academic language & learning about science

One of the biggest challenges faced by students of biology (or any science, really) is coming to terms with the language of science. Scientific language is precise, it’s concise, and it uses a dauntingly large number of new terms. (I saw it written somewhere – sorry, too much marking & the memory’s gone bad! – that learning the last is like learning French or some other foreign language.) Going by the conversations I’ve had with some of my first-year students, just that overwhelming number of new words can be enough to make some people seriously reconsider taking the subject. Which is kind of sad, really – & one reason why I always take a great deal of care in my lectures to introduce new terms carefully & explain what they mean & how we use them. (OK, maybe not every new word, but at the very least, the ones that I know they have trouble with.) It also highlights the fact that it’s so very important to be meticulously careful in how you use words, when communicating about science with a wider audience. While the language can add precision, its sophistication & complexity can also be a real barrier to understanding (Snow, 2010).

Catherine Snow (2010) comments that what we call ‘academic language’ – something that all university students are expected to master, albeit in the form required by their own particular discipline – tends to be concise, lacking in repetition, with a high number of ‘information-bearing’ words that allow it to be very precise, and wtih a particular set of grammaticial rules. (Most of which I break, here, on a regular basis LOL). This works just fine when you’re communicating with someone else who understands the rules of engagement, but it can be a long way from the ease & simplicity of everyday speech patterns.

Thinking about it, this is probably one of the reasons that the Cafe Scientifique movement is successful – because the organisers take care that the scientists who speak at these events are well aware that they need to present to a general audience, & to keep the jargon to a minimum. In some ways the lack fo powerpoints & so forth probably aids this, too, as it’s all to easy to fill a screen with lovely long scientific words & totally lose your audience in the process. But I digress…

Well, no, I don’t really, Because Snow points out that the habits & characteristics of oral language probably are more accessible to the non-scientist. Sentences often begin with pronouns, so the listener/reader can be drawn in  rather than held stiffly at arm’s length. Verbs really are ‘doing’ words, and if you’re getting a lot of information across, it tends to be in a sequence of ideas rather than a whole bunch of embedded clauses. (OK, I know I do that sometimes.) All too often, perhaps, a piece of written academic scientific prose can come across as impersonal, distanced, authoritative, & too full of those scary new words – this can be off-putting to newcomers, & I know from experience that it’s extremely hard for new students to produce their own written work in the same register (desirable though that may be to their lecturers). They actually need a lot of support and multiple opportunities to practice, if we want them to be able to deliver the desired standard of work on a regular basis.

And it’s not just enough to teach the vocab. This is particularly the case if the definition of a new term includes other, widely-used scientific words that the student doesn’t know either! Snow gives the example of a piece of physics text: ‘Torque is the product of the magnitude of the force and the lever arm of the force.’ Now, I have a fairly good grasp of terms like ‘magnitude’, & I know what a ‘lever’ is, so I can work that one out. But to a new student, ‘product’ & ‘arm’ & ‘force’ have other, general meanings, & if they apply those meanings to the academic definition, they will be in all sorts of strife and misunderstandings & misconceptions will almost certainly follow.

Yet students who are going to progress in science really do need, eventually, to learn to write (& speak, in oral presentations anyway) in the complex formal register of science. The devil, of course, is in the detail of how we get them there. Snow argues – & I agree completely – that this needs to be embedded in the science curriculum (ideally, before students arrive at uni, but certainly at university level). The obvious questions are, how, and what do we leave out in order to do this? (Myself, I’m not convinced that we necessarily have to leave things out, but do have to change the way we teach. Material for another post, methinks.)

And hopefully the best of those students will end up with the best of both worlds – an ability to communicate within the science community, and the skills to translate from that to the wider community beyond the walls of academe.

C.E.Snow (2010) Academic language and the challenge of reading for learning about science. Science 328: 150-452. doi: 10.1126/science.1182597

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