A new language to learn

It is often difficult to recognize jargon in the everyday life of a graduate student. In lab all day, the terms polymerase chain reaction (PCR), nanodrop, and reverse transcription (RT) seem like mundane words used in a classroom. However, it is most difficult when you try to explain what you do to friends and family members outside the sciences. I first encountered this when attempting to explain what I hope to accomplish in my dissertation to a friend. What could be explained in one simple sentence to a science student took me twenty minutes to explain. Most of this explanation came not from not understanding the topics, but rather in explaining the terms.

It gets harder when you have to explain this in a different language. I am a Taiwanese-American. I speak Mandarin Chinese to my parents, but I don’t know how to read and write the language. When they ask me about the concepts I am interested in, it becomes a day long expedition. I say a word such as nanodrop and I just get blank stares. Then begins my explanation—and when you learn all these scientific terms in English, you realize how difficult it is to translate them (or even to attempt to explain them) in Chinese. It is difficult. It is like learning a new Chinese language.

And so it hit home. Jargon can be something great, but it can also be a huge hazard, for people outside your field, in understanding concepts. It is like learning a new language—it is not something that can be done in a day. Rather, it requires practice, reading, and even more reading.

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