Why “English” Matters: Language as the basis of STEM (Boak Ferris)



Why English Matters delineates  the critical connections between cognitive development and language that form the basis of advanced problem solving skills for STEM—or basically for sound human judgment in daily life.   Special thanks to colleague Boak Ferris who penned this essay for Restructuring Public Hi Ed.  A longer version with references is available by emailing boak.ferris@csulb.edu.  Other opinions are most welcome.  Teri Yamada in Phnom Penh.  Updated, 07.01.14

Prof. Arthur L. Caplan’s op ed in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (Jan.7, 2014) “Distinguishing Science from Nonsense” gets to the cultural problem.  He comments:

Some of our leaders know that the continuing drop in scientific skills spells disaster for our economic future. The U.S. performance on the 2012 PISA is “a picture of educational stagnation,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “This is a reality at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive work force in the world.”

No doubt our education system carries some of the blame for our continued slippage relative to the rest of the world in science. But if we continue to think that poor schools and bad teaching are the only causes, we are surely missing the forest for the trees.

A key reason for the poor performance of our children with respect to science is that American culture is both ignorant of and disrespectful to science. (added 08.01.14)

Why English Matters

By Boak Ferris

The Short Version

English matters, but only under one condition: if America wants successful professionals and teachers who can innovate ethical advancements in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  Otherwise, English doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter at all.  We can always watch TV and play media devices instead.

Do not view this thesis as a gripe over the diminishment of English and related fields as worthy disciplines—frankly, because it’s obvious and confirmed in the news that employers prefer applicants with strong liberal-arts skills.  Nation-wide, employers know that strong language, writing, reading, analytical, and interpersonal skills serve as baselines in any STEM FIELD, especially since STEM professionals must rigorously document and publish every valid breakthrough, innovation, advance, and service.

So how have our influential educational policymakers missed it, and gone so completely wrong?  They have no background in, nor knowledge about, the neuroscience of learning, nor in the developmental psychologies of child, juvenile, and adult learners. Those who urge more and more sole STEM education, training, and testing for our children, prior to addressing the state of our children’s (and young adults’) literacy skills, risk disenfranchising entire generations of students. And equally uninformed legislators are climbing on board.

And rarely, if ever, do curricular designers and public-policy makers receive an overview about the flaws inherent in languages, read and written and spoken, and thus, thought.  So we can’t be too surprised when such authorities falsely believe that STEM skills exist magically independently of languages, the media of transmittal and investigation.

How, when, and where are our students and eventual citizens supposed to acquire rigorous fluency, literacy, and documentation skills, especially if students have undiagnosed reading, language-processing, or fluency “disabilities”?  According to government statistics, America loses more than fifty percent of a viable white-collar professional workforce to high-school attrition, dropout, disappointment, discouragement, and disillusionment—all emotional factors caused by understandable frustration over (enjoyably) attaining reading-skills, language-processing skills, aural-comprehension skills, and other language-development skills ignored by policymakers and authorities fascinated with the acronym STEM. Perhaps METALS would be a better acronym, (Math, Engineering, Technology, Art, Language, and Science).

How ironic it is that monomaniacal curriculum programmers and designers engage in magical thinking by believing the following myth: scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical skills can somehow, through magic transference of knowledge produced by endless testing, talking-at, and tsunamis of homework, be bored or forced into young learners’ brains, regardless of the initial state of learners’ verbal and linguistic competencies—the domain of English (read Language) teachers.


What is STEM?

The idea that STEM content can be forced into students prior to assessing and improving the state of children’s pre-existing English verbal, speaking, reading, and associative-thinking skills (the primary neuro-linguistic skills) amounts to irresponsible and unconscionable pedagogical practices.   

And, when these practices are accompanied by the aforementioned persistent and emotionally abusive testing, America should not be so surprised that hatred for school and education and teachers arises, evincing clear signs of “educational trauma,” in schoolchildren.  How many students do we lose from high schools, who never graduate, and later how many do we lose as potential graduates from college?  The statistics are out there.  Naturally unknowing and ignorant of their bullying, principals, teachers, legislators, curriculum designers—and parents—fuss and wring their hands, when students develop antipathies toward anything mathematical or scientific—and toward the purveyors of such disciplines.  “These kids don’t get it!  We’re not testing them enough! Let’s test them some more!!”  And next, “Let’s teach to the tests!!” all despite the fact that the average textbook has upwards of 200 factual errors, and the average test reflects more the prejudices of the test-makers than it does the actual “facts” students need to assess for truth or falsehood (an overlooked critical concept absent in K-12, except by gifted teachers) and then learn.

