Wednesday, May 24, 2023

My Language ∝ My Science

This paper was published in the Journal of Education, 2012, Volume 7, Number 1, pp. 32-44.

(The title, 'My Language ∝ My Science) is inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’)


This paper founded on my research extending over two decades discusses the language demands of school science. These cannot be taken for granted, especially when numerous initiatives are being undertaken to popularise science subjects and thereby create a scientifically literate citizenry. The paper accepts the position of many linguists and philosophers that language is a key to understanding any subject and attempts to establish how ‘my world’ in the Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous quote, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (1922) also encompasses the salient but often ignored “my science”.


Each year examination reports at the CPE (Certificate of Primary Education), SC (Cambridge School Certificate) and HSC (Cambridge Higher School Certificate) levels indicate students’ inadequate language skills. Many Ordinary ‘O’ level and Advanced ‘A’ level science students are however not unhappy with this weakness and openly flaunt their contempt for languages. They could not be bothered with improving their language skills when they have the more important job of studying the sciences. Their teachers ‘understand’ their difficulties and the limited time they have to master the basic language skills and provide support (which could be even in the form of essays on expected exam topics), crack the examination code and dutifully ‘teach to the test’. Students cram the expected and learn to the test for the examinations (Hunma, A., 2011; Hunma, V., 2011) and manage to obtain ‘good’ results.

These practices are founded on the erroneous assumption that science subjects being empirical in nature proceed through experimentation and thus do not require the mastery of language skills. Beneath this is also some false pride that languages are for not so bright kids, who study these because they have no other options. Such attitudes and the subsequent teaching learning practices further exacerbate the difficulties in science learning, especially for Mauritians who learn it in a foreign language. To succeed, they therefore require a robust mastery of both the highly specialised technical language of science and the non-technical one for expression and communication.

Scientific literacy

One of the earlier attempts at defining the components of scientific literacy was made by Pella and his colleagues in 1966. Many more attempts have been made after this to define scientific literacy but the basic elements have remained more or less the same and thus, it is the definition of Pella et al., which is referred to in this paper to discuss the ambit of science learning. They defined scientific literacy as comprising of an understanding of the:

  1. the basic concepts of science;
  2. the nature of science;
  3. the ethics that the scientist in his/ her work;
  4. the interrelationships of science and society;
  5. the interrelationships of science and humanities;
  6.  the differences between science and technology. (p.44)

There is a significant overlap among these six components and it is not easy to address any one of them in isolation. Nevertheless, this paper focuses mainly on the first component.

Understanding of the basic concepts of science

Recently Yanish studying in Form I told me that he had learnt about pasteurisation.  To my questions; “What is it?” “How is it done?” “Why is it done?” “What if it is not done?” his answer, after some reflection was: “It improves the taste.”

The following week he was excited about an experiment with purplish grey potassium permanganate crystals. He had dissolved the glistening crystals in water and the water had turned uniformly purple. To my ‘when’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, once again he had some vague ideas but clearly not the underpinning science of diffusion of particles.

These are two very simple but new concepts that were introduced in familiar contexts. Still, Yanish had difficulty explaining these. There are many such students who are not able to explain their understanding of science. Could this be because of their poor language skills?

Nevertheless, just before the exams, they will open their books and learn the answers by heart and obtain good results and forget everything soon afterwards.

The questions that we need to answer are as follows: Can we afford to remain vague in our understanding of science? Do we need to learn it only for the examination success? Will we still be successful in examinations if the questions are set in unfamiliar contexts? How do we strengthen our science learning?

It is useful to present another simple example here. At upper primary and lower secondary levels, students are introduced to the states of matter. The melting point of a solid is defined as the temperature at which a solid changes to a liquid. The freezing point of a liquid is defined as the temperature at which a liquid changes to a solid. Most students get these two points separately. Nevertheless, it is not easy to appreciate the implication that in theory and for most substances, the melting and freezing points are the same temperature. Many years ago, a young student inferred this similarity and got baffled. Both ice and water are at the same temperature! He tried to make sense and shared his understanding with me. He explained that ‘for the ice the temperature was little below the melting point’. How little? Why little? 

