Language as a tool for learning science….the case for indigenising science, technology, engineering and mathematics


WE shall begin by putting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) into the development context.
Economic activities are generally characterised by the generation of goods and services for the market.
The capacity to generate marketable goods and services depends on a society’s level of development in terms of STEM.
The STEM capacities are developed from an early age through the school curriculum which is supposed to prepare youths for adult responsibilities concerned with generating marketable goods and services,
Before exploring the language dimension of STEM, let us briefly unpack its meaning.
Today ‘science’ is romanticised as a special subject taught at schools in specially-equipped rooms called laboratories.
Needless to say most schools, even though they list science on their curriculum, do not have suitable laboratory facilities to teach science. But what is science and why is it mystified?
Put simply, ‘science’ is knowledge about nature (our surroundings) including the living and non-livings things.
This knowledge is independent of our personal opinion; it is devoid of favour or bias.
Science knowledge does not change depending on one’s opinion. Scientific knowledge can thus be relied on to make decisions, to build structures without fearing that things might change tomorrow.
Learning of ‘science’ is driven by human curiosity and the desire to exploit natural objects and phenomena for our own use.
Some concrete examples include gaining knowledge about how our body works, including how to keep it healthy through eating the right foods as well as preventing and curing diseases.
Science is knowledge about our soils, the crops and animals that we can grow and rear as well as how we can improve their yields. It includes what we know about our mineral resources: what and where they are including how to exploit and process them.
Technology refers to the systems that we develop to exploit our knowledge (science).
An object with a very sharp edge can be used as a cutting tool; it is a machine.
That is technology.
If a heavy object smashes on to a stone, the force it exerts breaks the stone into smaller pieces.
That is a technology widely used in mining, road building and manufacturing. The telephone, the wireless or an electric stove are all technologies.
Technologies take advantages of natural phenomena to create tools for doing useful work.
Engineering involves creating systems that can exploit several technologies to provide a useful service. Civil engineers sit down to craft a bridge.
They look at the soil, the riverbed to see how they put pillars across; what type of concrete is required and the strength of the materials needed so that the bridge will not collapse.
Engineering the construction of a high-rise building requires similar knowledge.
Engineering uses science and technology to build structures that provide services to the society.
Mathematics is a useful tool for quantifying the things around us, including goods and services that we may produce for our own use or for sale.
Even illiterate old women selling termites or madora by the road-side will quantify their goods and work out what they expect from sale of the same.
Whether in commerce or in engineering and manufacturing, mathematics is critical to ensure we correctly quantify the materials we use or generate from our operations.
Where does language come into STEM?
The key issue is that all the STEM components are carried out by humans who need to communicate the various pieces of information. Because ‘science’, as introduced by colonialists, is taught in English, those who have not mastered the language are excluded from accessing its goods and services.
Students who struggle with English also struggle with STEM subjects.
Our argument then is: Does the learning of English become a prerequisite for learning STEM subjects?
Can STEM subjects not be taught in our indigenous languages?
After all, STEM is about the natural environment surrounding us; not the environment in England and Wales or wherever in Europe or the US.
The UK was ruled by Romans for 400 years.
Romans imposed Latin as the language of official communication. The British povo struggled and the majority never mastered the colonial language.
Development was stalled because the majority were left out of the development process due to language dynamics.
The British then tried French as an official language since the French were considered to be the more civilised elites. The British ‘povo’ also failed to master French.
Development was stalled.
They decided to revert to the indigenous English language.
They set up language committees to domesticate sciences and other subjects that had hitherto been communicated in the foreign languages.
They found English vocabulary to be limited as it could not accommodate many concepts that were borrowed from other cultures. They adopted a policy of adopting and then Anglicising the foreign vocabulary.
That is how English, despite the relatively small population of its native speakers, became a world-wide communication tool.
Of course the English took their language to the colonies where it has stalled STEM development in many former colonies.
Until and unless we domesticate science by adopting local languages for its teaching, especially in the lower classes, we are not going to develop and benefit from STEM.
Science must be domesticated and language is the key enabler.
Is it feasible to teach science in local languages?
First we need to point out that the world around us is not written in English or any one particular language for that matter.
The various phenomena of nature exist independent of language. We can develop, as the English did, a wide vocabulary of scientific terms through a process of language adaptation.
We can do it in stages; starting with primary level science.
Strong science language committees for local languages can be set up to develop the necessary STEM vocabularies for various local languages.
For example we can ‘Shonalise’ and ‘Ndebelise’ many scientific terms which have no equivalents in the local languages.
What is required is the political will to re-assert ourselves as an independent self-respecting nation.
We shall explore strategies for domesticating science through local languages in the next episode of this discussion.


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