Language matters in science and mathematics – here’s why

What do you get when you cross a mafia mobster with a sociologist? An offer you can’t understand. It’s an old joke, and you could substitute “sociologist” with just about any other “ologist” – the broader point being that professions use language in ways that make it hard for outsiders to understand.

So, do sociologists, mathematicians, scientists and lawyers use language to be elitist and exclusive? Or is the language necessary to describe the specifics of their field? And what role does school play in initiating students into the language of these different disciplines?

Different ways of thinking

As tempting as it is to think that different disciplines develop their own special language as a means of keeping others out of their domain – lawyers, we are looking at you – the reasons are not usually malevolent. 

Disciplines use language in ways that are a reflection of the way they see the world.

Historians expect author bias when they read because they are not seeking one truth, but multiple perspectives on any one event. Understanding bias is important to making sense of all the component parts of an historical event. So, part of learning to read in history is to search for bias.

Mathematicians do not expect author bias. In maths, the author is invisible, inconsequential to the reader. There is one objective truth. Similarly in science there is an expectation that author bias is removed through careful attention paid to the methods used to prove the findings presented. 

Poets and novelists embrace bias. They are using language to show their allegiances and to get the reader to join them.

In short, mathematicians, scientists, historians and poets think differently from one another – they understand the world around them in different ways, and they use language differently in order to communicate those understandings. 

Using language in different ways

These different ways of understanding the world mean that sentence structures and vocabulary differ across the disciplines.

In a novel we could expect to read sentences beginning with elaborated phrases designed to evoke mood or setting, and make the writer visible to the reader, for example, the opening of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: 

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York

But we expect none of that in a scientific laboratory report.

In a novel unknown words can often be guessed from context, or even skipped, and meaning can still be maintained. However in mathematics there is no redundancy – every word counts. If one word is not understood it is probable the entire sentence will be misconstrued. 

The disciplines generate specialised vocabulary – words for ideas and concepts that are peculiar or unique to that field. However they also use everyday vocabulary in specialised ways, so seemingly familiar words come to mean different things across the disciplines.

For example, mathematicians count the “faces” on a 3D object, geologists examine rock “faces”, historians may make assumptions “on the face” of evidence presented. And the novelist’s protagonist may be concerned about “losing face” and perhaps eventually having to “face up” to the truth.

“Insiders” are very often unaware of the challenges the language of their discipline poses to others because the language has become so familiar to them. 

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What role do schools play?

High schools expect their students to read and write using the language of the different disciplines. Students must write lab reports in science, short narratives in English, research reports in history and basic mathematical proofs in maths – all in one day! 

Unfortunately, high school teachers rarely teach the language required for these tasks. 

It is expected that somehow students will automatically become users of discipline language just because they are exposed to it. But these specialised uses of language have been constructed over hundreds of years by the experts in the discipline and students need explicit instruction and initiation into that language. 

All teachers are language teachers

“All teachers are language teachers”. This is a mantra that has been swirling around in education for years. Most schools have it somewhere in their curriculum policy documents, as does the Australian Curriculum

It’s a mantra that gets up the nose of many high school discipline teachers. The typical response is:

I have a curriculum full of content to get through, I don’t have time to teach this as well. Anyway, isn’t that the English teachers’ job. 

And then there is the often unspoken defence, “I don’t know how to”. After all, “how to teach disciplinary language” does not feature in many secondary teacher education degrees.

But if high school teachers do not explicitly teach the language of their discipline, no-one else will. No-one else can. 

Science teachers can’t expect English teachers to teach students to write lab reports anymore than English teachers would expect science teachers to teach alliteration and personification. 

STEM education investment at risk

If high school teachers do not explicitly teach the language of their discipline, they are effectively ensuring their students remain outsiders.

Without explicit instruction, language that has become invisible and intuitive to the discipline teachers remains invisible and confounding to their students. 

Teachers will not know if their students are underachieving because they don’t understand the language or because they don’t understand the concepts. Both are serious problems but each has a very different solution.

And all the millions of dollars currently being poured into STEM education will be sadly wasted because we fail to take account of the role of language in achievement and engagement across the STEM disciplines.


creative-commonsWritten by Misty Adoniou Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra, this article was first published on The Conversation. 

Misty Adoniou

Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra.

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