At the same time, introducing new concepts such as equilibrium, phase change / transition, pressure, pure substance, nucleating substances or exceptions to the rule, may further augment the difficulties. The questions that arise concern what to teach and how to make young students understand.

Most Mauritian students have seen the Tamarin salt pans and know that the water evaporates, leaving the salt crystals behind. Both crystallisation and freezing are familiar processes. What are the subtle differences between the two? How are the dissolving, melting, freezing, crystallisation and evaporation, similar and different?

Students do try to make sense but science learning goes beyond this personal construction of knowledge. Hodson (1988) points out:

Learning science is not simply a matter of ‘making sense of the world’ in whatever terms and for whatever reasons satisfy the learner. Learning science involves introduction into the world of concepts, ideas, understandings and theories that scientists have developed and accumulated (that is, what science knows). p.48

Driver et al. (1994) had also posited that “the process of knowledge construction must go beyond personal empirical inquiry. Learners need to be given access not only to physical experiences but also to the concepts and models of conventional science.” p.7

This is a tall order. How does one achieve this progression from personal constructions to knowledge constructions that have been socially accepted by the scientific community? Language becomes important in this transition as has been posited by many researchers such as Bruner (1964) and Vygotsky (1978). They have established the importance of language in cognitive development, understanding – how and why things are, and thinking about what and how they could be.

The languages of science 

As pointed out in the preceding sections, science proceeds through two languages. The first one is the highly specialized and technical language of science and the other one is the non-technical one that is needed for expression and communication. Students require the mastery of both to understand and become active users of science.  Consequently, it is crucial to ensure mastery of the language in which science is taught, particularly in a multilingual society where research studies by Tirvassen (2011) and Raghoonundun (2011) have underlined the need for clearer language policy, curriculum emphases and practices.

The technical language: It comprises the following:

  1.  Familiar everyday words with new, specific and often different meanings, 
  2. New words in familiar contexts, 
  3. New words in new contexts,
  4. The semiotic or non-verbal language.  

Moreover, some of these could be easily observable and understandable at macro level and others could be abstract or at sub-micro level requiring tacit understanding.

Familiar everyday words with specific meaning: Some terms, concepts and processes such as mass, work, force, energy, current, power, pressure, time, salt, solution, acid, base, element, compound, mole, boiling point, dissolving, diffusion, root, fruit, egg, have definite meanings in science. For some, mole for instance, the science meaning can be very different from its everyday connotation.

Moreover, two terms with specific science may have only one word in Kreol morisien. For example, both ‘dissolving’ and ‘melting’ are “fon” in Kreol morisien. Sugar dissolves or ‘fon’ in water and ice melts or ‘fon’ to the liquid state. 

New words in familiar context: The new words in familiar settings could include for example, parts of a plant. The familiar “stem is made of nodes and internodes, … Inside each root there are vessels to carry water, mineral salts and food. A flower has sepals, petals, stamen and pistil. The complete set of sepals is called the calyx. The complete set of petals is called the corolla. A leaf has a main and lateral vein, each vein consists of vessels to carry water, mineral salts and food….” (Science, Form 1, Ministry of Education and Human Resources, 2006, pp. 28-30).  Each new word has a specific meaning.

With the common experience of observing sugar and salt getting ‘moist’, students learn about deliquescence and hygroscopy and try to understand the subtle difference. Deliquescence is the “action of absorbing water from air to form a solution” and hygroscopy is the “action of absorbing water from air to become moist.” (Chemistry, Form 3, Ministry of Education and Human Resources, 2005, p. 84)

New words in new contexts: The entirely new words in new settings could be cells, atoms, sub-atomic particles, electronic structures, their configurations, …cathode, anode, … vernier callipers, standard error, parallax error, potential energy, …

These also include technical terms, prefixes and suffixes in Latin and Greek. For example, the animal invertebrate groups Cnidaria and Echinoderms. “Cnidarians are aquatic invertebrates. They have soft bodies with tentacles to catch small animals for food. Hydra, sea anemone, polyps and jellyfish are examples of cnidarians.” (Science, Form 1, Ministry of Education and Human Resources, 2006, p. 17).

Echinoderms have a spiny skin. Starfish, sea cucumber and sea urchin are examples of echinoderms.” (ibid., p.19)

The above list of words constitutes only a small sample of the vast scientific vocabulary that a student has to master.

