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Science in Museums: Rethinking Accessibility: Don’t Leave English Language Learners Behind

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on July 10, 2013 in Science in Museums |

By columnist Catherine Sigmond

Let’s face it. English has become the global language, the lingua franca that links us all together. It’s also increasingly being recognized as the international language of science.

For non-native English speakers, the necessity of being able to read, speak, and publish research in English is an ever-growing hurdle.

Of course, the expanding use of the English language touches many more disciplines than just the hard sciences. But the fact remains that many of those who may be interested in pursuing careers in science may be hampered by their lack of high-level English language skills.

And if they are to be true leaders in making science accessible to all, American science museums must recognize this reality and do something about it.

Ah, accessibility. The audiences targeted by museums under this immensely broad term are constantly being defined and redefined. In most contemporary institutions, staff members are working hard to invoke principles of universal design and provide resources that ensure that their exhibitions and programs are accessible to audiences such as those that are deaf or hard of hearing, visually impaired, or physically or mentally disabled. But not speaking English well in a world that is so unequivocally English-centric means that, unfortunately, most English Language Learners (ELLs) are at an extreme disadvantage if they hope to enter a career in science. Science museums’ understanding of the audiences that should benefit from accessibility initiatives must expand to include ELLs. We owe it to future scientific progress not to forget them.

While it’s true that the brain is capable of thinking about science in all languages (watch Dubai-based English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher Patricia Ryan’s TEDx talk Don’t Insist on English! for more on the advantages of keeping other languages around), we can’t deny the inevitable expectation of a high-level of English-language proficiency for the next several generation’s future scientists. The English language’s dominance in the field is, of course, completely arbitrary (check out Scott L. Montgomery’s interview with Inside Higher Ed for more). Yet the monolingual attitude of many American science museums has the potential to exclude a huge set of museum audiences.

So what are museums, particularly educators, doing to support ELLs in developing their English language skills and engaging in science? The disappointing answer is- not a whole lot.

Search for any partnerships between ESL organizations and science museums and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any. Yes, there are a few one-time examples such as the American Museum of Natural History’s Science Literacy Program for science educators working with ELLs in 6th grade. But your search results will likely stop there. Good luck finding any more long-term serious ESL-museum partnerships.

Anyone who’s met me will tell you that I’m the first to advocate for more rampant inclusion of ELLs in museum education. I firmly believe that educators must take the initiative to make their museum’s resources open to as many people as possible. And for most museums, this means starting to seriously consider how, rather than if, they will try to engage community members who are non-native English speakers.

So here’s a small list of programs, digital initiatives, partnerships, and other things that I think science museums can start doing to engage with ELLs on a more serious level (Note: I’m only focusing on science museums, though many of these ideas could easily be modified for other types of museums. And I’m not going to discuss smaller adaptations such as providing signage in multiple languages or hiring bilingual staff. Instead, I’m focused on more long-term, content-based initiatives. I’m also not going to describe any of these ideas in gross detail- send me a message or leave a comment if you’d like to talk about any of these more! I’d be thrilled to consult with you or your institution on any or all of these ideas.):

• Start crowdsourcing translations of the museum’s presentations and/or shows, TED-style. Film them and put them up on the web for people to translate, or recruit visitors to help translate them into the most frequently spoken languages other than English in your community and include the subtitles on screens during future presentations at the museum.

• If you have an Art/Science gallery or traveling art/science exhibitions, consider partnering with local ESL schoolteachers or community organizations and hosting Visual Thinking Strategies-inspired lessons in the gallery space. VTS has been proven to work wonders in helping both adult and child ELLs improve their language skills- why not use that medium to discuss science!

• Create traveling programs that visit local community centers or libraries, not just schools. Many ELLs use these sorts of organizations as a resource when they first move to a new community, and this will allow science museums to reach the ever-allusive adult visitor. Of course don’t ignore schools completely- consider working directly with ESL teachers to craft traveling school programs that specifically target ELLs.

• Organize summer science camps, labs, or workshops geared towards ELLs. Again, designed in partnership with local ESL organizations.

• Provide professional development training on working with ELLs for museum education staff. This kind of training shouldn’t just be for whoever focuses on accessibility in your institution. Working with and understanding the needs of ELLs demands a whole new set of skills that museum educators should have. Forge a partnership with a local ESL organization- have them help train your staff on how to work with ELLs and then create programs for them that help make science accessible to their students. Or, bring in regular guest speakers for short seminars on working with ELLs or understanding the potential challenges associated with trying to communicate science in your non-native tongue!

This is obviously a short list of ideas. In reality, there are many more possibilities out there, especially if museums are willing to invest the time and money in truly working to engage these audiences. I’d love to see educators who specialize in working with ELLs crop up in museums (heck, I’d love to BE that person!). Museums must keep up with global trends of all kinds, and the move towards a primarily English-speaking world of science professionals is one of them. Now they just need to make sure they don’t leave a huge chuck of their potential audiences behind simply because English isn’t their first language.

There’s no reason why museums shouldn’t offer ELLs, especially children, the chance to be inspired by science just like the rest of their native-English-speaking visitors. Realizing this will not only open museums up to a broad range of new people, but will provide museum professionals the opportunity to learn from these audiences’ diverse set of experiences and ideas, and help orient them on the path to true accessibility.

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