Tamil has no exact equivalent for the term “action potential”. A seminal concept in neuroscience, the phrase stands for the “short pulses of electricity that nerve cells send each other” to relay messages, explained Vatsala Thirumalai, a neuroscientist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bengaluru.

Thirumalai had to consult textbooks for Tamil-medium schools to compose her public lecture on “electric currents inside the human body”, delivered in Tamil on Saturday at the centre.

Mandram, an organisation formed last September to facilitate “sharing of great ideas” in local languages, mainly Tamil, had collaborated with the Bangalore Life Sciences Cluster, a set of three research institutions that share a campus, to organise a lecture series on science in Tamil and Kannada.

Thirumalai agreed to speak and set out to look for Tamil terms to convey scientific concepts. The title of her lecture, “Nammul paayum minsaram”, she said was accurate. But unable to find a term for “action potential”, she coined one on her own – “seyal min azutham” where “seyal” is Tamil for “action” and “min azutham” is used in Tamil textbooks for voltage.

Ravi Muddashetty, faculty-member at another member of the Life Sciences Cluster, The Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, faced the same problem while preparing his lecture on learning and memory in Kannada. There is no Kannada word for “synapse” or “the site of connect between neurons”, he explained. Less of a purist than Thirumalai, he chose to “just use synapse and describe what it means”.

The joint programme, called Jigyasa Project – or Curiosity Project – had six speakers and included lectures on the fundamentals of neuroscience, the free software movement and intellectual property rights, all delivered in Tamil or Kannada by scientists and science communicators who, like the vast majority of their colleagues, work in English.

“I came across an article by Mukund Thattai from the National Centre for Biological Sciences on how science must be democratised, taken to the masses and across language barriers,” said Maggie Inbamuthiah, an engineer and one of the three founders of Mandram. Now a communications director with a non-profit that works on encouraging more women to join the technology sector, Inbamuthiah found that school girls studying in the local language, expressed ambitions to be doctors and engineers but balked at the thought of studying science. Part of the reason, she feels, is that “most resources, the latest concepts and opportunities in science, are available only in English”. In higher education, and especially professional courses such as medicine, science is taught in English and school students studying in the mother-tongue feel ill-equipped to handle them.

Inbamuthiah said textbooks are “literal translations of the English” and do not help “demystify science”. Muddashetty, who studied in Kannada-medium, till Class 10 agreed. “The terms were so alien, they were meaningless to us,” he said. “Science always seemed a burden. I took an interest because of my parents who encouraged me to read outside the school books. I do not know a single person from my school who went on to study pure science.”

Inbamuthiah approached Mahinn Ali Khan, who heads communications for the Cluster, in April. The biological sciences centre had already conducted one programme on sciences in Kannada and was interested in holding more. The Jigyasa Project was organised over May and the seminar was held on June 9.

Such efforts will help explain scientific concepts better to students, believes Inbamuthiah. “The language also gets richer because people are using more words”.

Ravi Muddashetty's lecture in Kannada, in Bengaluru on June 9, answered the question: 'How do we learn and why do we forget?'. In Kannada, it is 'Kaliyuvathu hege mattu mareyuvathu yeke.' (Credit: Mandram).

Expanded lexicon

A major challenge in delivering science lectures in Tamil and Kannada was finding the right words. The evolution of their lexicons has not kept pace with scientific discovery and understanding and with some disciplines, the vocabulary is too limited to convey even relatively basic ideas.

There is no Tamil equivalent for “ion channels” so Thirumalai, once again, elected to create a term rather than allow English to sully her piece. She combined the existing Tamil for ion, “ioni”, with Tamil for “channel”, “kalvai”, and arrived at “ioni kalvai”.

Scientists are also great sticklers for accuracy and exact meaning. “When you convey a term, it needs to convey a specific meaning,” she added. “Our languages must be updated to allow specific usage.” That is why she was “not very satisfied” with the accepted Tamil term for a neuron – “narambu anu” – although she was compelled to use it multiple times in her lecture. “The word ‘anu’ means atom but I was not talking about an atom,” she said. In the absence of a Tamil equivalent, texts use the English word “cell” which, she pointed out, “also means ‘to go’ in Tamil”.