There are many more at different levels of complexity that students are required to learn, learn their spellings and right pronunciation and understand the meaning that the scientific community has accepted. No approximations are allowed.

The semiotic or non-verbal language:

Moreover, the technical language is not just verbal. There are signs, symbols, numbers, abbreviations, images, equations, visual representations, graphical representations. These cannot be used mechanically. One needs to understand these for correct usage.

Graphical representation: As part of my PhD research (Hunma, 2003), I asked a group of B.Sc. Year 1 students of the University of Mauritius to plot a graph to present the data given below:

Use the data below to plot a graph:

Heart Rate:                              55        70        80        90        120      150      170

(beats per minute)


Volume of blood:                    4.0       4.8       5.2       5.6       6.0       5.8       4.6

(litres per minute)

This question was attempted by a total of 165 students in 1998 and 1999. Figures 1, 2, 3 and 4 represent the typical graphs. Thirty-one students submitted plots similar to Figures 1 and 2. Six students drew plots similar to Figure 3 and the remaining 128 drew the graphs as shown in Figure 4. Figures 1, 2 and 3 raise many questions, especially when graphs, their plotting and drawing inference form an important learning outcome. About one fifth of the students could not plot the graph correctly. Why did they not realise that there was something wrong with their graphs? Why were the graphs plotted in such an unthinking way?

Figure 1                                                                    

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

The non-technical language of science

Students come to the classroom with some scientific notions and everyday experiences or what Claxton (1993) describes as ‘gut science’, acquired through direct physical experiences and ‘lay science’ which is acquired through social interaction and media experiences. Sometimes these ‘informal ideas’ (Black and Lucas, 1993) are acceptable. At other times they need to be rejected or modified in line with the established scientific ideas. Vygotsky (1962) calls these ideas ‘spontaneous concepts’. Students have personal meanings for each one of these but these remain localised and unrelated to other scientific concepts.

Teachers are expected to skilfully relate these spontaneous concepts to the established knowledge and practices of science. This is not an easy task because the learners may store the two – everyday science and the formal science, acquired in two entirely different contexts in two separate compartments with no apparent links between the two. 

Moreover, this shift from the non-formal to the formal established scientific knowledge becomes difficult because of students’ inadequate mastery of the non-technical language. In fact, numerous research studies (See, for example, Sharp, 1994) have established that science students have more difficulties with the non-technical language than with technical language. In an interesting study, Cassels and Johnstone (1985) came up with a list of non-technical words that students had difficulty in using. Their list of ‘difficult’ words included words such as abundant, emit, linear, converse, negligible and many others, the understanding of which we take for granted.  

Students require the mastery of the non-technical language to understand and communicate the scientific knowledge in an objective and precise manner acceptable to the scientific community.  As such, the language skills are required in order to:

  1.  Listen to science lectures and talks, 
  2. Read science texts,
  3. Talk about one’s science ideas,
  4. Write about science ideas.

Listen to science lectures and talks:  Most of the scientific knowledge is communicated to students through teacher talk. Not all of it comprises the technical language of science.

Students need to develop the active listening skills that help them in comprehending – what, when, why, how the new knowledge is related to the much broader interdependent conceptual framework as well as retaining and responding to the teacher talk.

Nevertheless, what often happens at the classroom is akin to Wellington and Osborne’s (2001) ‘Postman Pat’ model of education. They state that the “dominant metaphor for teaching has now become ‘delivery’…. ‘Delivering learning’ as if it was some sort of package or commodity which is passed on to the student, stored in a kind of pigeon hole and later redelivered to a higher authority when assessment or examination comes around.” (p.3)

In the absence of the active listening skills, many students appear to be sincerely but thoughtlessly copying the teacher talk and then mechanically memorising it for reproduction in examinations.

Read science texts: The reading of any written text involves scanning, skimming, scrutinising for main ideas and the main train of arguments, inferring meanings, understanding the relationships, separating facts from opinions, drawing relevant conclusions and making informed judgments.

Science texts usually follow a strict procedure to present the scientific knowledge. While reading a science text we learn about the knowledge and also how it is to be communicated. The scientific community has a strict regimen for both. This difficulty is further exacerbated because most reading is done outside the class alone and without the teacher’s help.

