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Science in vernacular language: A boon or a bane

Ram Mishra, Indian Institute of Science Education and research


Science is a language in itself that traverses across borders. However, among the various languages across the globe, English has acquired the summit position as the language of choice for communication, including in Science. So does being educated in vernacular language in anyway hinder one’s progress is Science? Is that a cause for concern? My blog for this month is inspired by my recent experience of translating some scientific questions for an examination from English to Hindi.

In our country many students who study in local schools learn all subjects including science in their local language. The scientific nomenclature remains the same whatever the language of instruction for example – molarity, normality, amino, carboxy are the same in Hindi as well as in English. However, when one is educated in vernacular schools, it is often a bit daunting for the student to switch to English as a language of communication. So it is not surprising that when these students join college they can understand instruction in English but they have a preference for the regional/vernacular language. Writing papers, or presenting is English is often an unnerving task. The shy ones tend to go into a shell and refrain from exhibiting their knowledge of the subject lest they are brought into the limelight, which would display their un-comfortableness with the English language. Though, there are mild hiccups comprehending instructions in the class during the early days it doesn’t last long though.

I distinctly remember myself in the same situation almost 17 years back and correlate to their discomfort now. At that point of time and same as today, I was a keen observer and avid learner yet this feeling as to whether I understood the instructions in English correctly was persistent for some time. Luckily, I was not alone many of my classmates felt the same. Sometimes we felt the need for a mentor who could understand what we were facing and lend a hand of appreciation and support. It also helps to have some English language classes for beginners at the undergraduate level for those of us still uncomfortable with the language. 

I have often wondered why we learn things in the local language if we have to succumb to English later. Though my classmates and I did not find a quick answer, our initial concerns and irritability to the issues faded rather quickly. It did take effort from our side but we soon became comfortable with communicating in English. My experience at TIFR and NIH further strengthened my grip on the language and slowly I began to appreciate my earlier schooling in the vernacular tongue. The first time I realized this was when I visited my village near Banaras and found it very easy to talk to all about my scientific work, explaining it in a manner that those who had no experience whatsoever with experimental science could understand and marvel at it. It was obvious to me that here I had an advantage of being able to communicate science in a language that masses understand. My ease with Hindi was essentially due to my primary education in that language.

This was one of the major reasons why I was invited to translate English papers into Hindi. In a country where the majority of the population still resides in the villages that haven’t been penetrated by the wonders of science. Further, this population cannot comprehend other languages well.  It is therefore, important to communicate science to the general people in the vernacular language for its farther and deeper penetration and appreciation in the society. It will have its own advantages in educating and exciting people about science at grass root levels. In my opinion for science to flourish in our country we must promote science at school and grass root levels in the vernacular tongue.

Science however is beyond the constraints of any language. Studying at higher level requires a set of skills that includes intelligence, aptitude, logical reasoning and knack towards learning, qualities that are by no account slave to any particular language. Science is more of a curiosity and understanding based passion not a language driven obsession.

My colleagues have proven this beyond doubt that language plays no barrier in comprehending and succeeding in science however every one will probably vouch that a mentor would have helped them make a rather smooth transition from school to college. Colleges should encourage mentors; maybe even designate one for the students who do require them. And students might need mentors for different reasons, for language, transitioning from different states/cultures, or moving from a small town to the city.

I must finish by saying that I am an earnest supporter for science teaching in vernacular language and press for the need of volunteers to help get rid of early hiccups that a school to college transitioning student has.

Very insightful observations. I wholeheartedly concur that

Very insightful observations. I wholeheartedly concur that learning science or math in vernacular is in no way impediment to how much one can learn in future. Science/math are languages in themselves. It helps if one starts learning this new language using the language he/she is most comfortable with, i.e., his/her native tounge. I still vividly remember 3 pages describing trigonometric functions from my Gujarati mathematics textbook of 11th standard. The text being in Gujarati, I could grasp concepts without needing instruction. The material in our 11th and 12th math text was of the highest quality and rigor. Curiously, the text was written by  Father Carlos Vallace (a person of Spanish origin who came to India after independence, got MA in Math from Madras, and became professor of math at St. Xavier's college in Ahmedabad). 

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