With a little reminding, perhaps educational policymakers and legislators can shift their perspectives slightly to one that’s first and foremost language-centered: children need to understand the specialized and embedded definitions and nomenclatures common to the varied pre-STEM fields.  Success in STEM fields rests on acquiring specialized nomenclature, the words and their etymological building blocks which are language-based. The definitions required for mastery of STEM fields, in turn, derive from well-taught language expertise combined with hands-on experimentation and activities with concrete and (later) abstract objects.  These concrete and abstract objects, (number concepts, for example, or principles of gravitation or protein synthesis), derive their initial meanings and applications from naming.

Naming comes first; before STEM prowess, and naming is the very first psycholinguistic activity in infants’ brains, before they have the motor skills to experiment or before they can correlate named objects with numbers.  In other words, language is the first engine of all thinking, (excepting, perhaps, sensorimotor experiencing), and in America the primary language is English.  Like it or hate it, English is also the predominant language of international business; while being the predominant medium of science, math, and engineering official publication, documentation, and/or translation.  Straight up, if children can’t logically sequence their English language skills, and if they can’t understand easily what they read, they won’t wish to endure to logically understand cause and effect in the most advanced mathematic or scientific concepts (i.e., textbooks?) published in English.images-11

These truths about literacy above do not represent English elitism.  (Twenty percent of Americans are illiterate; while only 2% of Japanese are so.) As a matter of fact, now would be a good time to challenge the perhaps unfortunate predominance of English.  Trained linguists know that all languages are flawed, usually for two reasons: first, languages are fossilized, because they exhibit embedded historical and cultural flaws, traditions, and prejudices.  The English language reflects an Indo-European ancestry and remains primarily subject-oriented, where the subject “controls” the verbs (actions) and objects in the sentence.  Neurolinguistic theoretical research suggests that this kind of syntactical ordering (subject first, verb second) evolved in some proto-languages because the subject (of a sentence) is always a metaphor for the “I,” or experiencer, who does the action (the experiencer who “verbs”). Verbs, in turn, are metaphors for the subject’s primitive and infantile need to grasp, or attain and grip some desired object—be it concrete or abstract.   In this sense, English seems an egotistical language.


Zen garden (aesthetic of detail, motion and stasis)

By contrast, some Asian (and other world) languages are object-oriented, where the object of observation comes first in a sentence, making such languages more “other-oriented,” for lack of a better phrase.  It should seem no surprise, for example, that many rice-growing cultures have developed object-verb-subject syntactical orders, where sometimes the subject is omitted entirely, contrary to the common syntactical orders of English.  Both classifications of syntaxes have their limitations and strengths. 

The second flaw embedded in all languages appears outright: languages must be for the most part irrational, which is why verbal and textual communication require constant clarifying and correction.  Languages represent human beings’ attempts to make mental and sound and written analogues for a perceived “external reality,” and as such, they embed all the flaws that analogous-thinking manifests.  (For example, arithmetic is rendered and learned as nouns and language first, and as names of operations or verbs second. . . .)

While maturing, a native-speaker of a language also acquires, by nurture, emotional valences and attitudes tied to trigger-words and to words describing experience, and thus these eventual emotional valences will imbue texts with perceived psychological content, be it pleasant or unpleasant, a fact well known to forensic linguists.  Finally, but not last, languages exhibit flaws reflecting human’s limited sensory capabilities.  Language developed to report human sensory experience, but our world-views, as rendered in language, remain incomplete, due to our limited sensory input.  (Human senses are remarkably limited, and require dependency on machines for their extension in to unperceived domains. (We can’t see X-rays; we can’t smell as dogs smell, and detect drugs or explosives; we can’t hear beyond 20 kHz., etc.)

