Unpacking The Demand For Multilingual Science Media

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SciFri Findings is a series that explores new practices in journalism and science communication, and their impact on our audiences. Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest reports!


If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that science literacy—and in particular, language barriers in the sciences—can have a huge effect on people’s everyday lives. Miscommunications and accessibility issues can become big problems; with COVID-19, for example, the lack of multilingual public health information has caused dire circumstances for communities who don’t speak English.

The lack of linguistic accessibility has troubled the sciences for decades, and as a result, hindered diversity and impacted science literacy.

During the pandemic, increasing the visibility of local experts and inviting them to communicate research in their own language is important for building community trust. Effective public health interventions are based on local knowledge and expertise. In 2015, The Atlantic reported that 80% of scientific papers were written in English, leaving millions of scientists and researchers around the world in the dark on the latest innovations and findings in their fields. These linguistic barriers can result in non-English speakers being underrepresented in STEM fields. Limiting the languages that research is communicated has also encouraged “parachute science” in developing countries—when research within a country is conducted almost exclusively by foreign scientists.


A Brief History Of SciFri en Español

Past and present: Ciencia Cierta homepage in 2012, and Science Friday En Español in 2021. Credit: Science Friday

Those are some of the reasons Science Friday has been examining its past and current efforts to deliver Spanish-language content. As a public media and non-profit organization, we produce science journalism in English via a radio program, website, and YouTube channel. We have, however, pursued opportunities to create stories in other languages, in particular Spanish. Science Friday’s first effort to offer programming in another language was in 1994, when we worked with Hispanic Radio Network to produce stories in Spanish. Since then, we have experimented with ways to help make science more accessible in Spanish, including:

  • Working with Luis Quevedo and Voice of America on SciFri en Español, which produced Spanish videos and segments in 2012
  • Our 2018 Aha! In Spanish series, consisting of online educational resources and short video activities in Spanish and English
  • Digitally translating articles from English to Spanish in 2019, spearheaded by Andrea Corona, a former SciFri intern and fluent Spanish speaker.

Related Segment

This Peruvian Boiling River Holds More Than Meets The Eye

a woman scientist wearing gloves looks at a steaming river next to a sign in Spanish labeled "AGUA CALIENTE" (hot water)
Biochemist Rosa Vásquez Espinoza was the subject of a Science Friday podcast and article translated into English and Spanish. Credit: Ana Sotelo

Our most recent Spanish-language story in August 2020 provided a chance to learn more about our audience’s interest in multilingual science content. Led by radio intern Attabey Rodríguez Benítez, with the help of digital producer Lauren Young, we planned and produced Spanish and English language content in parallel, creating a podcast episode and digital article in both Spanish and English.

We aired an interview between our host Ira Flatow and biochemist Rosa Vásquez Espinoza in English, discussing the microbes of Peru’s Boiling River, and how she collaborates with local communities to do her research. A digital article profiled Vásquez Espinoza and her work, written in English by Rodríguez Benítez. Following the broadcast, Rodríguez Benítez and producer Kathleen Davis put together an additional podcast interview and digital article with Vásquez Espinoza in Spanish. Alongside each article and podcast, we included a reciprocal link to the version of the article in the alternate language. (“This story is available in English. Esta historia está disponible en inglés.”)

As Science Friday’s Manager of Impact Strategy, I watched our producers fluttering translation copies rapidly back and forth on Slack. I wanted to better understand: How does our audience engage with multilingual content?


What You Told Us

In the US, one in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home, with the highest percentage (13.4%) speaking Spanish. To better understand how our recent dual language content was received by our audience, I asked Science Friday’s podcast, radio, social, and newsletter audiences questions about why, where, and how frequently they use multilingual media and news.

Two hundred and thirty people responded, and 82% completed the survey. We were interested in how many of our audience members understood, spoke, or read another language as it would help us understand the demand for content in multiple languages. We found that 83% of respondents spoke, read, and/or understood a language other than English.

Recruitment Avenues Number Of Respondents
From This Channel
Percentage Of Total Respondents
Facebook 1 0.4
Podcast Extra 31 13.5
SciFri Website 124 53.9
Twitter 6 2.6
WNYC  68 29.6
Total 230 100.0

Here is a breakdown of where respondents found our Translated Science Media Survey. N=230, 82% completion rate, 83% spoke/read/understood language outside of English.

 

A bar chart in orange and yellow with five bars showing how frequently 230 respondents indicated they consume multimedia in a language other than English
To better understand SciFri audiences’ relationship with multilingual media, we asked how frequently they engage and share news and media in other languages. Twenty-four percent engaged with multilingual media 3+ times a day, 19% 1-3 times a day, and 26% 1-3 times a week. When asked about sharing content, more than one in six (17%) never shared multilingual content, while 16% said they did so at least weekly. Percentages may be greater than 100% due to rounding.

Audiences Engage Daily But Share Weekly

A high percentage of respondents (43%) engaged at least daily with multilingual media. However, when asked about sharing multilingual media, only 21% of respondents reported doing so daily (no data is available on how often they share English-language media daily). This led to more questions: Why do audiences engage with, but not share, multilingual content?

