The Language of Science Education: Between Two Trends

This article first ran in SciDev.Net‘s Middle East & North Africa desk and appears here under with the permission of the author.

Discussing modern education involves discussing a specific type of communication. The language of education is similar to other types of communication in that it involves a sender, a recipient, a medium and a message. But it is also different in that it does not depend on only one type of medium — speaking, for example. Instead it combines lecturing, writing, discussion, brainstorming, audiovisual and other forms of communication, bring them to the foreground as methods for transmitting science.

My focus on education in this article does not mean that it is the only way to convey the sciences or communicate in the scientific field. Alongside education, scientific research and various forms of scientific media are also crucial. However, education is the broadest and most influential field because it starts at an early age and represents a cornerstone upon which the media and scientific research are later built.

The educational process is interactive, circular and varied, as it is based on the relationship between the sender and the recipient. It does not travel in one direction and is not limited to verbal language.

These attributes cast doubt on the feasibility of teaching sciences in a language other than the learner’s native tongue. This issue requires research in order to evaluate whether to continue educating in this manner or whether to find a new method (i.e. to teach sciences in a native language).

Communication, when built on mental translation, does not engage a vocabulary connected to the learner’s experience or even to his or her linguistic background.  This leads to one of two possibilities: either communication remains incomplete and we end up ‘parroting’ information or we do away with the language and replace it with a linguistic mix between the native language and the language in which the learners were taught, and through which the speakers aim to compensate for the lack of actual communication happening between them.

Learning science in a language other than the learner’s native tongue will — for the most part — not allow learners to be creative enough, and nor will they be able to develop to an advanced level.

Successful cases

South Korea, which is ranked first in the world for patents per capita, is a practical example, where the sciences are taught in the native language. One of the most important results of this was to increase the gross national income per person to nearly US$26,000 in 2013.

Comprehension followed by expression and then creativity, remain incomplete when education is not conducted in the native language.

Another example can be found in Syria, where medicine is taught in Arabic. Experts have praised the Syrian experience, as Zuhair Ahmad Al-Sibai has said in his book, My experience in Arabic medical education: “The level [test scores] of Syrian doctors in the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates — a certification in English in the United States of America — is no lower than those of their colleagues from different parts of the world, and learning medicine in Arabic was not an impediment for Syrian doctors’ performance and successfully passing the test.”

This successful experience was a stimulus for a series of recommendations that the medical sciences be Arabised in meetings such as: the Arabisation of Medical and Health Education Seminar (Damascus, 1988); the Regional Arabisation of Medicine Conference (Cairo, 1999); the Arab Summit (Damascus, 2008); and the Summit Conference (Doha, 2009). Moreover, The Arab League Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization announced the launch of an Arabisation education programme in the Arab world in 2008.

But it seems that those summits, declarations and recommendations have been hindered by ineffectual Academies of the Arabic Language (set up to develop the Arabic language according to social development), which should have been supporting the recommendations and aiding their implementation. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider and re-evaluate these academies’ feasibility and effectiveness in developing the language’s progress and power.

There is a trend towards publishing science in local languages in various countries, such as Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal. Yet the movement seems to be prominent in some specialisations and not in others. And it has yet to reach a point where the dominance of English in scientific research is broken.

‘Arabising’ science

Arabising science will bring several benefits. Even if we assume that researchers and scholars can overcome the obstacle of having to master learning and understanding research in English, will they then be able to transmit their experience and knowledge to other people, such as technicians and craftsmen, who have a practical role in the sciences and knowledge as a whole?

Moreover, Arabisation will allow the scientific media to grow and exert greater influence by eliminating the language barrier, which I believe constrains many workers in media, inhibiting them from exploring this important field.

On the other hand, the fact that around 96 per cent of the world’s scientific articles are written in English is crucial.

It is a reality that cannot be denied, but requires — from my perspective — reshaping ideas and organising steps to engage with it.

Engaging with this reality is inevitable, because reviewing the latest scientific and research developments is, in this case, impossible without proficiency in English. The language dominates scientific publishing, therefore communicating with colleagues in various disciplines or establishing a scientific dialogue with them outside the framework of this language is impossible.

This leads to another point: the prevailing language of science communication in Arab countries is English, rather than the common language, due to the linguistic double standard in which we live. Education in the Arab world also generally falls under the category of ‘second language education’, which causes us to see nothing wrong with the unavoidability of English language proficiency as a necessity to follow what is new in science.

I tend to say that English proficiency as well as full command of the native language does not indicate underdevelopment or dependency. The move towards proficiency in other languages has become a global trend, as implied by a long-term European Commission objective for the inhabitants of European Union countries to become proficient in two languages in addition to their native tongue.

The trend towards the Arabisation of sciences requires institutional language abilities that bring together proficiency and speed in communicating in the English language in order to keep up with English publications and what is new and modern in scientific research. This means that English proficiency is necessary to make important strides in the Arabisation of science.

I address the pessimists: without the movement that translated foreign books into Arabic during the Abbasid era (AD 750-1258) and the efforts of Dar Al-Hekma, the first university in the world established in Baghdad during this period, the sciences and other knowledge would not have flourished during that time. They communicated the knowledge of their predecessors, and then developed, modernised and built on it. It is not shameful to do the same in our current era — the shame actually lies in remaining behind while still claiming leadership.

Saleh Alshair holds a Ph.D. in Arabic Linguistics from Cairo University. He is the copy editor of SciDev.Net’s Middle East & North Africa edition and a specialist in Arabic language. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

One Comment

  1. Great article – congratulations!

    The same movement, teaching in native languages, has been going on in India, Pakistan, China and many other countries.

    The research in Canada was done on this subject with the children of ‘First Nations’ or Native Indians. Those children were classified as ‘Slow Learners’ and even ‘Retarded’, as compared to English speaking Canadian kids. Now – a hundred years later, the research showed that conclusion to be untrue. The Native Indian children had problem adjusting, understanding and with comprehension of the language of instruction.

    The Eurocentric type of education often does more harm than good, especially during early education. It is not just the science, but any and all subjects which should be taught in the native language, alongside English as a second language – at least until high school, with an option to continue higher education in the native language thereafter.

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