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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Hey, language-learning platforms!

Maybe you can help?

I’ve recently been using one-to-one language-learning platforms online to explore Hindi. I’ve really enjoyed the experience. It’s fabulous to be able to video chat with native Hindi speakers to learn about a new language and culture. I used my time to study the menu of my favourite Indian restaurant and translate the lyrics of the mega-hit, Bollywood song, “Gerua”, featuring Shah Rukh Khan, billed as the biggest star in the world.

So, a thought occurred to me. For me, learning Hindi is wonderful fun and just a hobby. For so many learning a language is the key to unlocking a specific future.

This includes aspiring scientists facing the need to master English.

I’ve been having discussions with scientific colleagues in Indonesia and Korea about the challenges of learning Scientific English.

Even when speakers are proficient in English, Scientific English can still present challenges. Some bill it as ‘a foreign language’ even for native English speakers. Anyone who has learned how to use it might first laugh at that comparison and then grit their teeth on the grain of truth. Learning conversational English is a big enough task. Getting good enough to build a career in science fluently using Scientific English is a Herculean task.

Many do rise to the challenge. I have many colleagues who have managed admirably. Most have considerable advantages, like living in the most English literate countries (i.e. Scandinavia) or having been able to do part of their education or graduate work in English or an English-speaking country.

I have huge admiration for these bilingual, and sometimes polyglot, scientists.

It is a great help to the scientific endeavour to have a language all scientists can communicate in. If the public understands this lingua franca, the advantages telescope.

Math is acknowledged as a universal language, along with love, but we still need words to go further, especially to describe abstract concepts.

Today, for better or worse, English has emerged as the lingua franca of science like before it German, Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Sanskrit.

2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) – 19 by Nic McPhee. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

So, I was thinking. What if I wanted to help out and teach Scientific English to young scientists from around the world? What if I wanted to do it for free and try to get a bunch of my colleagues to join?

I would ideally need a platform in which to nucleate this community. I could turn to the Facebook juggernaut, and I could launch a bespoke “Scientific English” website. But how would I coordinate and schedule actual lessons?

Maybe you can see where I am going here?

Might an existing language-learning platform be willing to shave off a bit of its bandwidth to help in democratising science for all and help out?

If we could mobilize the scientific community on both sides of the language barrier, might funding agencies turn their talk about meeting the needs of non-native English speakers into funds for lessons? Or might the program founders forgo their platform costs, as the contributing scientists would do?

I would contribute time. I would love engaging with bright sparks who love science over the intersection of communication, culture, language, global collaborations, and science. In fact, I’d suggest it will be the native English speakers who end up learning the most about the world at the end of this type of exchange.

No scientist doing good science should be hindered by a language barrier.

Until Google perfects Google Translate, or we can all talk telepathically in some universal math-based language, we will need to communicate science the best we can.

Right now, this seems to involve English – and the intersection of English with pretty much every other language on Earth.

If you’d like to explore this idea, you know where to find me.

Featured image credit: Flags by vanna44. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Annie

    Cool idea! Maybe it’s worth reaching out to a group like Kahn Academy or building a YouTube channel just for lessons. These wouldn’t be live lessons but you can still build a learning community of interested people.

  2. Dmitriy

    You post is fascinating. A lot of people in many different fields, not just science, have similar issues

    I’m going to implement platform like this soon. If interested, pls conact me through twitter @dmitriy_bch (I twitted you) or LinkedIn:


  3. Dawn Field

    Many thanks for the positive comments! All good ideas welcome — especially help!

Comments are closed.