Moreover, in general, most science texts are not easy to read. This could be due to the nature of the subject where the authors are expected to communicate the knowledge while adhering to   established conventions that include analytical and, impersonal style with text written in third person.  Illustrations help but the difficulty level remains high.

One example is as follows: “The locomotory system consists of the skeleton and muscles. The skeleton is made up of bones. The skull, vertebral column (backbone) and the breastbone make up the central part of the skeleton. The limb bones are connected to this part of the skeleton and help in locomotion. The skeleton gives a form, shape and support to the body parts. It also protects delicate organs such as heart, lungs and the brain. Muscles are attached to the bones. They help to bring about movements.” (Science, Form 1, Ministry of Education and Human Resources, 2006, p. 51)

This is a typical example of a science text which has nothing superfluous. Each sentence introduces a new concept. The non-technical words are essential, simple and specific – they illustrate the significant features of the concepts. 

Often with inadequate reading skills, students find science texts difficult and resort to memorising the text without any understanding. In the long run, they are not motivated to read more on their own.

At the same time, in most cases simplifying the texts is not the solution because this can distort the picture or convey an incomplete one.

Talk about one’s science ideas: Talking about one’s science knowledge is an important skill as it stimulates thinking and reflections on knowledge and learning. Students discover inconsistencies in their thinking and reconstruct their ideas. Teachers also come to know about students’ knowledge, its depth and misconceptions.

Nevertheless, inside most science classes this student talk, as Lemke (1990) describes it, is in the form of a ‘triadic’ dialogue where the teacher asks a question, student replies and the teacher evaluates the answer.

There is hardly any discussion that could involve students’ views and thereby give them an opportunity to test the robustness of their ideas. (Hunma, V., 2011) There are many reasons for this absence of classroom discussions. Students either lack the confidence to present their ideas or hesitate to share their knowledge because of the severe competition that exists among them. It could also be because of the excessive emphasis on course coverage rather than on the quality of learning outcomes. 

Write about science ideas: Students are expected to master the specific writing conventions to communicate their knowledge of science.  Jones (2000) lists four different genres of science writing that students should be aware of. These are “instruction, explanation, argument and discussion.” (p. 100)

In addition, they need to write their reflections on their science knowledge and their own learning to evaluate it and thereby promote it. Writing thus engages their active participation, plays both the cognitive and meta-cognitive roles and initiates the process whereby the students become responsible for their own learning. However, for this, it is important that students are given a lot of writing assignments that encourage them to think about their science learning understanding rather than repeat what the textbooks and their teachers state. 


In this paper, an attempt is made to highlight some language requirements of science and show how mastery of the language in which science teaching and learning takes place is a necessary condition for understanding scientific knowledge. This mastery promotes the understanding of – how and why things are, and thinking about what and how they could be (Bruner, 1964; Vygotsky, 1978).  In a multilingual society, it becomes all the more crucial to give the language science is taught in, its due importance in the curriculum.

It is therefore for us to decide whether we want to encourage our students to see the bigger picture of science and learn science for life rather than use the easy and popular ‘delivery mode’ or the ‘Postman Pat’ model (Wellington, and Osborne, 2001) of education for transient examination success.


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Cassels, J. and Johnstone, A., 1985, Words that Matter in Science. London: Royal Society of Chemistry.

Claxton, G.,1993, Minitheories: a preliminary model for learning science. In P. J. Black and A. M. Lucas (eds.) Children’s Informal Ideas in Science. London: Routledge, p.45-61.

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Pella, M.O., O’Hearn, G. T. and Gale, C. W., 1966, Scientific Literacy – Its Referents, The Science Teacher, 33 (5), p.44. 

Raghoonundun, N., 2011., Clarté cognitive et littéracie : le développement de concepts scientifiques en langues étrangères en contexte d’enseignement multilingue, in R. Tirvassen (ed.) L’entrée dans le bilinguisme, l’Harmattan, pp.101-132.

Sharp, A., 1994., The linguistic features of scientific English, School Science Review, 75 (273) pp. 101-113.

Tirvassen, R., (2011) Curriculum et besoins langagiers en zone d’éducation linguistics plurielle, Le Français dans le monde. Recherche et application, 49, pp. 287-300.

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