To conclude it all briefly, in only one way can the emotional, irrational, and misperception flaws embedded in English (or in any language) be qualified and rendered rigorous and professionally applicable: students must learn to perfect their thinking in English throughout the range of their academic careers, with an evolving series of courses conducted by informed faculty in all of their courses.  And most important of all, students must get a good start on language, ideally, even before they attend school.  Parents have the duty to provide deep language hearing, reading, and showing experiences to infants starting from day 1, as recent neuroscience has proven.  So where are we to find or produce informed faculty and parents, if English doesn’t matter?

Clearly, faculty intending to teach any subject in English need a solid grounding in the limitations of the local medium of instruction, as do faculty who teach in universities where English represents the primary language of instruction, (or PMI).

Certainly, the arguments above oversimplify the diversities of languages, which are more subtle, and which lead to the next point requiring urgent curricular care:  because English is not originally object-oriented, those who learn English as a first language usually fail to develop an initial mastery over observation of detail, for psycholinguistic reasons, mainly because the embedded egotistic and psychological flaw in their linguistic thinking values the perceiver over the perceived.  (“But that’s my opinion! And I’m entitled to an opinion. The earth is flat! It doesn’t matter if I’m wrong! I have a right to believe that!”)  Only a great amount of mentored and monitored practice in thinking and planning, then writing, then reflecting on writing, and rewriting can help students correct the egotistic prejudices embedded in thinking in English—as the great scientists and writers have had to do—if combined with fiction and nonfiction texts that introduce humanism.  Truly egoistic professionals would not want to think wrongly anyway, so it behooves them to acquire this training.

As an experienced linguist (and writing-assessment officer) who has spent thirty-plus years teaching English to—and assessing the English writing of—first-language speakers and second- and third-language speakers, I have noticed a general artifact in student populations at the first-year university level: English-as-a-first-language learners require up to two semesters to learn how to adequately observe and render objective details in writing.  This lack of developed observational skills may reflect a lack of training in K-12, as much as reflect flaws inherent in English.  Such learners tend “on average” to express much more emotional investment in reporting their un-based opinions and impressions than they do in observing and reporting “external detail,” a psycholinguistic predilection that requires much work by informed faculty to dilute and diminish.  Note the correlation of said skill to candidates’ maturation in applying science, where details-mastery and accuracy may mean professional life or death for a scientist or number theorist or technician or engineer.


Edsource data

By contrast, first-language Spanish speakers, Arabic speakers, and Asian language speakers professionally master details-observation-and-rendering within three to four weeks of training, despite forgivable grammatical flaws that may appear in their English sentences.  Accepting such stereotypes, few curricular designers and educational testing officials deny the power over detail Asian students and similar professionals attain, while not understanding the linguistic and cultural roots of these important pre-analytical skills.  But, deserving special awards, Hispanic students also demonstrate that they can learn to render accurate detail quickly, because as a language, classical Spanish underwent a different evolution than did English, despite similar Latin, Greek, and Indo-European roots.  

Recent statistics available from reliable national sources (a quick Internet search reveals numerous such sources) show that Hispanic students are apparently suffering a so-called achievement gap, which should alarm everybody, if only because the specific Hispanic students identified who come from Spanish-speaking households will number one in four students throughout the United States.  And their numbers are growing.  So how is America losing this precious intellectual resource?  It’s simple:  the teachers (and their principals and superintendents who construct local school policies) who teach and serve this group may not understand, because they have not been trained to understand, the fundamental syntactical and linguistic—and ultimately cultural—differences between Spanish and English.  Both European Spanish and Mexican Spanish diverged from their Indo-European roots, and have undergone mini-evolutions, probably due to the strong historic influences Arabic and Latinate linguistic cultures played in Spain—influences which transferred to Mexico.

While English became a logically-sequenced and almost linear, non-repetitive syntactic domain, following its Germanic and Northern European roots, Spanish adapted a stylistic recursiveness from Arabic and Latin.  Recursive languages, along with the preferred grammatical structures inherent in recursive writing, tend to revisit and re-characterize observed details in multiple ways, leading to the production of multiple viewpoints and to a progressive reconsideration of observed details as the language tract evolves.  With more viewpoints comes the possibility of deeper and more thorough analysis—the ultimate goal of professionals advancing STEM fields.  Spanish speakers and readers reveal a great tolerance and appreciation and respect for divergent viewpoints and details-interpretation.  These are well-known cultural artifacts among the populations of Spain and Mexico—and others, which makes them such a joy to be around.

