If I have a mini-passion inspired by my life experiences, its that scientists need to learn to communicate more effectively. We learn all these amazing things about the world around us: in just the past week, scientists have made discoveries as large as ancient ice on Pluto and as small as the existence of pentaquarks.
While images of Pluto are breathtaking and inspirational, a significant amount of discussion has been had in recent days regarding how to justify to the public the importance of visiting the outer edges of our solar system. An entire generation of scientists – the generation of scientists who are making these incredible discoveries today – were inspired to be where they are now by the Apollo explorations of yesteryear. And yet, they have no idea how to convince the general public that the next generation of scientists are being created today by the very same thing: inspirational trips to discover the unknown.
For someone like me, who already knows and loves physics, the announcement of the pentaquarks is even cooler. We know protons and neutrons, which combine to form the nucleus of every atom of every element, consist of three quarks. Scientists have discovered two different particles composed of five quarks each, and though we don’t know what they create, we know they contribute to explaining the Standard Model. Beyond that, who knows what this discovery will mean? Perhaps the next generation of scientists, the kids in classrooms who watched the images New Horizons sent home last week, will figure it out for us.
And herein lies the problem: the current generation of scientists doesn’t know how to talk to the next generation of scientists (or their parents). We barely even know how to talk to ourselves. Regardless of what I decide to study when I move to the next phase of my schooling, I’m absolutely not going to be studying anywhere unless they have courses in science communication. I want to learn how to speak to other scientists, especially scientists in other fields, and explain what I’ve learned. But most importantly, I want to be able to speak to non-scientists. Scientists need to be able to speak to non-scientists.
We can’t just assume that science journalists will do our job for us, because the journalists are easily duped by false science (case in point: the chocolate is good for you study) and the reality is that you can only truly explain what you understand. So if a journalist can understand 50% of the significance of a discovery, then the public will, at best, get 50% of its importance. But if scientists could learn to express the significance themselves, then the public has a better chance of understanding the fundamental beauty of whatever has just been added to the body of human knowledge.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just that scientists don’t know what to say, they also don’t know how to say it. The number of times I’ve bitten my tongue to not correct “fewer” or “less” over the past five weeks is innumerable. And its not just to my fellow students; professors, lecturers, and lab techs have all said “less data points support this conclusion than that” or “something has fewer probability.” (Don’t remember which to use? Just remember: your grocery store is probably wrong.)
We have a 1,500 word research report due in a few days, and everyone is stressing because they don’t know how to put their thoughts and understanding down on paper. They’re more worried about the paper than the presentation that will require standing in front of ~20 people, not because they’re comfortable speaking in front of groups, but because they’re terrified of writing a paper. (For reference, this post in total is 704 words; I wrote it in about 20 minutes.) Now, I’m not saying that I am always grammatically correct, or that I have perfect English. But scientists are the people who have discovered the world, and so many have no way to express it. How many incredible discoveries have been lost to history because the report manuscript was rejected for poor clarity? How many were lost because the research proposal was indecipherable? How much time and energy is wasted because nobody bothered to teach the scientist how to teach the world?
We’re finishing up our first week of the two week Czech Intensive portion of this semester. Which means, of course, I’m making my way through the second first week of Intensive Czech. In some ways, this time around is more intense, but in others it is much calmer.
On the more intense side:
- We speak basically only Czech. This surprises me and amazes me simultaneously. If you had asked me when I got here if I could survive four hours a day speaking 95% Czech, I’d laugh at you. But here we are, and this is the reality.
- We have a new, and intense textbook. I like it though. Yes, it freaks me out to see all the instructions in Czech and the sheer size of it (~200 pages), knowing we’re going through the whole thing this semester. But it also excites me to see how much I’m going to learn, and some of the grammar is already instantly simplified because of the professional presentation of it.
- We’re learning dozens of new words a day. This happened first semester, but the words were usually related (like, all the numbers, or a series of logical and important verbs). This semester’s words are more random, dependent on where the conversations take us. New words from today included, but were not limited to: mluví o (speak about), puberták (teenager), přijemný (annoying), obsazeno (taken), čiše (decanter), vrchní (head waiter), přát (to wish), drobné (coins, change), česněk (garlic), zelí (cabbage), kulajda (a specific type of traditional soup with cream, eggs, and mushrooms), potok (brook), krájet (to dice), štouchane brambory (mashed potatoes), žizen (thrist), and švýcarsko (Switzerland).
On the calmer side:
- We know each other. Basically everyone in my class I knew from last semester, so it makes personal dynamics less stressful. We know each others’ quirks, and we already have the inside jokes that get us through the long days of studying.
- We know what to expect. It doesn’t come as a surprise that we get lunch one day and not the next, or that just becaue the schedule says x, y, and z doesn’t mean that we’re sticking to it; in fact, chances are pretty high that lunch gets shifted up one day and back the next.
