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There's Still Plenty of Room

English has become the lingua franca of the scientific community over the past decades, and as a result there is an increasing need for nonnative speakers to learn the language of science and technology--English for Science and Technology (EST)--in order to enable them to take part in international scientific communication. Sadly, it seems to me that language teachers who often have little feeling for science tend to dominate the field in which I work, as a lecturer in EST. They approach the teaching of scientific language in the same way they would approach the general teaching of English as a foreign language. This was brought home to me at a conference in Dublin a few years ago. I gave a paper explaining how an article (taken from New Scientist) dealing with models of the atomic nucleus could be used to teach English for physics at university level. One of those in the audience, an Englishman teaching EST at a French university, stood up and said that the article was far too difficult for EST teachers and that they could not be expected to possess the requisite scientific knowledge. In fact, the article had been taken from a popular science series ( New Scientist?s Inside Science)--if the questioner had ever seen a real textbook on nuclear physics, he would have had a heart attack!

I got into EST partly by chance and partly due to my specific interests. I started off studying mathematics and physics in Northern Ireland (which was an extremely lively place at the time!). I was always fascinated by physics, especially modern physics as it moved away from the mechanistic world of classical physics into the quantum world, and I found mathematics, especially pure mathematics, a very demanding and challenging subject that requires considerable powers of abstract thought and reasoning. But ultimately my interest in language won the day, and I became fascinated with linguistics, which bears a certain similarity to mathematics (logic reflects this overlap), although in linguistics the abstractions tend to be more philosophical and ultimately involve reflections on the nature of language, thought, and reality. I abandoned my study of physics and mathematics after 3 years and switched to English language and literature, moving on finally to linguistics, which remains my main interest.

I left university with a master?s degree in theoretical and applied linguistics. Given the difficulty of finding university posts in linguistics at that time, I decided I would teach English as a foreign language and ended up in Freiburg in southern Germany teaching at various institutions. Here I learnt a lot about the practicalities of language teaching, for example how to organise a class, how to assess students? proficiency, how to devise teaching materials, and so on. I also acquired a more thorough knowledge of the structure of English! Strangely enough, although we had some grammar at school and I studied linguistics, many facets of English grammar such as its tense system were relatively unfamiliar to me initially.

This was when I started my career in teaching English for Science and Technology, travelling once a week to the Nuclear Research Centre in Karlsruhe, Germany, to teach scientific staff there. I was both fascinated by the task and appalled at the quality of teaching materials being used (they had an awful book called The Structure of Scientific English which bored students to death). And so this was also the beginning of years of study and research into the nature of scientific language and how it could best be taught, which was to culminate many years later in a PhD plus a book on the subject: Text and Argumentation in English for Science and Technology.

I obtained a post as a lecturer in EST at the "Fachsprachenzentrum", the Centre for Languages for Academic/Specific Purposes, of the University of Hanover, Germany, in 1990, and here I devoted all my efforts to building up a substantial EST programme. The newly created centre offered a fascinating opportunity to work in a relatively new and expanding field, and not only to teach but to research and to incorporate the results in the practice of teaching. Nowadays, I spend part of my time teaching, part of the time on administration (rather more than I would like!), and the rest is devoted to research. I am also working on a new multimedia EST project at the moment where I can hopefully transform my ideas into a final product.

After moving to Hanover, I gradually came to realise that EST teachers who have trained originally as language teachers often claim that EST is the same as normal everyday language. Thus many teachers of EST tend to focus solely on the way that the language is taught--the methodology--without reflecting on the nature of what they are teaching or taking into account advances in other relevant fields such as linguistics. In fact, there are those who assert that there is no need to teach any of the structure of the language--students can just pick it up by osmosis by being sufficiently exposed to it! (Try that for Chinese sometime.) Another particular problem is that some of those who teach EST have no background in the sciences, no knowledge of how science operates, and no interest in acquiring that knowledge.

My approach to EST teaching has been very strongly influenced by Ekkehard Eggs, professor of linguistics here at the University of Hanover and specialist in logic and argumentation theory, who also became my PhD supervisor. The language of science is neither the same as everyday language nor is it something completely separate. Rather, it is a complex multifaceted phenomenon with various dimensions; these partly overlap with everyday language but in some respects diverge considerably. An understanding of the language of physics involves the following:

  • the objects that physics deals with and the related concepts that form the body of knowledge in physics, i.e. particles, bodies, waves, forces, interactions, etc.;

  • the epistemology of physics: Epistemology is the study of the nature, source, limits, and validity of knowledge, and for physics that means how physics devises and tests its theories concerning physical phenomena;

  • how the foregoing is realised in terms of logical/cognitive operations (such as defining or analogical reasoning);

  • the discourse community of physicists and ways in which physicists communicate within this community.

Teaching the language of physics thus means not only teaching the language structures typically used in the subject, including the specific terminology and grammar, but also the reasoning or argumentation that we find in physics and how this is expressed in language. It is this scientific reasoning that ultimately structures scientific communication, and argumentation theory provides a theoretical account of these phenomena.

There is a real need for EST teachers nowadays, especially in countries such as Germany, in industry as part of the process of globalisation, but also, in particular, at the university level, as internationalisation takes hold there, too. If you have the background, i.e., a degree in a scientific or technical subject, and have acquired or are willing to acquire the linguistic and pedagogical knowledge needed to teach EST, then there are certainly opportunities out there, and a university EST post can be quite well paid. A knowledge of a foreign language--especially the language of the country you are teaching in--is a considerable asset, for it gives you an insight into how language works as well as allowing you to recognise the problems the nonnative speaker has in learning the English language. And finally, for those with a more research bent, there is still plenty of work to do in the field in the analysis of the language of science and technology!

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