Give me a university student who comes from a Spanish-language family background, and I can transmit highly professional details-observation and rendering skill in about four weeks.  Because once these students glom onto the necessity to render accurate detail, they find it natural—almost innate—to master the skill in a short time, because both their language and culture have those skills already deeply embedded as cultural prerogatives.  My main concern here is that we are losing this population early, in K-12, because curriculum designers, public-policy administrators, principals, teachers, and yes, parents, have no training in or even clues about the deeply baseline and contrastive roles English studies play in preparing a student for academic and professional success in the United States. Alarmed authorities are rushing to STEM curricula before assessing and managing students’ linguistic competencies.


EdSource data on California. NCLB stipulated that by 2014 all students be proficient.

Not only does language come first, in preparing students for any kind of ideological progress and analytical success, as evidenced by the construction of ideomotors, (a collective name for motor-language neuronal systems) in the brain, but language is also the medium by which all more sophisticated kinds of analysis and thinking (science/math leading to technology/ engineering) are eventually conducted. That’s why a superior education in English and its vocabulary must precede, and continue through the college years, while the brain is still young, along with hands-on experimentation, if America wants to make it easy for young people to transform into consummate trained and innovative professionals in STEM fields. Otherwise, ignore continued language and reading development and lose 70 % of our intellectual powerhouses by ages 16-18.

But learning nomenclature mustn’t stop in high school. And furthermore, curriculum designers commit the gravest error, when they abandon liberal arts, literature, fine arts, and language courses in the universities for another reason.  The sole two differences between high-school students and college graduates involve two fundamentals: sophistication/evolution of vocabulary and literacy skills as covered above—and attaining mastery over a highly complex new and required professional concept, the Theory of Mind, which also has its underpinnings in high-school language and literature courses(these latter usually placed under the common umbrella of “English”). 

The term Theory of Mind, AKA ToM, may sound dramatic and specialized or even artificial, but it is very real, and highly applicable and necessary to the 21st century professional.  For lack of an agreed-upon definition, consider its usual applications.  Someone with a well-trained ToM enjoys multiple professional and competitive advantages in STEM fields over those without:

She understands the limitations of languages; she can predict others’ behavior; she can read others’ verbal and non-verbal cues; she can differentiate between a psychopath and a sociopath, or between a civilized or uncivilized colleague; she can decide on a future program that’s ethical and best based on the limitations within set cultural and behavioral and technological limitations; she can render fair judgments objectively and impartially.  She understands the moral and ethical approaches of those belonging to different religions.  She can enter an international world composed of those with different belief systems. These represent some damn fine skills—non-STEM skills.  And for those policymakers interested in bioethics, or in the ethics of applied sciences, or in geoethics, she is exactly the kind of trained specialist modern employers seek.


Theory of Mind (ToM; TOM; ToMI)

These cross-cultural TOM skills, paramount and essential to the humane and global applications of STEM innovations, are not attained by learning solely Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  They are acquired by reading literature—fiction and non-fiction, philosophy, religion, mythology, and history; creating art and music; learning languages; traveling and studying abroad; and socializing in shared learning in mentor-monitored public spaces.  It’s difficult enough to “create” adults who are good at and who love their STEM professions; it’s quite a bit more difficult to transform young people into adults who can generate service-oriented, ethical, and far-sighted humane applications of their professional STEM work.  TOM begun with the transcribed dreams of young humanity, preserved in its myths and legends, and indeed in its sacred literatures, and was sustained in the dreams of history’s writers and artists.  Mythology and religion represented human beings’ first attempts at understanding the cause and effect of their perceived realities, and thus represented the first Sciences, but through the power of analogies manifested in the fantasized powers of legendary and mythic Gods and Goddesses, human beings developed the associated ideas to try and build and attain these “powers” for themselves. With the advent of humanism and rationalism, human beings gained increasing understanding over the Laws of Nature, and gained increasing dominion over natural processes, as they continue to do.

