- Erin Ross
- Nov 9
Language puts up barriers in science
Photo illustration: Axios Visuals
In classrooms in the U.S. and around the world, science is often taught as an idea that began with the Greeks. Now there is a growing movement calling for science to be decolonized, and to acknowledge the contributions and ideas of non-Western peoples.
At the World Conference of Science Journalists last month, South African science writer Sibusiso Biyela spoke about how language inequality can keep people — and ideas — out of science. Axios followed up with Biyela to ask whether colonization still influences science in South Africa today. The interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
"Do you really understand something if you don't understand it in your own language?" Biyela asks.
Is science a universal concept?
Yes. Science is the same everywhere. We might call it different things, but it's the same laws applying to the whole universe and everywhere on Earth that human beings are.
Science is just a way of reasoning that everyone does. All cultures had to apply those concepts in order to survive. So when you repackage that and call it "science" in a different language, it seems foreign.
What was the first story you wrote in English and Zulu?
I was writing about the Meerkat project, a precursor to the Square Kilometer Array project, part of which is constructed in South Africa.
I was so excited about the project that I decided to write it both in English and my native language, Zulu. And while it was quite easy to write the English version, I had a problem writing a Zulu version. Every time that I got to a concept like a supernova or a black hole or a quasar, I'd need a whole paragraph to explain it. It didn't translate.
In the end, I wrote two entirely different stories. The English one focused on the project itself and what it will do. I used the Zulu version as a chance to educate about what a black hole is. I mean, I can explain it well in English, but to do it in my own language was difficult.
The problem is, we only start learning science in another language. For most of us, English is a second language. And science is, in itself a complex concept and another language. So you're learning English, and while you're still trying to grasp it, you're learning science in English.
If science was taught in Zulu, would it be easier to explain?
You have to create a lexicon of science terms for Zulu, and that takes a lot of researchers and political will, and a lot of funding. But it's happened before. There is a language called Afrikaans, which is a dialect of Dutch, and in South Africa it is a language of science. Three or four decades ago, the government of the time put a lot of effort into making an Afrikaans lexicon of science terms and concepts. We've shown it can happen.
My language can be a language of science, but it's not yet. Not because it's not capable of being so, but because it's not a priority to make it that way.
How did apartheid and colonization impacted South African science?
It's only been 23 years since 1994, just over two decades that South Africa has been democratic. Before that, black people were not allowed to become scientists. We only now have black professors. What this means is that a lot of important science in South Africa, at the highest levels, is done by white men. White people make up a small portion of the population, but they are overrepresented in science.
Today in school, a lot of my peers, including myself, were told that science is not for us. We were told that science is "izinto zabelungu," which means "things of the whites."
But the idea that science is a Western concept is an idea that needs to be removed from people's minds. For that to happen, they need to be taught in their own language.
We've talked about English science concepts that are hard to translate into Zulu. Are there Zulu concepts that are hard to translate into English, that could bring new ways of thinking to science?
I have thought a lot about this, and absolutely. There are many examples where we talk about something in Zulu, and when someone asks you about it in English, it doesn't translate. It's a completely different way of looking at the world.
I learned a lot of astronomy from popular science books, and only later learned that people in my culture used the stars to navigate, tell time and do all sorts of things. A large part of Zulu culture is based on astronomy, the positions of the stars. But I only knew the names of the constellations and planets in English, because there was no effort to teach this in my language. If there was, I would know these things in a much more intimate level, know how these stars, these constellations, were paramount to my ancestors' survival. This would be a part of my knowledge. Astronomy wouldn't be so foreign at all.