March 2011

Overcoming a Science Language Barrier: Are you a native speaker?

Yesterday I had an opportunity to observe a secondary school science lesson in an ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom. Most of the students in that class speak Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean or Japanese as their first language. The majority arrived to Canada last year. A student-teacher I was observing was working with them to help them get ready to study in a regular science classroom (grades 8-11). Observing these students struggling with “simple” English words reminded me how difficult it must be for them to end up in a classroom where they do not speak English and where they had to know a lot of special science-related English words. Unfortunately, even for the native English speaker, the science terminology we use in our science classrooms might be overwhelming. Biology is of course on the top of the science language ladder, as very few of our students have studied Greek or Latin. Biology is full of terminology and in my view, learning the subject is akin to learning a foreign language (which I had to do a few times myself). But what about physics or mathematics? These subjects might have fewer new words to the students, but many of the familiar terms from everyday life, have very specific meaning in the science context. In physics, the terms as “force, momentum, energy, acceleration” might not mean the same thing as they do in everyday life. Are our students aware of that? What do we do to help them overcome the “science language barrier in our classrooms”? What do we do to help them become science language natives and not to give up on science because the language scientists speak is unfamiliar to them? What is the role of the teacher in it? I do not know the answers to all these questions, but I know I will be thinking about them…

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