What Are We Doing When We "Talk Science"?Jack Kimball
Professor of English
kimball [at] post.miyazaki-med.ac.jp http://www.miyazaki-med.ac.jp/people/PeopleE/education/English/kim/hp.html
Miyazaki Medical College
Kiyotake, Miyazaki, Japan
The rationalist schema yields a research and teaching agenda pertaining to structure and knowledge about language -- metalanguage; the empiricist schema focuses on situation, function and interaction. In this regard Widdowson (1978) draws the key distinction between rationalist-based linguistic usage and empiricist-based communicative use. The Chomskian tradition, when adapted for language teaching, stresses acceptable usage by way of analysis of grammatical structure and form. Ironically, while of course upholding the relevance of the de-contextualized approach for linguistic research, Chomsky takes a dim view of its application in the language classroom: "I am, frankly, rather skeptical about the significance, for the teaching of languages, of such insights and understanding as have been attained in linguistics and psychology" (1966:37). For classroom practice in a communication-driven skill such as speaking, the use of language in specific contexts comes to the fore.
The question is, What uses work best? One approach is the notional syllabus in which language content is manifested as specific functions together with associated ideas -- formulated as contextualized scripts for introducing oneself to new acquaintances, for example, or inviting, accepting, complaining, requesting and so forth. Here language is isolated into situational units, a process that parallels the emphasis on grammatical units in rationalist syllabi. Widdowson suggests, "the focus of the notional syllabus is still on the accumulation of language items rather than on the development of strategies for dealing with language use" (1979:249).
Indeed, a subset of communicative competence would be an emanating strategic competence, that is, a means for manipulating various registers to achieve communication goals and for repairing breakdowns in communication due to mistakes, misunderstandings, distractions, etc. (Canale and Swain 1980, Savignon 1983, Bachman 1987). A further differentiation within this subset is the variations of strategy required for commonplace versus specialized domains of discourse. Cummins (1981) distinguishes between the context-embedded "basic interpersonal communicative skills" (BICS) and context-reduced "cognitive/academic language proficiency" (CALP). Notional-functional scripts situated in concrete social contexts, such as making a request to borrow a newspaper, would typify BICS. Relevant to college language teaching, however, and particularly with respect to advanced language learners speaking on science topics, of all these schemata and subsets it is strategic competence in the domain of CALP that we can inspect most profitably.
Scientific Discourse: Forms, Contents, Conventions
Conversely, speeches, dialogues and other sorts of discourse on academic topics such as science constitute authentic, concrete processes for the college classroom, concrete in the sense that they comprise real experiences underpinning students' general education. The discourse forms of academic language surely entail conceptual abstractions, as we shall see, but the contents of such discourse have a direct bearing on learners' cognitive development and scholastic achievement.
The abstract forms of scientific discourse, moreover, are frequently addressed to real phenomena and attendant questions of causality. The abstractions of other academic fields, such liberal arts as literary criticism, ethical theory or social analysis, for example, typically refer to mental constructs like "tone," "justice" and "motivation." While these fields offer rich content for language learning as well, one advantage of scientific discourse is that its abstractions commonly refer to verifiable sense data and to what Kuhn (1970) describes as "useful problems." Whereas the discourse focus of fields in the liberal arts utilize emotional, ethical, logical and stylistic appeals, the focus of scientific discourse is almost exclusively logical, relevant to physical reality, and explicative in goal. Explanation is key as Chomsky asserts:
It is hardly open to question that natural sciences are concerned precisely with the problems of explaining phenomena, and have little use for accurate description that is unrelated to problems of explanation. (1965:589; cited in Kinneavy 1980:84)Further, scientific explanation follows a highly conventional and transparent pattern of rhetorical development, militating toward a superordinate classification of causality by means of exemplification. Rhetorician James Kinneavy writes:
Sometimes causal explanation comes to be stated in terms of a general principle of which the event to be explained is an example... This is sometimes called deductive explanation. It actually establishes the thing to be explained...as a member of a class... In actuality, this is explanation by classification... (85)Another facet of the conventionality and transparency of scientific discourse is its concern for the literal and its reliance on evidence. Science, as Aristotle observes, is primarily concerned with "things"; the things it addresses are "an already articulated body of problems, data, and theory...to which the scientific community is committed" (Kuhn:136). The style of scientific discourse in English is also conventionalized, weighted toward brevity and a bee-line simplicity whose origins go back to the Renaissance and the establishment of stylistic objectives by the Royal Society. Sprat, Society historian, notes that these objectives were "to reject all amplification, digressions...to return back to the primitive purity and shortness when...so many things [were expressed] in an equal number of words." He characterizes the "purity" of the discourse as "a clear, naked, natural way of speaking...bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can" (cited by Kinneavy:170).
