Is learning science like learning a language?

By Heather King - June 2011


Rincke, K. (2011). It’s rather like learning a language: Development of talk and conceptual understanding in mechanics lessons. International Journal of Science Education, 33(2), 229–258.

This study reports on how high school students use scientifically correct language to articulate the concept of ‘force’. Although the analysis is somewhat complex, the importance of this study is its research of how the students engage with scientific concepts and language, and moreover, how they use and apply it.

The study involved the analysis of talk from nine lessons in which students engaged with the concept of ‘force’. While teaching, the teacher encouraged the students to use the term ‘force’, scientifically. The students’ knowledge was then put to test by asking them to translate ‘everyday’ sentences into scientific language. The analysis of findings suggests that students faced a dilemma in using the term ‘force’ correctly. Either they sought to use the term correctly, whereby they forsook the topic under discussion, or they focused on communicating the discussion and ignored the need to explain force as an interaction of two objects.

The author points to a previous study in which the benefits of ‘content-first’ approach were reported (Brown and Ryoo, 2008). It argues that students need to become familiar with the content or concept before they appropriate the new language. However, as the author points out, in this case, ‘force’ already has an everyday meaning which may be ambiguous to students attempting to communicate new ideas. The author also notes that while the teacher repeatedly used force in a scientific way such that it became formulaic, the students did not appear to pick it up in the same way in which they would a formulaic phrase when learning a foreign language.

The theoretical section of the paper presents an interesting introduction to the role of language learning, in particular the notion of interlanguage (Selinker, 1972), that is, the language used by students before they fully appropriate its complexity. In the findings of this research, the author notes that students revert back and forth between scientific and everyday language – and thus acquire a form of ‘scientific interlanguage’.

The author concludes that it is worth exploring the field of language-learning research as it opens up new ways of improving science learning. However, he also asserts that while some relationships exist, learning scientific language is not the same as learning a second language: ‘language learners are talking about commonplace events using a new language, science learners are talking about new and abstract fields of knowledge using a new and foreign language’ (p. 256).

In sum, this study highlights the importance of providing students with considerable time and support in order to understand new scientific concepts and also to acquire the appropriate language with which to talk about them. For ISE practitioners, this research suggests that activities aimed at helping students to use scientific terms confidently and correctly require an extended time frame and that single-shot workshops may not be sufficient.

References cited:

Brown, B.A. & Ryoo, K. (2008). Teaching science as a language: A content-first approach to science teaching. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45(5), 529–553.

Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 10(3), 209–231.