What Role Do Languages Play in STEM?
Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, are at the forefront of our way of life. In this world we live with constant technological, environmental, economical, and societal change; being skilled in STEM subjects is becoming crucial to our existence. But what role do languages play in STEM?
English has gained notoriety as our international lingua franca for just about everything; it is the tool we used to communicate in for business, politics, travel, and so on, and we as a world assume that English is everywhere. It is therefore easy to assume that the disciplines of STEM are taught in a vacuum of English only, and that anyone who wants to work or study in these fields must speak English to take part. Well, you know what they say about making assumptions!
A study by Forbes/Statista in 2017 showed that the country with the highest volume of STEM graduates was China, at 4.7 million. India came second at 2.6 million, with the US coming in third with a tiny 568,000. The rest on the list are Russia, Iran, Indonesia, and Japan. So why isn’t the main focus of STEM subjects any of these other languages?
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An international hurdle
It is clear from the above statistics that STEM graduates can choose to go on to important careers in STEM in their home countries. But with our bias towards English for everything, many of these students might choose instead to work abroad in English-speaking countries. So not only do they need to become competent in their chosen STEM discipline, but they also need to be able to do so in English as well.
Though this is also true of native English speakers who want to choose careers in countries like Japan and China. Without being fluent in Japanese or Mandarin, how can they possibly compete effectively with candidates who are? And even if they are technically competent with the vocabulary of their chosen discipline, graduates working overseas also have to learn a whole new way of speaking, both professionally and privately. Language is clearly a crucial component of STEM subjects, and should be recognised as such.
A better understanding
A 2018 study by the Linguistic Society of America suggested that linguistics play a crucial role in breaking down the barriers there are to STEM subject achievement. Ideal methods of teaching should include language that draws on the experience of all cultural backgrounds in a classroom. Since the STEM fields tend to be overloaded with language that is academic, discipline-specific, and jargon-laden, without careful teaching methodology and planning, there is a risk that potential STEM students will feel or be excluded.
STEM is often taught in a global language like English, instead of a local language based on a local curriculum. Countries who put more emphasis on teaching English as a second language, than giving students an understanding of core STEM principles in the local tongue first, deny those students the opportunity to truly get to grips with the subjects. If students can understand and relate STEM to their own experiences and environment, they stand a much better chance of mastering STEM subjects — before having to tackle them in another language! The authors of Human Rights in Language and STEM Education go further with this statement, arguing that since STEM subjects are being prioritised on national agendas globally, it is a human right for students to be able to more effectively be taught these subjects.
A different approach?
The importance of understanding a language in STEM subjects goes beyond picking up the difficult vocabulary. Even something like whether a language has a distinct future tense can alter how we think about a subject. Present-tensed languages such as Finnish and German talk in terms of the future as now, and it is interesting to note that their approach to issues like environmental policy are far stricter when compared with countries whose languages are future-tensed, like English and French.
The role languages play in STEM then mean a difference in understanding depending on the language we speak. Our global economy is heavily reliant on STEM disciplines, but to be competent in these fields means to understand their impact on both a global and local level. It is always true that when we learn a language we take on more than just new vocabulary and grammar; we learn to embrace and understand that language’s culture as well. This is an essential trait STEM graduates will need going forward; not only technical competence but an appreciation of cultural differences and practices around the world.
In our constantly changing world, it is crucial that we understand each other better. STEM subjects need to go hand in hand with language acquisition. What changes would language acquisition bring to your field?