#ScioLang Conversation Continues: English as a Medium of Curricular Instruction?


I have had on Twitter a fairly good response to my inaugural ScioLang post. A hearty thank you to all who responded. My post was shared and retweeted several times, and I have been able to find the names of a few more persons who, I think, can contribute meaningfully to this discussion.

This post is to talk about two issues. First, the minor one. The #ScioLang is primarily a Twitter-based conversation (to my understanding), which is a brilliant use of this particular social medium, but at the same time, it excludes a lot of people who are not on Twitter or haven't gotten the hang of it. This latter bit applies to many senior-level scientists and faculty members I know. Nevertheless, some people have replied to me on Facebook; I can continue the conversation with them there and report the conversation here on my blog.

The major issue is a more head-scratching one from a Science Education and Communication perspective. I was privileged to have studied in good schools where my primary medium of instruction throughout was English for both basic science and non-science subjects. Very similar is the experience of many of my friends. In the same schools, some of my classmates, who (or rather, whose parents) opted for their vernacular language (Bangla or Hindi) as the primary medium of curricular instruction, would study in a different section under the same class/grade - but even there, their science and maths books were highly bilingual, presenting the concepts in their language but using both vernacular and English terminology. I believe this equipped most of us to deal with the higher studies, in science, engineering or medicine, being conducted exclusively in English - which was, and still is, the norm in India.

With the recognition of my privilege came the realization that there are way more schools, especially in the rural and semi-urban areas, where the overall picture is very different. According to the 7th All India School Education Survey, conducted by the Government of India in 2002, English as a medium of instruction is used in only 1 in 10 schools imparting primary education (standard/grade 1-4) to about 1 in 4 at the secondary level (standard/grade 8-10) and 1 in 3 at the higher secondary/pre-collegiate level (standard/grade 11-12). Which means, a vast majority of schools teach their students via a vernacular, non-English medium, and this number goes above 90% in the rural areas, and also varies from state to state, region to region.

The relative good news is that a majority of schools opt to teach at least 2-3 languages to the students, but whether that equips the children with the ability to engage in higher studies remains a huge question. When I was in college for my Bachelor's degree in Science, we had a classmate from a rural area. She didn't have a problem with the concepts, but she had considerable difficulty in following the classes in English, and also taking tests in English. It was unfortunate that the system didn't allow for a non-English language, and she had to drop out of the course altogether. From what experience I have gathered, this is not an uncommon occurrence - which is tremendously sad; who knows how many talented young people we are losing out on in this manner?

What this means is that there is a severely unmet need to consider science education being delivered in non-English, vernacular languages to students. At the same time, it has to be borne in mind that currently, the lingua franca of science -- for a major part of the world where scientific advances and innovations occur -- is still English. Therefore, it is important to ensure that these students are not shortchanged when opting for a vernacular education.

For me, in the current context, what it also means is that I am facing a shortage of people amongst my acquaintances who have had a non-English basic science education, and later transitioned to a science-related field. Amongst you, dear readers, if there are people with this specific experience - and I am sure there are - would they please speak up and leave comments for me?

My specific questions are:

  1. Did you have basic education and/or basic science education in a language other than English?
  2. Did you have to transition to English in order to
    • Continue working in science or a related discipline, and/or
    • Interact professionally with others in your discipline - locally or globally?
  3. If yes to above, how easy or difficult was it to do this transition?

That also brings me to an additional question where I request your point of view: should English proficiency be a requirement for the scientific professionals?

Please chime in in the comments. Do let me know, also, if you are already engaged in bilingual science communication endeavors; I'd love to learn about your experiences.


10 Responses to “#ScioLang Conversation Continues: English as a Medium of Curricular Instruction?”

  1. Nina Reply | Permalink

    I was taught science in English (being American) but my old-fashioned major professor required me to study two other languages (French and Russian) and my thesis required me to understand German to some degree. That was the 1980s, and I sometimes submitted papers to Canadian journals and had to write abstracts in French. In the last 20 years, however, I have never had to read anything except English. Realistically, scientists need English. However, people who aren't scientists MUST be exposed to science in whatever language they speak.

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Thank you for your input, Nina. I wholeheartedly agree with your last two sentences.

  2. Preschools in Bengaluru Reply | Permalink

    Now-a-days English is the basic language for all. But before there was so much problem and people has to learn different languages to express their feelings and for study purpose as well.

  3. Ren Reply | Permalink

    Did you have basic education and/or basic science education in a language other than English?

