In which a picture’s worth a thousand words – in any language

Sometimes random consecutive events jibe in unexpectedly harmonious ways. When I returned to the lab from a well-earned holiday in Italy yesterday, the first thing I did was have a chat with one of our new summer students, a bright and enthusiastic Italian undergraduate interested in gaining lab experience in a clinical setting.

It turned out her English was fairly rudimentary, and some of my colleagues told me that they’d had a few communication problems when she’d arrived on Monday. Fresh from ten days in Tuscany, where I’d been polishing my own primitive grasp of Italian speaking with the natives (largely about food, coffee, the weather and, of course, the ever-repeating theme of how many months along I am in pregnancy and whether my in utero passenger was a “bimbo o bimba”), I found that the student and I were able to get along just fine in a mixture of English and Italian, supplemented by the excellent Ultralingua iPhone app — and plenty of sketches.

The Grand Experimental Plan

Also, it turns out that a very large number of lab terms can be converted to Italian simply by adding an -o or and -a after the English term, with the appropriate lilt. Who knew?

But all this reminds me of one of my favorite themes – knowing your audience. I am fascinated by the way that some people know instinctively how to pitch their communications, while others seem to give it no thought whatsoever. I’ve watched scientific colleagues at parties being asked “what they do” by a non-scientist guest, and being quietly horrified by the inappropriate responses: jargon and acronyms and a way of presenting things that clearly only an expert in the field would understand. Yet I also understand the opposite tension — not wanting to appear condescending by dumbing things down to childlike levels. It is a fine art, sensing from the information at hand — and real-time reactions — how exactly to phrase things so the correct balance is struck. Your cocktail party audience is unlikely to know what an FPLC is, for example, but you may be able to safely assume knowledge of terms such as genes and DNA. Maybe.

The art of knowing your audience is applicable to all forms of communication, whether it be science writing, explaining your project to your grandmother — or showing the new Italian student how to use the microscope. I overheard one of my colleagues instructing her to “twiddle the fine focus knob” if she couldn’t make out her Gram stains, and was not surprised when this statement drew a blank. Better to use a more common verb, like “move” — or better still, just demonstrate. Having worked in a lab in the Netherlands for four years, I remember that I was always grateful when people used nursery Dutch and gesticulation to show me things. There is nothing worse than a flood of unintelligible language, except perhaps being too embarrassed to ask for clarification and getting things horribly wrong once the person helping you leaves the room.

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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12 Responses to In which a picture’s worth a thousand words – in any language

  1. Frank says:

    I think it is definitely a skill that grows with practice. And fades with lack of practice. I remember that I had mastered the skill of speaking simple English after I finished three years working in Saudi. There I was in a hospital where English was the official language, but staff came from nearly 50 different countries, so you learnt to choose words carefully and construct simple, direct sentences. Since then I have lost that ability, unless I make a big effort to simplify.

  2. cromercrox says:

    twiddling the fine focus knob? Eppur is muove.

  3. Esther says:

    When I arrived to the UK to pursue my PhD I remember being often upset for my lack of understanding despite my continuous efforts. The situation changed when one day my supervisor said to me: “You know what Esther, these misunderstandings we have often take our discussions to unexpected places. I think this is why our exchange is so rich and fruitful”. From my point of view, the capacity to communicate is based on your willing to meet the other. I am sure that your Italian student feels really welcomed with these lovely drawings.

  4. She is getting more and more confident with English too – it’s nice to see. And I’ve got a bit of help with my Italian too!

  5. Eva says:

    I was visiting a friend of my mom’s this weekend (with my mom), and her son and his girlfriend were there as well. I didn’t know what they did, exactly, so when they asked what *I* did, I said “I work for a scientific publisher”. Their eyes lit up, so I kept adding more details. They knew what journals were, and peer review, and within a minute my mom and her friend had lost all track of the conversation. Turns out they were MA and PhD students in the humanities, and had several friends working in publishing, so even though science was still alien, they understood my job!

  6. Eva, that’s a great example of what I meant by modifying communication in real-time based on audience reaction. If their eyes hadn’t lit up, or if they hadn’t asked more questions, you might have handled it differently or used less detail.

  7. cromercrox says:

    Sometimes friends, who aren’t sure precisely what I do for a living, ask me what I do at scientific conferences. my answer is usually something like ‘hang around in bars’. I am not sure whether this gives the right impression.

  8. rpg says:

    Henry, I still don’t know what it is you do for a living.

  9. John the Plumber says:

    Lowry and Picasso meet genetics.

  10. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    “Also, it turns out that a very large number of lab terms can be converted to Italian simply by adding an -o or and -a after the English term, with the appropriate lilt. Who knew?”

    In the final stages of my PhD, I started applying for postdoc positions in Canada, Netherlands, and France. All the Dutch labs I was interested in had websites written in perfect English, naturally, but a few of the French ones were written exclusively in French. I was initially dismayed, but upon further inspection, the text was just standard scientific English with accents over some of the vowels. I speak passable tourist-level French, but I could understand almost every single word of these sites!

  11. John the Plumber says:

    I am alway amazed that we only need the first and last letters in the correct place, then the spelling in the middle of words doesn’t matter. – So now I can do it in Italian too.

    I can spaeka Itialano lieka naitveo

  12. Ah, the whiteboard doodle, a great fondness of mine. 🙂

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