When you use the word ant, but you mean aunt

January 28, 2016

Dr. Nigro, Filipodia Editor


Learning a new language is one of the most humbling experiences we can have as an adult. Suddenly we only have the words for brushing our teeth or taking a shower, none of which help us in communicating effectively with other adults, either socially or professionally in a foreign environment.


Every language has peculiarities that make it potentially difficult to learn as an adult. Greek has a completely different alphabet until you realize that you have seen each letter in a scientific formula. German sentences go on forever, seemingly almost in reverse to English, with the action-the verb-as the very last word, but you may be a better listener for it. Italian as any romance language has a complicated set of verb forms that are difficult to master but beautiful to pronounce and to listen to even if you do make a mistake. Norwegian is one of the easier languages I have studied, but only on paper, as there are two official languages and hundreds of dialects. And oh yes, that enunciation issue. For any language, prepositions and the words after them cause confusion-are we in something or on it-and often involve a whole new set of grammar rules.


It is easy to see the challenges in learning a new language, but not your mother tongue. I have been told that English in some respects is easier to learn than many other languages. We use in large part modifier verbs rather than unique conjugations of past, present, or future forms, as is typical of Romance languages. All of our nouns are gender neutral! And while we do have verb conjugation, it is not as complex as Italian or French.


But the spelling, well, it seems a bit random. Many complain that English is tough to learn because the words do not look anything like they sound. You might use the word “ant” when you really mean “aunt.”


More importantly, English is a word rich language. English consists of around 1.5 million words, probably because the language has stolen from so many others. Norwegian for comparison is comprised of only around a third of that. Nuance is thus a challenge for non-native speakers. Many words in English can be used almost interchangeably, but a native English speaker might distinguish between words based on the context. The single word “rom” in Norwegian is used as the English words for room (where you sleep) and space (what you need), and even space as in outer space. A room is also called a chamber in English, but chamber when referring to a cell culture apparatus is never a room!


I have used a lot of strategies to help me to learn a new language (including watching animated films for children and reading comic book series), but there is no better way to become more proficient at English or any other language than to use it. It seems obvious, but the best way to do that is to use the words that you know to express yourself. I once learned the word for sheep in a conversation with an Italian when the only word I knew was for lamb.


Using the words that you know is especially important in writing scientific manuscripts, from an ethical perspective, in order to avoid copying sentences from the articles we read. Write in the way you understand a topic in your own words and have the work edited later. Simple often works well enough.


Science has a language too-do cells migrate or do they swim; are cells seeded into a chamber or seeded into a room-and to learn it, nothing beats reading a lot of articles. And then making mistakes. It isn’t easy-it is a bit like saying take a look at the Mona Lisa and now go paint, but all scientists regardless of English fluency still need a certain vocabulary to write manuscripts. Choose articles to read just as you might a novel-you like the author’s style of writing and try to understand why. Some of the scientists I follow use simple language while others write in a more literary style.


Read about diverse topics.  Read the original paper on the development of a method such as CRISPR, the epidemiology behind tumor suppressor theory, or the genome sequence of symbiotic bacteria living on a squid.


Pay attention to the general format and the information necessary in each section of the articles in many different journals. It can be a different challenge to write an abstract in 200 words (what is my paper really about?) rather than 300. Organizing the basic elements of an article-abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results and discussion, and especially the figures-enables you to more clearly observe the potential weaknesses in your work before you present it publically.


It takes an enormous effort to reach the end of a project, and writing the manuscript could be thought of as the last of your experiments. You try, and you might be surprised with the result!