A purple collection of bubbles representing who survey respondents share multilingual content with. Larger bubbles go with a larger proportion of survey respondents.
Audience multilingual content sharing behavior. Audiences that responded to our survey share multilingual content with friends (50%), family (39%), colleagues (20%), social media (20%), and students (12%)

When we asked people why they engage with multilingual content, and with whom they share it, most respondents said they shared multilingual content with friends (50%) and family (39%). Reasons why users listen to or read content in other languages varied, but half of respondents said they engaged with content because they wanted to learn from experts who speak languages they speak.

A horizontal blue bar graph where the size of each bar represents the percentage of respondents who responded that they enjoy multilingual content for a particular reason.
Audience members’ reasons for enjoying multilingual content. Audiences responded to our survey that they enjoy this content because they wanted to learn from experts who speak a non-English language (51%), wanted more inclusive information and media (41%), or because they were learning a new language (35%).

People Are Looking To Learn From Community Experts

Fifty-one percent of participants wanted to learn from local experts (“often get different perspective[s] in native languages”), and 41% wanted more inclusive media (“Would be great to include voices from Indigenous communities in Indigenous languages”). These findings suggest that audiences engage with multimedia content that amplify local voices, and experts that reflect their communities.

“My world is bilingual plus Spanish-speakers are very active in science.”
– Survey Respondent


Our Next Steps: Listening To Community Voices

Intentionality of program design is a key component in advancing science literacy. Connecting a producer and researcher who were both native Spanish speakers early in the production process of our recent podcast episode helped us establish early on what a Spanish-speaking audience would want to learn in relation to this story. This allowed us to document the nuances of the research in a way that was accessible, and better catered to native Spanish-speaking audience members.

a woman scientist wearing gloves looks a specimen through a microscope as she sits on rocks along a steaming river
Biochemist and National Geographic explorer Rosa Vásquez Espinoza explores the sacred Boiling River of the Amazon in Peru. Vásquez Espinoza was the subject of an article and Science Friday episode in English and Spanish.

“I teach Spanish so I’m always looking for content I can share with my students.”
– Survey Respondent

Creating Spanish-language content can also serve English-speaking audiences. Thirty-four percent of respondents engaged with multilingual content for language learning. The vast majority of respondents (74%) were interested in future content in Spanish, followed by French (19%), Chinese (10%), Hindi (8%), and Arabic (7%). Educators may consider utilizing Spanish science media in STEM and language learning curriculum.

A colorful pie chart, the wedge size matches the proportion of respondents who are interested in content of each language offered, which were from most to least Spanish, French, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic
Audience members’ desired languages for future content. Audiences responded to our survey that they would like to see future content in Spanish (74%), French (19%), Chinese (10%), Hindi (8%), and Arabic (7%).

The Challenge And Power Of Active Listening

Numbers are only part of the story. Because the Spanish-language version of the podcast episode was added to the Science Friday podcast feed, most subscribers received both versions automatically. While feedback was positive, respondents did express surprise and even frustration to hear a Spanish conversation in the Science Friday podcast feed. (“If you want multilingual podcasts, let the listeners choose what language; don’t make us download something we won’t understand in the feed. This is especially important for bandwidth limitations.”) This has made us consider how we might provide choice for audience members as we continue to consider multilingual stories.

The overwhelming majority of survey respondents were excited about Spanish content. They told us the reasons they desired Spanish content included non-English speakers’ desire to better understand science, and to see programming for historically underserved communities. Here are a few of the comments shared by survey respondents:

Your Words

“My dad is really into SciFri but sometimes can’t fully enjoy or understand idiosyncrasies of the English language. For him, it would be helpful to have SciFri in Spanish.” 

“I want to extend my family’s bubble. Listening to educational programs just in English gave me a false idea that only English speakers were interested in science, intelligence, and the world around them. I want my children and community to know otherwise.”

“I love Science Friday, thank you for your show!!! And thank you very much for taking the interest in educating those in need!!!!!! Especially the Spanish-speaking community.”

Creating multilingual stories requires intentional staffing, production, and distribution. As content creators, we recognize there is a need to balance science communication, storytelling, and audience voice in how we choose and produce stories. One of Rodríguez Benítez’s favorite moments while producing our recent segment was hearing that Vásquez Espinoza’s grandmother listened to the story—one of the few times she got to hear and understand her granddaughter’s work.

Multilingual content is a worthwhile effort that may lead to more equitable audience impact, and greater science learning and activation among new audiences. These stories can allow us to see science for what it truly is: a global community endeavor!


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Meet the Writers

Nahima Ahmed

About Nahima Ahmed

Nahima Ahmed is Science Friday’s Manager of Impact Strategy. She is a researcher who loves to cook curry, discuss identity, and helps the team understand how stories can shape audiences’ access to and interest in science.

Lauren J. Young

About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young is Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.





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