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The Language Of Science

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I have to admit, I didn’t have a clue what a wug was. Someone gave me a general psychology book some time ago (I don’t know why, I’m not a psychologist), so I did a quick bit of research and it turns out that a wug is a very interesting creature indeed. When shown a picture of a wug (like the one Jean showed us), small children involved in the experiment are told “This is a wug.” Next, the children are shown two such creatures and asked “what do you see?”

Wug is the loneliest number that you’ve ever heard. (The Wug and Wug Test ©Jean Berko Gleason 2006. All rights reserved. For individual & family use only

Interestingly, a lot of the very young children say that they see two “wugs,” thus demonstrating that they can use grammatical rules (such as plurals) which they could not possibly have learned yet. Wugs are great!

All this talk of language made me think of a recent scientific paper in which Catherine Snow of Harvard suggested that in order for science to be taught better, we should first teach children “academic language.” This language, from my point of view, is the language of cramming as much information into as few words as possible.

I’m not sure if this is the best way to go about teaching science or any other subject for that matter. Sometimes, it is best to expound on a topic and embellish concrete scientific facts with a beautiful turn of phrase or a nicely constructed simile. We shouldn’t get too bogged down in the “language” of science; the important thing is to get the message across. However, if we try and teach science in an “academic language” we may end up sucking all the fun out of it. And the wugs would not like that!

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Eoin Lettice

    Eoin Lettice is a plant scientist and college lecturer at University College Cork, Ireland. His research interests include the biological control of plant pests, in particular, the Potato Cyst Nematode. He lectures on general biology as well as on plant biotechnology, plant pathology, the biological control of plant pests and pathogens, and, when he’s feeling adventurous, statistics! Eoin is also keenly interested in communicating science, particularly to the general public and maintains the Communicate Science blog, which has been nominated for a number of national awards in Ireland. He enjoys running in his spare time and completed his first marathon last year. He lives in Cork with his fiancée and their cat “Indie.”