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The Language Of Science

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Jean’s profile.

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?”

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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!