The Language of Science

I love learning new languages. Now I’m not implying that I’m one of those polyglot prodigies with a dozen languages under my belt; indeed, I wouldn’t say that I’m fluent in any language other than English. I do, however, find that learning even a small amount of a new language can be extremely rewarding. Foreign grammar can be a fun mental exercise and words in other languages often just sound neat, but the real payoff for learning a new language is the opportunity for new UNDERSTANDING.

If you should decide to visit a country where your native language is not spoken (and, if you have the means, you should), you often can get by on zero knowledge of the local lingo. For a price, tour guides will take you for a spin, show you a few sights, and interpret what the locals are saying. Better than sitting on your couch back at home, to be sure, but the problem is you’re at the mercy of the tour guide’s fancy: what you end up seeing and experiencing is selected by the guide with the simple criterion of getting a bigger tip out of you at the end of the day. This conflict of interest often means you get an inaccurate (or at least skewed) take on the local culture.

Sometimes translations get fudged in the name of simplicity or perhaps propriety, but the typical result is that fundamental aspects of the culture you’re visiting get glossed over because they’re perceived by the guide as too complicated or controversial to bring up. Even in the best-case scenario where the guide means well, you still have his or her opinions and interpretations that filter all incoming information. Perhaps they misunderstood something themselves, or you misunderstood them – your interaction with the local culture becomes akin to a game of telephone.

Learning even just a bit of the local language gives you the freedom to do away with this information middleman, and allows you to directly interact with – and learn from – your surroundings. Similarly, learning basic scientific nomenclature gives you the tools to go out into the world and explore – dig deeper than what the “tour guides” (Yahoo Answers, Dr. Oz, and the like) are offering. These tools allow you to tap directly into the scientific community and get the unadulterated content and untranslated MEANING. The further you get away from the original content, through translations, summarizations, and dumbing-downs, the further you get from the meaning itself.

This comparison of scientific nomenclature to a different language will probably resonate with many people who have taken at least an introductory course in biology. Lots of Latin- and Greek-rooted neologisms, often seasoned liberally with superscripts and subscripts, and the authoritative use of italics. A bit intimidating at first, but the thing is, there’s terminology in ALL specialized fields – pedestrian to high-brow, photography to physiology.

Some may object to the very existence of jargon of the grounds that it’s an unnecessary layer of words that conceals meaning from the lay public. Indeed, jargon can be used (by jerks) to intentionally obfuscate, but the real point of the additional vocabulary is to give the speaker or author additional precision and descriptive power. You could try and rely exclusively on general terms (perhaps supplemented with wild gesticulations and raising your voice), but you’ll find that specialized content becomes even MORE difficult to understand and requires SUBSTANTIAL amounts of additional verbiage to even come close to describing the same topic. (And your overreliance on pronouns might lead people to wonder if you’re senile: “Hey you kids! Stop that stuff and get off my thing! Go back to the place by the other thing or I’m going to call them and tell them all the things!”)

Of course, learning even a few of the basic terms in science takes a considerable amount of time, and it’s easy to get mired in minutiae, losing sight of the ultimate payoff. This is a real challenge. Indeed, if you spend untold hours learning and learning and learning but don’t APPLY what you’ve learned, there IS no payoff. (I’m sure there’s a t-shirt out there somewhere that says, “I took three semesters of Spanish and all I got was a song about irregular verbs.”) The key is to USE what you’ve learned. Just like learning a new language is most fun when you’re SPEAKING it, learning about science is most fun when you’re APPLYING it. Here’s a suggestion to get you started: try learning about the unique natural history of wherever you live: the critters, the plants, the geology, etc. You’ll soon find that there really is no shortage of interesting discussion topics when practicing the language of science.