What great mathematics are we missing out on because of language barriers? - MathOverflow most recent 30 from http://mathoverflow.net 2013-05-26T08:35:51Z http://mathoverflow.net/feeds/question/21038 http://www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.5/rdf http://mathoverflow.net/questions/21038/what-great-mathematics-are-we-missing-out-on-because-of-language-barriers What great mathematics are we missing out on because of language barriers? cheater 2010-04-11T20:34:38Z 2010-04-12T11:56:18Z <p><strong>Primary question</strong>: What great mathematics are we missing out on because of language barriers?</p> <p>Please post interesting results, pursuits, and branches in mathematics that have not been translated to English. Make sure to mention the language(s) they are accessible in!</p> <p><strong>note</strong>: this question (and the further two) are about specific theorems or branches in mathematics, not about bringing up 'general answers'. Please post the (original language) names of specific theorems, or tell about theories/branches in mathematics worked on by specific groups with the name of the group and a simple note how to contact the group (a name + university name, or www address, or email address suffice).</p> <p>And as a <strong>secondary question</strong>: Please post examples of where mathematical thought is more easily expressed or more intuitive in a language other than English, rather than in English.</p> <p>As a <strong>ternary question</strong>: Please post examples of mathematical theories in history that have stalled due to unnatural or awkward spoken-language associated with the theory, while counterparts in another language have flourished.</p> <hr> <p>I know this question is English-centric, but if I were posting this on a German- (Russian-, Spanish-, Japanese-) speaking forum I would make it German-centric; on the other hand English is now the standard into which people translate their papers.</p> <p><em>One historical example of a big chunk of maths that never made it to English is Grothendieck's EGA.</em></p> <p>A co-question to this question has been asked here: <a href="http://mathoverflow.net/questions/8056/what-are-good-non-english-languages-for-mathematicians-to-know" rel="nofollow">What are good non-English languages for mathematicians to know?</a> However, I disagree with the comments that languages other than English are only good for dead maths; pending research in every country happens in the local language, and that is a huge amount of knowledge to wave away.</p> <p>A similar question but not directly stated in this form is here: <a href="http://mathoverflow.net/questions/17778/books-you-would-like-to-see-translated-into-english/20861" rel="nofollow">Books you would like to see translated into English</a></p> <p>This question is a chance for the native (as well as second-language) speakers of many beautiful languages to tell about mathematical ideas, concepts, theories and results that have not yet transcended the language they were first written in. It is also a place to reflect on expressing specific mathematical concepts in very elegant ways that you think surpass the way we are thinking of them in English. I don't know if this is against the rules, but if not, do not hesitate to post examples in the language you're talking about.</p> <hr> <p><strong>Motivation and background:</strong> The recent question on what books we would like to have translated to English has revived an idea, or question, that I had about the way we learn and propagate ideas in mathematics. What knowledge, and more specifically mathematics (just to be on topic) are we missing out on because we don't know the less-commonly-taught second languages?</p> <p>One person might say that English is the main language currently in which we are publishing papers. For example <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematics_as_a_language" rel="nofollow">Mathematics as a language (Wikipedia)</a></p> <blockquote> <p>It is interesting to note that there are very few cultural dependencies or barriers in modern mathematics. </p> </blockquote> <p>This might be true, to some extent. We all have seen those <em>bad</em> papers - many of us have commited the crimes - of submitting papers with broken English, explaining delicate concepts with the subtlety of a jackhammer. The lingual density of mathematics is immense and, since the spoken word is much more precise, we enhance it by using small nuances that we exaggerate (e.g. contains/consists of) to fit more information into the language that we speak. Before this paper makes it to an English-speaking journal a lot of mathematics is lost: it might be lost in translation; maybe the author didn't have enough time to translate everything; perhaps the author brought up some interesting adages that didn't work in English; maybe their first language allowed a specific 'slang' that made the concepts much easier to talk about. Most importantly, before a paper is submitted, a big, big amount of work happens - you will not learn of it before the select results are published; for one thing, it is a lot of time; for another, we all know that sometimes the most interesting mathematics stay hidden because they somehow didn't make the cut. Finally, maybe the research group did not publish to English because their work was meant to support other research in their country; or they just didn't want to bother, being happy with reaching their local environment. This is a place to bring up this sort of research.