Nov 9, 2017

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.

Go deeper

Trump touts press briefing "ratings" as U.S. coronavirus case surge

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

President Trump sent about a half-dozen tweets on Sunday touting the high television ratings that his coronavirus press briefings have received, selectively citing a New York Times article that compared them to "The Bachelor" and "Monday Night Football."

Why it matters: The president has been holding daily press briefings in the weeks since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, but news outlets have struggled with how to cover them live — as Trump has repeatedly been found to spread misinformation and contradict public health officials.

World coronavirus updates: Total cases surge to over 700,000

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens and confirmed plus presumptive cases from the CDC

There are now than more than 700,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus around the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins. The virus has now killed more than 32,000 people — with Italy alone reporting over 10,000 deaths.

The big picture: Governments around the world have stepped up public health and economic measures to stop the spread of the virus and soften the financial impact. In the U.S., now the site of the largest outbreak in the world, President Trump said Saturday he would issue a "strong" travel advisory for New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 42 mins ago - Health

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 2 p.m. ET: 704,095 — Total deaths: 33,509 — Total recoveries: 148,824.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 2 p.m. ET: 132,637 — Total deaths: 2,351 — Total recoveries: 2,612.
  3. Federal government latest: The first federal prisoner to die from coronavirus was reported from a correctional facility in Louisiana on Sunday.
  4. Public health updates: Fauci says 100,000 to 200,000 Americans could die from virus.
  5. State updates: Louisiana governor says state is on track to exceed ventilator capacity by end of this week — Cuomo says Trump's mandatory quarantine comments "really panicked" people
  6. World updates: Italy on Sunday reported 756 new deaths, bringing its total 10,779. Spain reported almost 840 dead, another new daily record that bring its total to over 6,500.
  7. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.