Science as a Foreign Language

Learning any field of science, from physics to biology, entails mastering a large number of terms and concepts. In fact, you could look at it as learning a foreign language.

When you take a foreign language class in most US schools, you start with a whole bunch of nouns and phrases that have to do with what day it is, what time it is, categories of nouns (like family members, colors, types of transportation, etc). At first you see and learn the items as separate entities, memorizing each one. There is little in the way of connection between the terms. They are just essential vocabulary words. As you become more advanced in your language study, you begin to connect ideas, to generate sentences, paragraphs, to understand the syntax and structure of the language.

Learning biology or chemistry or physics is a bit like this. For example, in biology, you learn about the cell membrane. It’s made of phospholipids (phosphatidycholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, etc), proteins (integral, peripheral), cholesterol. Okay, now stop and look at those words. They are not part of our “normal” English vocabulary, are they?

Or, when we begin learning about how traits are inherited through meiosis (anaphase, metaphase, telophase, recombination, synapsis).

It’s only once we have a bit of a vocabulary that we can begin to really learn the language, to add in verbs, syntax, actual conversation in the language.

If you learn a concept once, you can memorize it and answer questions about it. Then, if you don’t come back to it, you’ll likely remember that you heard the word, but will be fuzzy on the meaning.

Just because you know what oxidative phosphorylation is, doesn’t mean that you really understand what oxidative phosphorylation as a process is. Knowing the definition and how to spell a term doesn’t mean you understand.

How might we use language training techniques to help with learning or teaching biology?

  1. Recognize that learning biology begins by learning terms and concepts. Accept that mastery will take repetition.
  2. Practice hearing and saying your terms every day.
  3. Go hear scientists talk. You can find lectures and short videos on the internet. You can tune into Discover or Nova shows. Hearing a science-speaker talk will reinforce your vocabulary. As you hear words and terms that you recognize, you’ll be deepening your ability to link terms and concepts together in a meaningful way.
  4. Speak your biology. If you are taking intro biology, find opportunities to speak it with classmates or in class.
  5. Write your biology. Every day if possible.