    I had basic education in Spanish from kindergarden to fifth grade in Mexico. During that time, I was taught some basic science in Spanish. There were lessons on things like the anatomy and physiology of plants, the solar system, etc. Education in Mexico is to be secular by constitutional decree, so it was only when I came to the US (to Texas) that I was exposed to the idea that the 6-day creation narrative in the Bible would/could/should stand with the idea of a billions of years old Earth.

    Since 6th grade, all my education was in English, but I continue to read and write in Spanish, including scientific readings. There is a magazine published in Spain called "Muy Interesante" ("Very Interesting"), and my dad would buy it for me every month it came out. It covered about 95% scientific issues. (Some "woo" trickled in once in a while.) So there was no transition to English as I worked my way from high school to college to working as a medical technologist to getting my masters and then working as an epidemiologist.

    Currently, at Hopkins, my advisor is also from Mexico, and we talk in private in Spanish. We switch over to English when there are non-Spanish speakers in our presence, even in public while discussing a private matter. A lot of his work has been in Latin America, in Spanish, so I get to do a fair deal of reading/talking/writing in Spanish as I interact with his colleagues from other countries. Being bilingual is definitely a plus for my future in public health, I feel.

    English should be a requirement, but not a strict one. It should be required that scientific papers be either in English or easily translatable into and from English. This is because, realistically speaking, English is a trade language in the world. And what we are doing is trading in knowledge. We have plenty of capable, bilingual people to deliver this knowledge far and wide, and we have very good technology right now and in the works to instantly translate English language scientific papers and other such materials.

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Education in Mexico is to be secular by constitutional decree, so it was only when I came to the US (to Texas) that I was exposed to the idea that the 6-day creation narrative in the Bible would/could/should stand with the idea of a billions of years old Earth.

      Mexico is lightyears ahead of the US in this respect then; most laudable, and a bit of an irony, too.

      English should be a requirement, but not a strict one. It should be required that scientific papers be either in English or easily translatable into and from English. This is because, realistically speaking, English is a trade language in the world. And what we are doing is trading in knowledge.

      Can't disagree with anything you said there. However, for the same reasons, I feel that English should be a strict requirement for a separate, linguistic instruction; in other words, English as a language ought to be taught mandatorily - I feel - so that the students may never have to face a situation where they have difficulty interacting with the broader, global scientific community. And we all know how crucial such interaction is for ideation as well as the enrichment of scientific research. I have discussed this more in detail in a reply after my previous post on ScioLang. Hope you can take a quick look when you have a little time.

  4. Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

    Many of my friends who replied via Facebook described very similar experiences as mine. Further confirmation comes from a paleontologist friend of mine from Austria (name withheld pending permission).

    [I quote]
    I can't actually say much. All my education up to and including M.Sc. was in German, except for one optional course given by a visiting professor from the US. Recently a few schoolbooks have begun mentioning the English equivalents of technical terms (most but not all are trivial/literal translations, a few are impossible to guess). During my doctoral thesis I had 3 courses in French, but that was because it was in Paris...

    Fewer and fewer primary literature is being published in languages other than English (Chinese being the one possible exception, but even in China English is growing fast in science publication). At most scientific conferences I've been to, all presentations have been in English, and at the remainder the vast majority was, except for the conference of a French society in Paris where only about half were in English (it was an international conference, just with a much heavier French presence than elsewhere). Almost all presentations I've ever given outside of university courses (and often even then) have been in English.

    I was taught English for 8 (arguably 10) years in school. Near the end of that time I read a few popular books about dinosaurs in English and began reading scientific books. That's unusual and gave me a head start, but not a tremendous one (in the longer run).
    [End quote]

  5. Tina Reply | Permalink

    My basic education up until Abitur was in Finnish. When I started my studies, the teaching language in my major was English, due to heavy staffing by visiting overseas scholars. My minor was taught in Finnish.

    This presented no problem for me. While English is the first foreign language taught in Finnish schools, in addition to that I had started to read English language books (with a dictionary) due to lack of translated or native books in the subjects that interested me.

    What was far more challenging was that quite a lot of the secondary literature is in German, French and Italian. I only studied German as my second foreign language for a few years, and French and Italian weren't available in school. I still struggle with both, but can manage. Familiarity with the subject helps a lot, of course, but my dictionaries are well-thumbed.

    What is my take on my experiences? It is unreasonable to expect that the whole contents of all the journals and other scientific/scholarly publications could ever be translated into what is a small language with only about 6 million speakers, so acquiring at least English is very vital for small language speakers if they wish to enter academia.

    • Kausik Datta Reply | Permalink

      Thank you for your comment, Tiina. Your experience in Finland then sort of reflects the experiences from non-EFL (English as First Language) countries of Asia and the Mediterranean.

Leave a Reply


5 + nine =