My date with vernacular in science…

Last November I read an excellent article by Prof. Krishnaswamy VijayRaghavan, former Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, where he had advocated the use of local languages in the frontier areas of science teaching to end intellectual colonialism and excel in science and technology. Although my high school science education was in Hindi medium (Our School St Xavier’s High School, Patna had turned Hindi medium in late 70s) but I never had an opportunity or ever thought that Hindi or any other vernacular can be used to communicate the modern science principles. I got used to English since I.Sc. days in Science College, Patna. Couple of years back I did make an attempt to write a blog on NMR spectroscopy in Hindi but that remained an isolated example until I packed all my courage to give a science talk in Hindi.

The opportunity came in the form DST-INSPIRE camp organised at KIIT, Bhubaneswar. As usual I had prepared my lecture in english. As there was nothing to do before my slot I thought of sitting in the audience and listen to couple of lectures before me. There were about 450 school students, mostly from government schools, along with their teachers sitting in the new hall and many of them appeared very indifferent to the high quality talks, some napping, some on mobile and some chatting. At end of the lectures there were couple of questions from few agile and smart students.

To me the scenario appeared to be defeating the very purpose of the program. About a decade back Department of Science & Technology started a series of INSPIRE programs which contained  an usual design to support regular researchers but more importantly it brought a paradigm shift in how school students are mentored to develop love for science and arose their inquisitiveness. Then I thought of challenging myself and decided to give a talk on Structural Biology that included X-ray, NMR and CryoEM in Hindi. Initially, I was nervous but slowly Hindi words kept coming in my mind and I completed my lecture smoothly. I could see awake eyes in audience with their ears on my words which continued to inspire me as I went through my talk. At end of the lecture I had a feeling of satisfaction, similar to what I had when I wrote my first NMR pulse code. But there was surprise in store, I was bombarded with questions from the students and almost all of them asking in Hindi. The question & answer session continued for another hour. The session had to be brought to end after I shared my email/mobile and promised to answer their question on mail. I got the biggest trophy for my adventure. Then I asked the question whether it would have been better if I had spoken in Odiya and I was drowned in unanimous yeah sound. I was handicapped, I do not know Odiya but promised them that I will suggest to organisers that they should organise few talks in Odiya, which I did. There were more surprises when I returned back to Delhi and opened my mailbox. There were questions from those students who wanted to know how Oxygen binds to hemoglobin? Why one protein can have different structures? etc etc. These question containing mails were more rewarding than the acceptance mails from journals.

The experience brought me back to remember the days when I was working as postdoctoral fellow at ETH Zürich. All education up to the graduation level at the ETH is in German language while its Laussane unit EPFL uses French. English is only used at PhD level and too some extent at Masters level. All foreigners submitting their PhD thesis in English must write two-page summary of their research work in either German or French. European scientists have excelled and contributed with their path-breaking innovation which is reflected in number of Nobel prizes bestowed to them. One of the reasons for the success could be the language. Science is taught in local languages in Asian countries like Japan, Korea and China too

I always believed that howsoever we are good in other languages; our thinking and creativity will always be in our mother tongue. During extreme state, like fall or getting hurt, the first word to come out of mouth is in ones own vernacular. The suggestion made by Prof. VijayRaghayvan, a distinguished alumnus of TIFR, to formally start teaching students in high-school in both their native language and in English has potential to bring a much desired positive change in the education system. If we start teaching science in Tamil, Marathi, Hindi, Magahi, Bengali like languages then we will create creative sparks in India. When my first Chemistry teacher Shri P. K. Trivedi ji had said during one of the class (it was class 8th) that कार्बन न लेता है, न देता है (Carbon neither takes nor gives), the concept that Carbon makes covalent bonds made a permanent home in my mind. This is the beauty of explaining concepts in vernacular.

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