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Category Archives: Reflections

English and Scientific Research: Some Reflections

 – Deepak Subedi

When I was asked to contribute an article on the importance of English language for scientific research, I felt I got an opportunity to express my gratitude to the language which gave me an enormous access to good books written by scholars around the world. Without the knowledge of English, I would have to rely on books written only in our native language, which would have certainly narrowed my thinking. My simple understanding is that our ability to think is proportional to the number of good books we read. Also, it is generally accepted that knowledge is for the brain as is food for the body, and that a person with knowledge of different languages has greater vision and wider horizon.

I was motivated to learn English by my revered father since my childhood. Although my father himself never had formal education, he had gained some practice of spoken English during his service in Indian army. He had a strong desire to educate his children in English medium. I think this might have been due to the influence of British officers in India. He used to tell me fascinating stories about the additional benefits he used to receive in the army unlike his colleagues by virtue of his knowledge of English, although limited. Even with this limitation, he was supposed to be superior to others, and was assigned some official tasks during the war time which avoided the risk of being deployed to the front.

In spite of a moderate income,  my father always stressed on educating children in good schools. Although our family was based on a village, my father settled in the town only to provide us good education with additional tuition in English.  So far as I remember, he was the first person in our town to arrange tuition in English from the primary level. It was during this time that I met my most favorite teacher of English, Balkrishna Shrama, who inspired me to learn. He was a noble teacher with amazing skills of delivering spellbinding lectures. With his guidance, I experienced the joy of learning new words in English and writing them nicely in four-lined papers.  Since then, I started learning English spontaneously.

I realized the real importance of knowing English when I joined I. Sc. in Amrit Science Campus in 1989. All our subjects were taught in English. Had I been poor in English, I would have certainly been discouraged from studying science.  The knowledge of English helped me in learning the major subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. I had a huge advantage over my classmates with a weaker background of English. Meanwhile, some of our teachers had just returned from US with terribly twisted tongue, and many of our friends who were from remote areas of Nepal got frustrated with the US-style pronunciation. Students who had their schooling in English medium had no difficulty in grasping the lectures in the major subjects.

Well, these were some of my recollections about my background in the English language. Let me discuss a little about the importance of the use of English in the field of science.

In 1931 Vladimir N. Ipatieff, a Russian-American chemist, had begun to take lessons in English at the age of sixty-four. He was already a well-known scientist but had to learn English in that age in order to continue his research in the USA. He probably was under the influence of the “publish or perish” dictum so common in the field of research. But his story simply highlights the necessity of knowing a language of wide international readership in order to popularize researches in science.

Michael Faraday said that any researcher has to follow three major steps: “work, analyze and publish.” All the three parts are equally important. However, the importance of the language appears in the third part — publishing. The real output of any scientific research is measured by its impact, hence the level of international journals is determined by their impact factor. How many people cited our papers is more important than how many papers we wrote. To make our papers accessible to a large number of readers, we have to publish our results in a language understood by a large population.  Thus one has to publish his/her findings in English.

Most of the world’s leading scientific journals are published in English. It has been reported that researchers from non-English speaking countries have to spend a significant portion of their time in getting their reports and research papers translated/written in English. This obviously steals their precious time from laboratory work. For example, in Japan English is becoming the language of basic science resulting in the gradual disappearance of  publications in Japanese. RIKEN, one of Japan’s most comprehensive groups of research facilities, has claimed that its scientists published about 2000 original reports in English in 2005, but only 174 in Japanese. One report shows that editing companies in Japan charge researchers $ 500 to $ 800 per manuscript. Language training can cost $2000 for a ten-week course. These costs are additional burdens and slow down scientific activities in laboratory.

In fact, this should not have been the period for spending so much time for writing the paper alone. Had their schooling been in English, as that of ours, the researchers could have devoted more time for their experiments than exercising for language. In this respect, we should feel fortunate; we learned basic sciences in English medium at school and the university. In several international conferences and seminars, I have observed the difficulty faced by scientists from the countries which are quite developed in science and technology but are non-native English users. In spite of their good research results, they are sometimes nervous during presentations due to the difficulty in expressing their ideas clearly in English.  On the other hand, researchers who studied their courses in English are more confident in presentations even if the merit of their research work is not of high standard.

