Fuel for Thought: trouble with language

Scientific American

August 11, 2013

By Rachel Margolese

Communicating with Tanzanians who speak limited English is a tricky balance between talking down to people and expecting too much of an understanding of English. Heat measurement devices, for instance, are difficult to explain. We were preparing to light our kiln on Friday while a VICOBA meeting took place in the other corner of the yard. Our activity around the kiln proved too much of a fascinating distracting for the meeting attendees and we were soon surrounded by a small and curious crowed. One man began asking questions about our work; what are you doing? Is that going to light? What is this for? We tried to answer as many questions as we could, assisted by Tim, one of our Dutch housemates who has taken an interested in our briquetting work and knows all about the work we do.

Rachel Margolese
Rachel Margolese ’16 explains how to pack a kiln.

“What is that?” asked the man, pointing to our heat sensors that we were inserting into the wood shavings.

“That’s for measuring temperature,” explains Tim. A blank look. “To see how hot. For heat. Like a thermometer? It tells you how much heat there is. Like, uh, how warm?” Gesturing with his hands he trails off. This isn’t getting anywhere. “Ok,” take two. “So this is measuring how much heat—”

“Oh, thermocouple. Ok,” the man says nodding. Way to whip out that terminology. I swear Tim’s jaw hit the ground. He looked quite taken aback. “Yep. That would be it. That would be the technical term.” Turning to me, “Yeah, didn’t see that one coming. Thermocouple.” Priceless.

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