This isn’t to say that Czech right now isn’t intense. Because it is. We have pages – pages! – of homework each night, and my brain literally hurts when the day is done. But I’m loving it. Because it means I’m learning, which is what I’m here to do, after all. And I feel like I’m on the verge of really being able to communicate in Czech. It’ll definitely take a lot of hard work, but I feel like I’m right there. Like there are only a few more things to learn and then I can say anything I want to say. The declinations that just a month ago seemed so incredibly impossible are coming to me now. I don’t have to think so hard for them to pop into my head, and more often than not the ones I let pop in without thinking are right. More and more, I’m able to understand a word, or words, from context, which means I have to look up words less and less in day-to-day conversations. I’m starting to consider at what point trying to listen and understand conversations on the trams becomes eavesdropping. I sometimes even find myself looking forward to conversations all in Czech, because I feel like I’ve accomplished something significant in terms of the language. Like this morning’s interactions with Emma:
Emma HATES it when I ask her Jak se máš? (how are you?). Hates it when anyone asks, actually. Because their last homestay, Jorge, who was only in Prague for 10 days, never learned anything else. So he’d ask her all the time. Let’s just say they didn’t get along.
Sometimes, we ask Emma how she is as a joke. To make her angry, because she’s cute, and it is funny. But she’s been sick, and I was genuinely curious to know how she was. So I asked her, this morning, Jak se máš? And she scowled. But I didn’t laugh, or give up. I knew what was going on, so I told her (in Czech, of course!) that I’m not Jorge, but that I actually want to know. And then I asked again. And she answered. And it all happened in Czech.
Maybe next time I ask her, she’ll know I really mean it right off the bat.
Today was day #2 of our intensive Czech course, and when we say intensive, we mean it. We are learning easily 100 words per day (and trying to retain them… I think I’m running around 50% retainment, if that), and a lot of them are confusing. For example,
- Být (pronounced beet with a long “e”) – to be (vocative/dictionary form)
- Byt (pronounced beet with a short “e”) – flat or apartment
- Bít (pronounced byeet with a long “e” and a slight “y” sound) – to beat or hit.
- Bit – ?
If you asked me yesterday, I would have said I speak one. One language. One measly little language of the approximately 6,500 languages spoken in this world. One world. 196 countries, give or take.*
But if you ask me today, I have a different answer.
I speak two languages. Yesterday I was studying Japanese, and today, I speak it. Obviously, this isn’t something that actually occurred overnight. In fact, I know no more Japanese today than I did yesterday. But I had an experience today that changed what I think it means to speak a language.
Yesterday, I thought that it meant fluency. That to speak a language, one must feel comfortable in every situation. That one’s vocabulary includes every imaginable word, that one’s understanding of grammar is impeccable, that one never makes mistakes.
Today, I realized the failings of that definition. Does a ten-year old not speak his own language? If a woman stumbles over her words, does she not speak? Of course not. Speaking a language requires an ability to communicate. Nothing more, nothing less. It requires the vocabulary to talk about whatever you want to talk about, or the vocabulary to talk around whatever word you don’t know.
It requires a grammatical understanding to express more complexity than “this is …” or “I am doing …” Truly being able to speak a language requires the ability to express the innate nuances of thought through speech, which is impossible when the level of mastery is limited to a few basic sentence structures. Grammatical nuances include the ability to relate one thing to another; to indicate capability, causality, and conditionality; to express past, present, and future events; to differentiate between objects and subjects, between quotes and implications.
But speech doesn’t require grammatical perfection. Or fluency. Today’s new definition of speech is the ability to get your point across.
I just walked out of my Japanese conversation midterm, where I sat in an office, and was tested on my ability to hold a coherent conversation one on one with my Japanese professor for 20 minutes. We talked about Japanese religion, American religion, my opinions on religion. We talked about the Northern Lights, and traveling to Thailand, why bicycles are a good form of transportation, and what I had for lunch. I’m not really sure what else we talked about, but there was a lot of it, with a few stutters and incorrect grammar usages, but nothing major. She even ended our conversation by telling me I consistently make one mistake, but that its not a big one and that it doesn’t even hinder comprehension.
I left that test feeling like it was shorter than any other conversation test I’ve taken, even though the others have all been 5 to 15 minutes long. So I guess I speak Japanese.
*I find the inability to know with certainty the number of countries in the world a bit disconcerting. Pretty much everyone agrees that there are 195 countries in the world. That doesn’t count Taiwan, which pretty much everyone agrees ought to be a country (hence, 196). The CIA World Factbook includes entries for 267 “localities,” which includes places like Puerto Rico, and the Gaza Strip. I’m pretty sure the number 196 doesn’t include South Sudan, Mongolia, or Palestine. Why it counts Taiwan, but not Mongolia is beyond me, and a topic for another day.