Another case where proficiency in English plays a vital role is in the preparation of research grants proposals. Even a promising project proposal may be rejected because of the lack of logical reasoning. It may be argued why a researcher should worry about English when one can easily consult with professional editors to prepare a proposal. But the fact is that professional editors may not know the technical ideas of the project, and that sometimes this joint venture may lead to negative results. Considering the growing need of disseminating research results to a wider population, many Asian and European countries, which used to teach science courses in their own native languages, are gradually adopting English as the language of science.

Summing up, today no discipline can function in isolation. Since a large number of interdisciplinary subjects like environmental science, biotechnology, biomedical engineering, engineering physics etc. are emerging, people of different areas of expertise have to work together. Professionals from different disciplines find English quite comfortable to communicate among themselves. Also, professionals in the discipline of English language must also constantly update themselves because the world is changing rapidly due to the advancement in science and technology.  For the survival in this competitive and rapidly advancing world, everyone has to be able to grasp the new challenges and opportunities. Due to the latest advancement in information technology, specially with the introduction of internet services and cellular phones, the world has become like a village. Whoever gets the latest information at the earliest will come ahead and those who miss will certainly lag behind. In which language this communication is being made in a broad scale? Of course, English.

[Courtesy: http://neltachoutari.wordpress.com May 2010]

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2015 in EXPRESSIONS, Reflections

 

On Intellectual Disuse

– Hem Raj Kafle

Some of our undergraduates show remarkable philosophical leaning when they are allowed to discuss life. The discussion sometimes involves such meaningful questions, directed to the teacher: “When do you think an academic will go out of use? Can a person remain spirited forever? Isn’t there the possibility of one’s sudden disappearance because more vibrant persons come to displace/replace?”

These questions must make a high-spirited person hold his breath for some time to envision his own future, with a feeling of slight pinch to his current usability. He should rather start with this thesis: “When I degenerate, I will disappear. To exist I should know the tricks of scooping butter with a crooked finger.” Well, it is tricky to try to find the number of such thinkers.  My assumption is that there are many under our noses. To mention some universal symptoms of atrophying is my purpose here.

I think the first striking symptom is the reluctance to being receptive. This is when a person begins to set limits to learning and teaching, which is to say, he develops a sustained sense of fullness and saturation to the extent of intolerance towards productive criticism, and displeasure for the emergence of competent young successors.  The second symptom is the fear of failure and bitterness. One’s intellectual erosion begins with the urge to avoid challenges when one has accumulated absurd experiences so much into believing that the world conspires against good people and life itself is deceptive.  But one who fears challenges will hardly teach others the remedies against hardships. And one who always falls probably fails to tell others how to rise permanently.

Perhaps the most remarkable symptom of erosion comes with the feeling of surrender when there still is a chance to confront for a good cause. I believe each learned person should develop the quality of leadership with minimum sense of positive dominance over ignorance. Someone has rightly said, “When my father stopped shouting at me, he lost his world” meaning that a powerful, competent hand is always welcome in guiding a productive individual.  Let alone sharing personal experiences, when a more matured generation begins to fear or lose control over less matured generation even in necessary cases, the channels for transmitting established socio-cultural values will gradually disappear. Each generation should develop as much the power of dominance and guidance as the readiness for reception and expansion of knowledge and values.

The old practically do not avoid being sociable and sharing experiences, but if they do, they will only contribute to backwardness or possible stagnation.  One who has lived an individualistic life, cut off from empathetic relatives during life’s most receiving phase, would finally regret saying, “I wish I could relive my elders’ lives in a new context. If only I had ever asked them how hard it was to live their times.”

People once venerated might go out of use when they literally begin to show signs of disappearance from the mainstream. Appearance is not the matter of age but of intellectual energy. Neither does it have anything to do with the matter of physical presence but of leaving a legacy.  Those who resign from the desire to become heritage allow others to lose sight of them. Visibility remains so long as others see you in terms of social presence and achievements.

An intellectual invites his own disappearance when he only revels in the past achievements but does not add any at present while competitors have already achieved newer heights. Successful people are usually narcissistic to the extent of gradual exclusion from the majority.  But they can save themselves from disappearing by transferring their achievements to upcoming generation of competitors. If human beings had the rigidity of keeping all their skills and subsequent achievements to themselves, and if they had inability to learn these from others, all of us would still be living primitively.

The power to command respect is an important quality to check early atrophying.  The respect should come with being able to become a convergence point for the majority in matters of leadership and knowledge. I believe a leader or a knowledgeable person has to be useful in the local level. Some competent people are out of use for their craze for telescopic usability, which means the ambition for a higher level, probably international, exposure without sufficient commitment to their lived surroundings.

