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When you teach a child science, or any technical subject, in their own language, that child is likely to understand scientific concepts better than if science is taught in a foreign language, argued Dr Mosisili Sebotsa, the National University of Lesotho (NUL)’s highly passionate linguist. He delivered this lectureto a curious audience of scientists in the past NULISTICE 2018 Conference (www.nulif.org.ls.

Many scientists were shaken by the arguments Dr Sebotsa, who joined a team of more than 300 scientists from all over the world, put forward. Basotho students, he argued, fail science not because they are below average, but because science is taught in a language they do not understand, let alone the lofty scientific jargon often employed by scientists.

He does not advocate for total abolition of English. But he asks us to imagine this, “is it possible that use of English as the only medium of instruction at all levels of education limits the development of Sesotho and prevents it from acquiring scientific terminology?”

If science teachers and scientists used the already existing Sesotho scientific terms, these words would become part of everyday language as it is already the case with many countries around the world – e.g. Japan.

[Donate to NUL Innovation Hub, www.nulif.org.ls.]

Scientific jargon, he says, already scares even those who already know English, let alone someone who is still learning English at the same time. In the case of students, if they do not understand, the teacher repeats the same thing in English instead of breaking it down in the language of the learner. 

Not using the right Sesotho scientific terms can even impede capacity building and stifle collaboration and cooperation with communities. 

For instance, at one point, he was gathering material for this published study when he came across people who delayed evacuating from the way of Katse and Mohale dams in the mountains of Lesotho when others were being moved to clear the way for the dams.

His interviews would later reveal that “they did not understand why they were required to move because some deep scientific words in English such as “seismic activity” during the blasting operations were used. 

“It was only when these people saw their houses being shaken, and when they experienced extreme colds due to a large body of water nearby that they had to ask to be moved,” he said. “We missed the language,” they told him.

So where do we start? “We should constantly build and use our own scientific terminology and realise that we don’t translate nor interpret language, we translate and interpret concepts. Terms only represent the concept.”

“If you were to call a thermometer a “temperature meter,” it would be easier for a native English to understand,” he said, “without consulting a dictionary.” So why would we not have “sebala mocheso” in Sesotho?

It’s not only the word, it’s the scientific meaning it conveys.

In his view, there is no reason why we don’t use technical Sesotho words in technical subjects such as science since Sesotho has words that seem to have been technical well before colonisation. For instance, “take a word “koloi,” a “car/vehicle” in English.”

This is his theory, “if you trace its roots, you find this word in all of the Sesotho languages: Sesotho, Setswana, Sepedi and Selozi. However, our sister Nguni languages use the words like “lemoto,” probably borrowing from English “motor.” This gives an idea that something closer to a vehicle may have existed among the Basotho when they were still one nation, but not among the Nguni.

He says languages are pregnant with history, “as a linguist, when some says “o nyetse sethepu,” (he is in a polygamy) he knows it actually means, “he married according to the tradition of Bathepu, the Nguni,” which implies Basotho did not have a practice of polygamy before they met and incorporated the Nguni tribes.”

There are modern day examples too. For instance, he said, people in the construction industry call a hand-operated compactor “lekhanyane” because, through conceptual metaphor, they are able to create a resemblance between the up-and-down stomping dance of the members of the Zion Christian Church (ZCC) which some people call “Makhanyane” and the movement of the machine.

This shows we can even invent words for foreign concepts, “for instance, airplane used to be called “sefofa-holimo,” (that which flies in the heavens), in the 1930s in Lesotho, and later “sefofane.” In fact, some people now use the word “nonyana-ts’epe”, a “metal bird.” We are not alone, he said, the Malians call a bicycle nagaso “pere-ts’epe” which means “a metal-horse.”

Would we be the first to do science in our language? “No! The Japanese are a classic example. There was a period when the Japanese deliberately “scientified” their language. For every scientific word, they had to find a Japanese equivalent.

Now, no one in their right minds will say the Japanese lost from that. In fact, they gained because they stopped making science sound foreign when it is not.”

So, what are we to do?

Science is not English—it is not any other language, he says. It is a pile of concepts that need to be understood for what they mean. Any language is just a vessel that carries these concepts. Let us teach our children science in Sesotho. By the time they learn science in English, they will have acquired the concepts.

They will have realised that science is not a scary subject only meant for geeks or nerds! Whether they learn science in English or any other language later, we would have at least instilled the concepts using a language that is close to their hearts, their mother-tongue.

He advocates for collaboration among Sesotho linguists, technical translators and scientists to develop a usable but precise Sesotho scientific glossary in various scientific fields. It is

[Donate to NUL Innovation Hub, www.nulif.org.ls.]

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