Podcast Host Jad Abumrad Shared with BYU Students on How Language Can Help Bridge Gaps of Communication Between People as Part of Listen Up! Lecture Series
Interpersonal communication is essential in order to understand and function in today’s world. Jad Abumrad, founder of ‘Radiolab’ and host of ‘Everything. Together. Radio,’ visited BYU as part of the Listen Up! lecture series. He shared with students how crucial it is to bridge the gaps that communication often leaves behind, particularly when trying to describe difficult topics.
“I have made a career playing with language to describe and communicate very hard technical things. Technical things,” said Abumrad. ‘Radiolab’ is best known to break down complex scientific topics and make them easier to consume for those who want to know more, but aren’t scientists themselves.
Abumrad highlighted a question from Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 20th-century Austrian philosopher: “Why are we so bad at communicating with each other?” In 1953, Wittgenstein's book, “Philosophical Investigations” was published Abumrad drew inspiration from his writings, specifically sections on language games.
“Language isn’t like a game where you score points, but every game has its rules,” Abumrad said. Games such as football, soccer and cricket all have very specific sets of rules that only make sense when the game is being played.
As the child of two scientists, Abumrad has experienced these language games when talking to his parents about their research. His mother has spent the past 40 years studying one specific protein and what it does. His response to his mother’s highly technical explanation of the protein was, “Mom, that’s not even English!”
Abumrad went on to explain a moment when his mother’s description of the protein did make sense. It was when they were sitting at the kitchen table, and she explained the process of the protein’s function by using a plate and a salt shakers as stand-ins for the parts of the protein. Their interaction was the inspiration for ‘Radiolab.’
To show how critical language games are in the learning process, Abumrad shared one example from ‘Radiolab.’ A guest on the show discovered a miracle in worms. She could extend their lifespan by tinkering with their genes. He played a clip from the episode where the scientist gives an explanation to her work and describes what different proteins do and how the process works.
After playing the clip, Abumrad commented that her description was hard to understand. “You've got these Greek verbs. You've got lead, squash, bind. These are like physical words, these are action movie words. Then you've got these nouns like the protein DAF,” he said. “There's something so fundamentally un-sticky about that. It's like the grammatical equivalent of a rubber ball and just like being bounced off your head; it just can't go in there.”
The solution Abumrad found is what he likes to call “noun replacement therapy.” He played another clip of the podcast episode in which they switched up the language game. Instead of using highly technical terms, they switched out the scientific names to more familiar representations such as a little child and the Grim Reaper.
This example is much more entertaining to listen to, but Abumrad shared a criticism ‘Radiolab’ got in the beginning; “Is that all in good fun, or does that distort the fundamental truth of the science?” He said that kids learning science in America may start out by doing hands-on learning. Things like science fairs and experiments are fun and exciting ways to learn. However, once they get into older grades, those hands-on experiences turn into memorizing facts and cycles.
Abumrad suggests the problem is the way science education is delivered to students. He is actively working to challenge that idea with shows such as ‘Radiolab.’ Abumrad’s goal is to ultimately make knowledge accessible to everyone, particularly in relation to science.