Finally, I would exemplify three kinds of people who would rise in momentary limelight, but gradually fade away because of certain hamartia. The first type plants a tree, works hard till it grows and bears fruits, but finally, reveling on the fruits and gentle breeze atop, becomes too lazy to pluck weeds and shun insects. He rather expects someone to attend the tree merely for the sake of shade and wind-blown fruits.

Someone recently told me of a second type in an interesting metaphor about the relationship between legs and the chest. He said, “The legs move and hold the body, but the chest receives the medal.” I think, this hints at the Shakespearean sense of “bubble reputation” that someone in a leadership enjoys till the subordinates agree to work hard for him. When the legs choose not to move, perhaps because the chest cannot sustain the glory of the medals or aims to climb too high to notice the pains below, the “bubbles” begin to burst into oblivion. The chest will begin to pant in helplessness.

A third type presents a somehow oxymoronic appearance. He boasts of having got very wide eyes after having “borne a thousand blows of life,” but the vision is too clear ahead to miss seeing the filth under his feet. The filth ultimately travels to his kitchen, bedroom and worship. This happens repeatedly. He is busy cleaning the filth indoors, and ultimately becomes invisible.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2015 in Reflections

 

Dealing with the Thinking

– Hem Raj Kafle

In teaching spontaneity has a greater power than planned outpourings though planning is fundamental to traditional theories of teaching. Spontaneity brings out original thoughts. It corresponds with the need of the circumstances, and creates the most suitable statements to the mood of the audience. No doubt, planning is useful. But it depends. Is what we deliver a set of PowerPoint slides prepared ages ago, and printed, photocopied and handed to the dear pupils in each session for their exam-time convenience? Or is it a formal lesson plan designed for a specific class situation, which the teacher updates every session, and which helps augment students’ learning through self-study, reflection, internalization and reconstruction?

I usually do not work with readymade handouts; I only reflect on and take notes of what I might say in the class, to compel myself to deliver the best from the internalized knowledge. My initial classes are filled with guidelines, not necessarily in the form of setting rules for students. I say that certain rules, like giving regular classes, making students regular and conducting tests are my works, but my being a leader automatically draws students towards them. I say I would not repeatedly remind them of the rules because I consider the students mature enough to understand the right ways; they should know that by making them work I am adding to my own stock of responsibilities.

I think the best thing I tell them is that a human being is a thinking and feeling creature and therefore has to save herself from being a machine. Life is less formula than feelings though formulas help shape a section of our professional future. Our lives are also guided largely by the works of others, or say, the thoughts of others. This sets for us the requirement to be associated with people who think and create ideas. Teachers seek this association in other teachers, and also with students. Students have teachers and their class fellows to fulfill this need.

I do not forget to explain the rationale of prescribing the contents of the courses. Every theme has a purpose, way beyond a compulsion to study and take exams. My first lecture explains why we teach a story in place of the other, how one text relates with the other and with the lives of the readers as well. Moreover, I make it a point to show what one gets to learn from certain writers and texts. I work in full adherence to V.S. Ramachandran’s warnings: “Did you enjoy doing what you did?” and “Did it really make an impact?” To me joy  is what I feel from being able to make students realize the value of learning. And the impact need not always be outward, directed to changing our surroundings. It is equally important to experience some kind of transformation in ourselves. Any academic, creative task we do in a university should have the quality of giving direction to at least a few people including ourselves.

My classes teach me to teach better.  I  like to treat every new student as a mysterious stock of knowledge, sentiments and challenges. If you take her as a mere creature, you will not see her beyond a semester. If you take her as a thinking and feeling being, stop for a while to meditate on the potentials she bears. This is why I love to share the fancy of being old and mature and useful so that the students might fancy identifying with this vision of being old and mature and useful. This is called making people think beyond rules and formulas. My contribution in this sense lies in instilling, and sometimes reviving, this humane sense out of the monotony and rush for driving towards dreams and fulfillments.

This is why the readymade slides and handouts work  only little with me. I do not either regret for not having any of them because I do not identify my success as a teacher with the sight of students breathlessly cramming slides and handouts few minutes before the examination bell. My satisfaction rather lies in those contented faces, which head smugly in and out of classrooms and exam halls  on all seasons. I have all reasons to be happy for this notoriety of discouraging mechanical learning.

 

 

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2013 in EXPRESSIONS, Reflections