Friday, February 14, 2020

Language and Teaching Science: A Story

In other essays, I have discussed the biological adaptation known as language, and how the communication of ideas is only one of the many functions of language. It is also a medium of social bonding among people who speak the same language. An important part of this bonding is that the people share idioms, that is, phrases that they understand but which makes no sense to outsiders. One example of an English idiom is, “Let’s have a pea-pickin’ time.” My students inform me that this is no longer a common phrase in English. I’m surprised that it ever was; picking peas is not my idea of a good time. A few decades ago, however, this idiom was in common circulation.

About 1972, I was a young high school student in an agricultural part of California. Many Hispanic migrant families moved from one fruit-picking job to another. One day, a girl from one of these families showed up at our high school, unable to speak any English. How was she supposed to take classes, such as biology? Our Spanish teacher, Mr. Jesse Guerrero, had the answer. He knew that I was pretty good at Spanish (for a second language), and at science. He and other teachers agreed that I should translate the English biology book into Spanish. I agreed and set to work immediately.

The title of chapter 1 was “Let’s Have a Pea-Pickin’ Time.” It was about genetics, which is based on the nineteenth-century research of Gregor Mendel, who studied genetic inheritance patterns in peas.  This chapter was about him.

If I translated the title directly, it would be “Tengamous tiempo de recoger guisantes.” This makes even less sense in Spanish than it does in English (“Let us have the time to pick peas”). I brought this problem to Mr. Guerrero, who said a better translation would be “Divert├ímanos,” or “Let’s have fun.” But then there is no connection to the subject matter of the chapter (Mendel and his peas).

What was the solution to the problem? The girl dropped out. That took care of the problem, for us anyway.

This was when I first realized that different languages, in all their diverse beauty, exist only in part for the purpose of communicating information.

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