inquiry or dissent. Specialist styles of writing and jargon used by business, management or socio-economic development professionals are often copied or echoed in other contexts where their meaning is less clear. Although there is some very clear scientific writing in South Africa, confusing and obscure writing is common and may even be a growing problem. This style of writing may act as a barrier to entry for speakers of English as a second language (the majority of South Africans), who must devote extra time to mastering the medium rather than the content of science writing. The problem is even found in some school textbooks aimed specifically at speakers of English as a second language. The various uses of poor language in science in South Africa have unwanted and potentially serious implications, including supporting unwanted power and institutional hierarchies, alienating the general public, confusing decision-makers, hampering efforts towards transformation, discouraging debate, and diverting time and energy away from scientific work and cooperation.

Author Biography

Jude Edmund Cobbing, Metago Water Geosciences
Senior hydrogeologist at Metago Water Geosciences, Pretoria


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