“The Languages of Science:” Jacky Deng On Language Learning In Chemistry

By Quinn Hoop

Jacky Deng is a PhD Candidate working with Professor Alison Flynn at the University of Ottawa. He gave a speech on September 21st on the difficulties of language barriers in higher education, and how we can work to resolve them. Working in his field of chemistry, Deng found himself curious about the experiences of Eng+ (people who do not speak English as their first language) students in college and beyond. 

Growing up in an immigrant home, Deng’s parents spoke Cantonese at home. He noted how the language barrier was, “a really challenging thing for them to go through. Seeing them struggle through this English-speaking society … it really undermined their skills and work.” His interest in language continued at the University of Ottawa, a French/English bilingual school. He described the environment as, “an interesting context for me to explore this intersection between learning and language.” 

Eventually, he became curious enough about the intersection between language and learning to run some small studies. Deng conducted a series of interviews with Eng+ speakers in higher education about their experiences. He found that most of them faced significant difficulties because of language barriers. An interviewee recalled flipping between textbooks and translators constantly throughout their chemistry experience, so much so that they practically had to relearn semesters’ worth of material. They expressed that often the language barrier made it difficult to understand concepts and mechanisms, even if they knew all of the terminology. A member of the audience agreed with this sentiment, saying, “To me, this is the difference between understanding vocabulary and understanding poetry.”

Participants also expressed feeling imposter syndrome, the need to compensate for their lack of language understanding by appearing extremely competent in their area of study and feeling unable to engage with peers. Deng said not only that “it slows down their research,” but also that, “this translation process is a filtration process.” An interviewee commented, “As a scientific community, we may be missing out on information that we would otherwise gain if we gave these people the opportunity to express themselves.”

The studies also showed that (at UOttawa) doing chemistry in languages other than English was relatively common in undergraduate contexts, but 15 to 18 of the graduate students said they did their research in English. Those numbers coming from an explicitly bilingual school like UOttawa prompted Jacky to ask, “How does this dictate who gets to participate in science, and in what sense?”

In order to make science more equitable, Deng also proposed some strategies to help educators assist students in overcoming language challenges. First and foremost, he pressed the importance of demonstrating patience and empathy toward student’s challenges. He also recommended, “providing resources and supports to promote skill development.” In terms of particulars, he suggested giving multimodal assessments, as well as giving students opportunities to draw, present, or speak instead of writing answers. He also recommended that peer review and feedback on work can help students catch small errors stemming from language barriers, and see the types of responses that English native speakers are generating in comparison to their own. Additionally, a participant in the study praised the creation of communities of Eng+ speakers, which make it easier to share challenges and strategies to overcome them. Sometimes half the battle was just to know that there were others who had undergone the same challenges and made it through. 

Deng’s talk sought to inform the public about the challenges that Eng+ speakers face in college and throughout the academic world, but he also seemed hopeful that these challenges could be overcome. One of the participants in his study said that their path of science through a foreign language was, “[a] process of becoming better,” and that sometimes, you just, “[shouldn’t] care about what other people think.” The experiences of these individuals seemed to tell Jacky that language barriers act as gates, which more often than not make entry difficult. However, these gates could act as doors, which would open up individuals to wider worlds of learning.

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