Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The language of science

Some background info about me: I grew up in Istanbul, Turkey (beautiful city, you all should come visit!) and came to the US for college. My native language is Turkish, but I started learning English pretty early on.

I never felt like I was faced with a major language barrier when I first came to MIT. Sure, there was some contemporary jargon that I had clearly missed out on, but luckily I had Urban Dictionary to help me through those difficult times. Overall, I did not have a language issue with any of my classes, which was a relief.

This, I should say, was true until I was preparing for my journal club presentation for 20.109. I had read the paper thoroughly, understood most of the material that my training-in-progress scientist mind can understand, yet talking about it... was simply hard. I had to choose my words carefully, familiarize myself with a lot of new vocabulary (pull-down assay? really?), and craft sentences I had never used before. This may sound odd, but preparing for that presentation was almost like learning a new language overnight. As it turns out, reading about science (which I have decent experience with), and talking about science (not much experience here) are two completely different things!

Now that I'm thinking about it, though, I feel that the issue was more about the nature of scientific language itself than the English language. I'm 90% certain I would find giving a journal club presentation for the first time in Turkish equally challenging. This is science- we're not describing what we had for breakfast, or what we will do over the summer. Unless we're completely embedded in this world of scientific knowledge, there really is no intuition in talking about these experiments. I guess that's the whole point of 20.109: we're in the process of becoming fluent in the language of science. Nobody learns a language overnight, and we need lots of practice- in writing, in speaking- to master it. It's exciting, and a bit scary, because I had never thought of this aspect of becoming a scientist. "Communicating your science"- that's the whole point, right? If communicating your science means learning a new language, then so be it. 

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