The visions thus manifested and recorded inspired advances in science and technology.  Icarus wanted to fly, as did the first human beings who imagined adapting the skills of birds.  Later, authors and science fiction writers imagined space elevators and teleportation and invisibility cloaks.  So where do students currently immerse themselves in the welcoming atmosphere of these fantasies, if “English” and its related media become trivialized or marginalized, perceived as non-technological or unrealistic?  Arguably, in two hundred years our current “science” will look like “mythology” anyway. Right now, current science represents “place-holder” nomenclature (“dark matter” “Higgs” ‘particle’/’field’? ) for that which we do not yet understand.  We must never sever the interflow between science and literature and the arts, the mighty engines of innovation.

Education, (which must never be personified, because it requires informed human beings to act as its agents), makes a big stride toward “building” an ethical professional in high-school English class, when the “kids” read appropriate diverse literatures in translation; when they take band; or when they have art class or when they take a foreign language, and as a result, when they develop greater sensitivity toward the cultural and philosophical—and prejudicial—limitations inherent in the English language and its cultural and psycholinguistic roots.  And we make an even bigger stride toward building this evolved professional, when more mature versions of these experiences become mandated in the General Education spectrum ranging throughout lower-division to upper-division course offerings in the university setting.  And don’t think that writing in a specific discipline will be enough to accomplish this necessary adjusted vision: students need to write and construct arguments and projects in all of their courses, if they are to develop superior critical thinking skills, rigorous document-construction ability, and cross-associative thinking.  Thinking in any discipline requires organized reflection, which guided writing accomplishes. Rarely do specialists outside the fields of English and linguistics and the liberal arts understand how to teach professional fluency requirements to developing professionals.

Only by reflecting on one’s verbal thinking, by seeing it in writing, as a document, can professionals “correct” their thinking, as Galileo, Euler, Madame Curie, Einstein, and other geniuses understood.  Einstein, for example, who was multilingual and played the violin, searched for linguistic analogues in order to more clearly explain the consequences of his general and special theories of relativity to people who lacked math mastery and knowledge of physics.

But note, however, that rarely, if ever, do upper-division instructors in specific disciplines have the deep linguistic training necessary to help their students become the different kinds of Einsteins America seeks.  And rarely, if ever, do curricular designers and public-policy makers receive an overview about the flaws inherent in languages, read and written and spoken, and thus, thought.  So we can’t be too surprised when such authorities falsely believe that STEM skills exist magically independently of languages, the media of transmittal and investigation.

To give up, or marginalize, or sub-specialize “English,” or, in other words, to obscure, to ignore, or to mystify the intellectual STEM content dependent on “English,” happens at America’s peril.  Make no mistake, this article became necessary because a (mal-informed) curricular subtractive cascade has begun.  Let’s act quickly to correct the cart-before-the-horse STEM monomania, which must be recognized as temporary, misguided, abusive, and cross-culturally suicidal.

Boak Ferris is a linguist, author, and former test officer at CSULB. The ideas herein may or may not reflect the opinions of other faculty and administrators at CSULB

P.S.  A longer version can exhibit research and resources to back the claims in this article, if so desired by readers.


4 Comments on “Why “English” Matters: Language as the basis of STEM (Boak Ferris)”

  1. Thanks for sharing this essay, Boak and Teri. I work on a number of STEM-centric projects for the CSU, and though I’m less worried than you about cart-before-the-horse monomania, your points about the linguistic prerequisites to thought and learning in all subjects are very well taken.

  2. Carol Itatani, Ph.D., M.S., MT(ASCP) says:

    Yay, Boak!! Good essay. We need to get this reminder about basics of English skills out to a wider audience. Carol Itatani, Ph.D. Faculty Emeritus CSULB, Dept. Biological Sciences, Former GWAR Coordinator

  3. Kate K says:

    Hi, Boak–My friend Barry linked me to your excellent article, and I have no time right now to parse my appreciation. To your acronym of METALS should be added “discourse” or, if that’ll screw up the acronym too badly, be certain that it’s embedded in the “language” section. Your points, of course, bring up the need for further restructuring of teacher-education programs as well as curriculum. I could go further and bring in the entire subject of parental responsibility; I’ll sum it up as “if only.” Thanks for this–I hope it gets a wide and receptive audience.

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