Asia-Pacific Forum on Science Learning and Teaching, Volume 6, Issue 2, Article 2 (Dec., 2005)
The effect of teaching in native and foreign language on students' conceptual understanding in science courses
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Results and Implications

The results of the study indicate that there is a considerable difference between the two groups of students: those who studied the science course in the native language (Ss2) and those who studied in a foreign language (Ss1). Findings showed that Ss2 gave more scientifically acceptable answers to the questions than did Ss1. Besides, Ss1 had more difficulties in explaining the reasons for their answers; presumably because of the scientific language they used in their written explanations.

Abundance of scientifically unacceptable responses by Ss1 identifies a close relationship between the language and conceptual understanding in the science course. In other words, foreign language used in the science course becomes a barrier for students. Science is a discipline in which experiential and concrete examples should be presented as an in-class process in order to improve the level of students' conceptual understanding. Thus, if students are exposed to everyday concepts by using their native language, it will be easier for them to understand scientific concepts in a classroom setting. This will take the load off the students and will give more time to present experimental examples to comprehend scientific ideas more efficiently. From the teachers' point of view, it will also be easier to diagnose scientific misconceptions by asking students to give everyday examples for the topic taught. Briefly, misconceptions in "The Energy Unit" may be overcome by encouraging students to talk about them. The more students express their own ideas about those concepts, the more they will be aware about the limitations and problems in their understanding the concepts. Therefore, the scientific language which mediates the meanings of the concepts is important and the native language should be preferred for such purposes.

The ideas which students bring into the science classroom may originate from their early experiences with the physical world. These ideas may include, for example, the knowledge that motionless objects do not have energy or that objects cannot continue moving if there is no frictional force. It may be that such intuitive ideas can be developed towards more formal scientific ideas throughout teaching about energy. The role of the teacher may be considered to be that of helping students to modify their intuitive ideas to relate them to the formal scientific ideas. This can be done by encouraging students to talk about their own intuitive ideas either in small groups or as a whole class. This may serve two purposes: firstly when students talk through their own ideas, they may use the ideas in familiar situations and thus consolidating the relationship between science theory and the experiences with which they are familiar, students' confidence in theory can be increased by using ideas to make sense of a wider range of tasks. Such tasks may involve language activities, such as explaining an industrial process or writing an imaginative piece of prose. Secondly, and perhaps more important in the case of energy, students may become aware that different people think differently, and this could provide a useful foundation upon which to introduce the scientific ideas about energy.

As stated by Vygotsky (1978), language accommodates a medium for learning and is a tool to construct a way of thinking. Learning takes place in a social context through language and students need to internalize knowledge in a related context using language. If students are not competent in that language, they may come up with misconceptions in understanding. Thus, the results of this study are consistent with several studies (Cummins, 1989; 1992; Rosenthal, 1996; Spurlin, 1995) conducted in the field in terms of the effect of teaching in a foreign language on conceptual understanding in science courses. Teaching the main courses such as mathematics and science through a foreign language may lead to misconceptions in understanding.

Consequently, students should be well informed about the different uses of words in different contexts, so that they can better understand the concept of "energy". However, this process requires time for students to investigate and discuss the related ideas in a language in which they can express themselves without any difficulty. No matter how good they are at foreign language in terms of grammar and vocabulary, language competence in a foreign language may be a handicap while expressing their own ideas for students. As the findings of the study indicate, ideas for the construction of energy conservation need to be restructured carefully and analogically. This process could be done through the native language by discussing forms of energy in relation to physical systems, investigating more novel phenomena which are related to the topic and contextualizing the concept of energy.

New regulations about teaching the academic courses in native language will help students' conceptual understanding. For further studies, it is suggested to conduct research at English medium universities in different departments such as engineering and business administration, with a wide range of samples and to come up with different ideas.

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