TCU’s Dean for the School of Interdisciplinary Studies has said:
The world’s most pressing problems – from climate change to global inequality – are too complex to be solved using the tools from any one area of expertise.
And I add:
The problems are too complex to be solved using any one language.
Here’s a real-life example adapted from an article by Deborah Moran, an award-winning science journalist:
Researchers do come together to solve problems that bridge disciplines, problems like Parkinson’s disease, hidden hearing loss, and antibiotic resistance.
But life scientists (such as neuroscientists like Xue Han and biologists, virologists, and microbiologists) come from a culture and speak an English language that is different from the culture and the English language of physical scientists and engineers (like biomedical engineer Ahmad “Mo” Khalil). Researchers say it takes time, willingness, and a good dollop of humility to bridge that gap. Those who do it well are a rare breed.
One humble, interdisciplinary multilingual who also understands different kinds of English is Daniel Segrè. He’s a professor of biology and bioinformatics – with an educational background in physics, life sciences, and computational biology – who often lands in the role of translator for these disciplinary experts using “only English” together.
“Sometimes I sit in conversations where the disciplinary experts are using only English. And I realize there are two people talking in not one, but two or more different academic Englishes, and who don’t understand each other. And I can explain and mediate.”
To an engineer using only English, a “vector” is a quantity with both magnitude and direction; but to a biologist, it’s something that spreads disease or delivers genetic material to a target cell.
To an expert in life sciences using simply English, a “nucleus” contains a cell’s DNA; but to an expert in physical sciences, a nucleus contains an atom’s protons and neutrons.
Then there’s the English phrase “expression.” Engineers think an “expression” is a mathematical equation; biologists think it’s the process of DNA transcription and translation; writers and artists think it means, well, writing and art.
Sometimes, even when researchers get the English words “right” as if they’ve agreed on the same meaning, they still get the pronunciation wrong.
To solve the most wicked problems in the world, we need different languages, even a diversity of Englishes.