</p> <p>In this question we are talking about understanding on a level much higher than 'being able to apply the theorems and formulas'. We are also talking about the 'enlightenment'. A lot of - maybe most? - mathematical thought is encoded in the every-day language being used to describe it, which can be more or less elegant. The fitness of this language to the purpose of the concept can make a big difference - compare the Newtonian school of Calculus becoming stalled because they would not want to forgo the 'dot notation' ($\dot{x}$) that is now largely abandoned and limited only to papers in mechanics. Compare <a href="http://mathoverflow.net/questions/8295/origins-of-mathematical-symbols-names" rel="nofollow">Origins of Mathematical Symbols/Names</a></p> <p>A concept can be explained in raw, dry definitions and formulas using thousands of sentences, or it can be explained in a swift, elegant way because the language has got just the right logical constructs and subtle interactions between linguistic concepts to express the logical constructs and interactions between the concepts in mathematical theory we are learning. Compare <a href="http://mathoverflow.net/questions/358/examples-of-great-mathematical-writing" rel="nofollow">Examples of great mathematical writing</a></p> <p>Related but orthogonal questions that might explain the nature of the problem at hand; further reading:</p> <p><a href="http://mathoverflow.net/questions/9451/what-are-some-good-resources-for-mathematical-translation" rel="nofollow">MO: What are some good resources for mathematical translation?</a></p> <p><a href="http://mathoverflow.net/questions/5936/whats-so-great-about-blackboards-closed" rel="nofollow">MO: What’s so great about blackboards?</a></p> <p><a href="http://mathoverflow.net/questions/3237/japanese-chinese-for-mathematicians" rel="nofollow">MO: japanese/chinese for mathematicians?</a></p> <p><a href="http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a739495006&amp;db=all" rel="nofollow">Towards a New Model of Bilingual Mathematics Teaching: the case of China</a></p> <p><a href="http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&amp;d=5002303489" rel="nofollow">Mathematics is Not a Universal Language - Tara N. Tevebaugh; Teaching Children Mathematics, Vol. 5, December 1998</a> - children are having problems understanding simple, basic mathematics across language barriers; what can be said about immensely more complex ideas that we try to juggle? Concepts can be expressed in mathematical notation; the motivation of those concepts cannot be.</p> <p>Thanks!</p> <p>P.S. This is one of my first few posts on MO. I welcome any comments that can make my contributions better.</p> http://mathoverflow.net/questions/21038/what-great-mathematics-are-we-missing-out-on-because-of-language-barriers/21040#21040 Answer by Felipe Voloch for What great mathematics are we missing out on because of language barriers? Felipe Voloch 2010-04-11T21:14:44Z 2010-04-11T21:14:44Z <p>I think this question is based on an incorrect premise. In my experience (limited to European languages), it is relatively easy to learn enough of a language to read mathematics in it. Certainly much easier than, say, reading the newspaper. I don't think mathematical thought is necessarily expressed better or differently in this or that language.</p> <p>Having said that, reading classical Italian algebraic geometry is great fun. But the language is just a small part of it, it's mostly the style.</p> http://mathoverflow.net/questions/21038/what-great-mathematics-are-we-missing-out-on-because-of-language-barriers/21048#21048 Answer by John Stillwell for What great mathematics are we missing out on because of language barriers? John Stillwell 2010-04-11T23:17:36Z 2010-04-11T23:17:36Z <p>Addressing just the primary question, I think there are clear examples where English-speaking mathematicians have been slow to catch up with developments well-known to German or Russian speakers. One I would mention is the result that surface mappings are generated by twists, published by Dehn in 1938, but rediscovered by Lickorish in 1963. The big advances in the theory of surface mappings due to Thurston in the 1970s were, I think, somewhat slowed by the fact that he had to rediscover many results of Nielsen published in German or Danish in the 1920s.</p> <p>At a more trifling level, I was once embarrassed to learn that a result I published in 1987 was well-known to Russian mathematicians.</p> http://mathoverflow.net/questions/21038/what-great-mathematics-are-we-missing-out-on-because-of-language-barriers/21052#21052 Answer by Gerhard Paseman for What great mathematics are we missing out on because of language barriers? Gerhard Paseman 2010-04-12T01:08:39Z 2010-04-12T01:08:39Z <p>I imagine the questions are more suitable for linguistics than for mathematics. At the core of them is the ability (or lack thereof) to express "things" to an appropriate degree of subtlety or granularity. If I were an Eskimo or one who studied dynamics of materials, I might want 57 different words for snow. Also, I might not understand algebraic geometry as well as one raised in France, but that's not the main reason I am not an algebraic geometer. </p> <p>I suggest your question would be better approached from such a standpoint. If there are mathematicians out there who also know some linguistics, they may be able to explain why some concepts were developed earlier in certain cultures than in others. My guess is that a particular problem or subarea of research develops because someone is interested in it, and that the culture of the developer(s) sometimes plays a role in how that development is expressed. In other words, if I really wanted to be an algebraic geometer, being Texan shouldn't also be a hindrance, and might bring some (more) flavor to the subject.</p> <p>Something that might be revealing and helpful is the following: what languages are easier (or preferred or more natural) to use to motivate, teach, enlighten people about calculus? Or the (Skolem?) paradox that in set theory there is a countable model of the reals? Or algebraic geometry?</p> <p>Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2010.04.11</p> http://mathoverflow.net/questions/21038/what-great-mathematics-are-we-missing-out-on-because-of-language-barriers/21059#21059 Answer by Alexander Woo for What great mathematics are we missing out on because of language barriers? Alexander Woo 2010-04-12T01:45:31Z 2010-04-12T01:45:31Z <p>There is a paper in French published in the last 10 years that I read in detail, and I subsequently wrote a paper in which ideas found in this paper played a significant part. There are several colleagues who have told me they don't read French when I suggested they look at this paper.</p> <p>Then again, I can't say with much certainty that language is much of a barrier here. Most papers are only read in that level of detail by two or fewer people anyway.</p>