The Kannada for neuron is “narakosha”; “kosha” is a cell. But as Muddashetty pointed out, there are gaps elsewhere and the growth of knowledge in some disciplines has simply stagnated. “There are not enough articles or books being written in Kannada that a vocabulary can be generated,” he said. “There is hardly any on neuroscience. There is not even a clear distinction between that and psychology in Kannada.”

Muddashetty’s own parents did not know what he does – study autism spectrum disorder. “They would not understand even the broad things because of language,” he said. There is no Kannada word for autism. All such conditions are bunched together under the umbrella term “buddhimandyathe” meaning “cognitive difficulty”.

The size of the gap between the new ideas being generated and described in English and what the local languages can convey varies with both language and discipline. As Thirumalai pointed out, at least in the case of Tamil, those in the field of information technology have done a better job of ensuring their language grows in step with developments in the field. Thus, Tamil has a word for computer, kanini, derived from the existing Tamil word “kanippathu”, to calculate or compute. For webpage, website or portal, it has valaithalam – a combination of valai (net) and thalam (place or platform). However, Tamil-speakers based in Sri Lanka or Singapore use them more regularly than those in India.

English is still important

Despite their enthusiasm for the Jigyasa Project – it was the first such attempt for both Thirumalai and Muddashetty who otherwise work exclusively in English – several scientists hesitate to lay too great an emphasis on the local language.

Muddashetty’s stand is partly due to his own experience of attending science classes in English at the National College, Basavanagudi, Bengaluru, after studying it in Kannada till Class 10. “The transition was very difficult, it took me two years to grasp the technical terms and the speed at which messages were being delivered,” he said. Most give up. “Unless you are totally motivated, it is impossible to continue.”

Also, things get progressively difficult. “We should encourage bilingualism because you have to communicate with the rest of the world as well,” added Thirumalai. Advanced research brings scientists from several countries together and a lingua franca is essential to its smooth progress.

Maggie Inbamuthiah, founded Mandram with two others – Venkataraman Ramachandran who works at an Agritech startup, and Ravishankar Venkatesan, who works at an information technology company – in September 2017. At Saturday's seminar, Inbamuthiah spoke on atoms. (Credit: Mandram)

Inbamuthiah sees their point. But she argued that efforts should be made to keep other languages updated as well. One of the speakers, Kollegala Sharma, showed a textbook published in 1965 that contained concepts of quantum physics that German physicist Werner Heisenberg explicated in 1955. “Within a decade, new concepts had been rendered in Kannada,” she said. “But that is not how it is anymore. If we move back to the culture where science was studied [and research conducted] in multiple languages, it might help bring more people into the field.” Sharma, from the Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysuru, is an enthusiastic science communicator in Kannada.

Thirumalai does not think it will take longer than a year to bring Tamil up to speed.

Outreach in local languages

What the scientists as well as those at Mandram agree on is that using local languages for outreach is crucial for getting more students to take an interest in the subject. As Thirumalai observed, all applicants for PhDs in her laboratory are from urban and semi-urban areas. She believes improved teaching of the sciences in local languages and communicating advanced concepts in it would increase the chances of students from rural areas taking an interest in science.

The National Centre for Biological Sciences has already taken some steps in that direction. Their outreach activities, all clubbed together under the “Science and the City” programme, has scientists going to party halls in apartment complexes to deliver public lectures. A few months ago, before Inbamuthiah got in touch with them, the Centre’s communication team had posted a message on social media asking if anyone can speak on science in any language that is not English. Kollegala Sharma had responded, and in the beginning of May, he visited the campus and met school students and their family members. “From that we realised the kind of potential this sort of programme had,” said communications head Mahinn Ali Khan. “There was an audience and we needed to put together an event.” Mandram’s getting in touch with them was a happy coincidence.

Since the first round involved only Tamil and Kannada speakers and the three founders of Mandram initially worked on popularising Tamil alone, none of them are quite sure how things stand with other languages or even other disciplines. If they find enough logistical support and expand their network of speakers, said Inbamuthiah, they might take the Jigyasa Project to other states as well. For a start, they have video recorded the lectures held on Saturday and will soon post them online.

Khan hopes to hold similar events in Telugu and Malayalam as well.

But for Muddashetty, the use of regional languages for science lectures is effective mainly for “communicating science to society” and not necessarily a great help for students hoping to make a career in it. He prepared his lecture avoiding all scientific jargon and tested it on his mother, who has not studied beyond Class 12. To his relief, her response was positive. “My mother finally understands what I do,” he said.