Maxims, Metaphors and Discourse Processes as Strategies
Science privileges facts but it advances by way of speculation. Thus the role of scientific metaphor in model-building qualifies Grice's maxims concerning truth and evidence. Metaphor is a special case of not telling the "truth." As Kinneavy suggests,
science usually prefers the literal to the nonliteral term -- that is, figures of speech are often out of place [but] models and analogies are nonliteral terms and are necessary in science... (177)Citing the Watson-Crick "double helix" model of DNA in which a genetic "message" "transmits" "information," Halloran and Bradford (1984) illustrate the priority given figures of speech in synthesizing and presenting novel ideas. They conclude,
No synthesis could ever be achieved, no models postulated, no paradigms established if science relied wholly upon "careful observation" for its theories. Model-building requires an inductive leap; carefully recorded examples must be synthesized into a logical premise, and then be further verified and expanded by traditional scientific method. For this, science must exploit the power of metaphor... (183)Model-building and practice in making analogies and metaphors afford a powerful strategic technology for discovering and interconnecting scientific concepts. Trimble (1985) categorizes metaphor and analogy as a kind of applied comparison/contrast which in turn is one of various "rhetorical techniques" available to science. Other techniques are examples, illustrations, cause/effect, order of importance, and time/space order. Trimble explains that these processes operate as "cohesive ties"; they "bind together the items of information" within larger linguistic frameworks which he labels "rhetorical functions" (52). The three most common functions -- description, definition, classification -- are fundamental to organizing scientific information, each "capable of being isolated and studied separately" (69). This last insight is central to our final point of discussion, translating discourse features into classroom procedures.
- Step 1. Determine the core generalization and structure of the discourse.
- Step 2. Determine the rhetorical techniques -- focus on the relationships between items of information.
- Step 3. Determine rhetorical functions for presenting major items of information.
- Step 4. Determine the grammatical elements that govern the functions.
- Step 5. Determine often-confused vocabulary. (69-70)
In formulating the interactive use of metaphor and rhetorical modes of invention as discussion items, the instructor needs to consolidate components of genuine communication tasks. These include a purpose for the communication, a focus on message (rather than grammar), negotiation by learners to supply some missing information (an "information gap" in current parlance), and most important, a choice of linguistic resources determined by learners (see Ellis 1982, Nobuyoshi and Ellis 1993). Nunan (1991) lists the following steps, among others, for the instructor to follow in developing classroom activities: 1) identify target task -- for example, classifying chemical compounds; 2) provide students with language models; 3) concentrate on the "enabling skill" -- in our case, perhaps, reading and oral practice in two-way classifying.
A string of interrelated tasks can be devised for the speaking class as "project work," including "gathering of information through reading, listening, interviewing etc., discussion...problem solving" and so forth (Hedge 1993). Project work of this sort offers a disciplined means for sustaining genuine communication, but it requires that the language teacher redistribute the weight of traditional classroom authority. While the individual instructor maintains responsibility for setting a coherent curriculum for the language class, for instance, it might be helpful to collaborate with science faculty by arranging subject-area content to complement students' other coursework. The instructor's role with students, rather than that of lecturer, would be better viewed as coordinator and partner in research, discovery and assessment. Developmentalist Jerome Bruner describes this as teaching in the "hypothetical mode" in which
the teacher and the student are in a more cooperative position with respect to what in linguistics would be called "speaker's decisions." The student is not a bench-bound listener, but is taking a part in the formulation and at times may play the principal role in it. He will be aware of alternatives and may even have an "as if" attitude toward these, and he may evaluate information as it comes... I think it largely the hypothetical mode which characterizes the teaching that encourages discovery. (1979:83)The hypothetical mode requires reciprocal teaching in which students and instructor take turns asking questions, summarizing, clarifying, etc. The instructor provides models, as suggested above, but also by way of hints and reminders the teacher coaches students into fuller practice in scientific discourse and independent reflection with respect to discourse strategies for becoming more fluent -- strategies like making analogies, defining terms, and the like. These communication tasks, project work and reciprocal teaching suggest only a partial solution to the puzzle of teaching speaking about science. But the direction is plain. The value of such a teaching enterprise is its relevance to students' present and future needs. Language instruction that foregrounds students' needs points to meaningful practice and meaning-making skills for learners to assume responsibility for their own discovery and fulfillment.
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