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Language & Science | Language Intersection Insights with Beerelli Seshi, M.D.

Updated: Aug 18, 2022

JNCL-NCLIS Highlights: Language at the Intersection


About the Episode:

JNCL-NCLIS is proud to introduce the fourth episode of our Language at the Intersection Highlights series. In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Beerelli Seshi to talk about the intersection of language and science. Beerelli Seshi, M.D. is a Former Academic Physician, Hematopathologist, Medical Educator, and Biomedical Scientist.


The transcript for the episode can be found below.

 

Transcript:

Amanda Seewald (00:09):

Hello, and welcome to the "JNCL-NCLIS Language at the Intersection Insights" Interview Series, where we talk with professionals from many fields to hear their perspectives on how multilingualism moves our world. The Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Language and International Studies proudly presents this series with generous sponsorship support from Vista Higher Learning.


Amanda Seewald (00:40):

I'm Amanda Seewald, current president of the Joint National Committee for Languages and the National Council for Language and International Studies, JNCL-NCLIS, and today we introduce you to Dr. Beerelli Seshi, a former Academic Physician, Hematopathologist, Medical Educator, and Biomedical Scientist who will help us explore the intersection of language, medicine, and science, and how multilingualism moves his world.


Beerelli Seshi (01:05):

Hello, my name is Dr. Beerelli Seshi. I'm a retired physician and scientist. My language intersection is medicine and science.


Amanda Seewald (01:22):

That's perfect. Thank you so much. And now, let's talk a little bit about, how do you use multiple languages in your life?


Beerelli Seshi (01:31):

Picture a situation when you meet a stranger. If you speak in his or in her language, you can imagine the reaction on their face. If you really extend this context, what would it have been like if Christopher Columbus greeted the natives in their language? Probably the history of America would've been different. What I'm trying to say, that if you speak in the other person's language, it makes immediate connection. By the same token, as I'm living in the United States, I would be going and just to come across some Indian face, "Hey, are you a Telugu?" Let's say if he says yes, the whole conversation would jump to a new level. So language in everyday use makes the connection so wonderful. So human.


Amanda Seewald (02:43):

That's wonderful. And I thank you so much for sharing it that way. It makes me think even more about the role that you've played as a scientist and as a medical professional. How has being multilingual impacted your ability to treat your patients or to even have a different way of at the research that you've done?


Beerelli Seshi (03:02):

I'm not a clinical physician, I'm a pathologist. I trained at Yale and I practiced pathology for 30 years, so I won't be actually seeing the patients. However, I have trained approximately 70 pathologists coming from different parts of the world in my 20 some years of academic practice. And also I taught medical students for 12 years, including six years at the University of Rochester and six years at the University of South Florida. All these students and trainees, they had different linguistic backgrounds, consequently different cultural backgrounds. So I closely interacted with them, and especially the resident trainees, because a given resident would rotate with me for six months, which is a lot of time. So in the process, you would get to know their cultural background, the linguistic background, so many other aspects of their lives.


Beerelli Seshi (04:17):

And so they were from Chinese origin, from Lebanese origin, from Greek origin, from Italian origin, you name it. Each person, when they speak English language, each has their own issues. I had my own issues. So I would discuss communication aspects, language aspects, sometimes in our group, sometimes privately. I recognized certain issues. For example, Chinese have a difficulty confusing between L for R. People of my background have a great difficulty in distinguishing between V and W for example. So sometimes, when we are speaking English with all these backgrounds, it would result in some interesting scenarios of comical proportions when you interchange L for R, or V for W, something, something. So this is how my interest in language has impacted in my teaching and interacting with the idea of people. And no matter what I have been doing, whether I'm teaching, whether I'm looking through the microscope and making a diagnosis and interacting with my fellow trainees, part of my mind was always working on the linguistic aspect always.


Beerelli Seshi (05:54):

And I would tell some stories and some medical terminology, I would explain to them how that particular word came about and, you know, things like that. So in fact, all these decades and decades of, you know, being involved in that kind of thinking prepared me for my current project of multilanguaging. And so two and a half years ago, I decided to retire and give full focus in developing this language project. And so I'm glad that it has taken some shape. And so that is the story behind it.


Amanda Seewald (06:40):

Yes, no, that's wonderful. And I'm so interested in the decision that you made to move your focus from the scientific research you were doing, or the scientific work you were doing in medicine, to focusing on language and taking your scientific background and kind of your approach to looking at things and looking at multilanguaging is specifically with Indian languages. Tell us a little bit about how you take the kind of the concepts of science, which is almost like a language in and of itself, right? And how you've applied that to your new project and where you see that going.


Beerelli Seshi (07:15):

You know, I spent the first 30 years of my life in India. Next, 40 years of my life in the United States. So I had experienced all the linguistic aspects of it and all the rancor, because India has some 2000 languages and 22 of them are state official languages, but still there is no accepted national language, which is a kind of tragedy. In conventional molecular biology and biochemistry, we study a single protein at a time, a single gene at a time. On the other hand, in these sciences, we study thousands of genes and thousands of proteins all at once. So these were all cooking at the back of my mind, interacting in other words. So I ask myself, why can't I, if we can, if I can study thousands of proteins and thousands of genes at one time, why can't I study, why can't I learn five or 10 languages at the same time?


Beerelli Seshi (08:25):

And so I had, I have all the experiences in other words, technical experience of handling massive amounts of data, mining massive amounts of data, in other words, how to make sense of a heap of data? We have five or 10 languages, and so if we can study them simultaneously, I thought we could study languages simultaneously. Then I thought, what languages might be appropriate in the context of India? So I came up with the idea that, oh, mother tongue has got to be there. And second, English got to be there. So given these two things, then why not pick up some three Pan-Indian languages? Those three Pan-Indian languages are Hindi, and the Sanskrit, which is a foundation for most of the Indian languages, and Urdu, which is also born And it's, it's a bonafide "bonafide" Indian language. It was born in India and it is also an Indo-European language. So, that is how I came up with. So the fundamental thing is that, who is going to accept if I want people to learn five languages as if three languages of the current situation, not enough.


Beerelli Seshi (09:49):

So I came up with the idea that if we use the same content, instead of a different content, currently three languages are taught. And in that scenario, for example, my mother taught Telugu in my home state, national language, which is not accepted, but, you know de facto, or if not, de jure, Hindi and English. So they are introduced at different school level, class levels, and also the content is entirely different. So I came up with the idea of using same content and the moment you make that change, same content, identical content, you know, in other words, identical subject material.


Beerelli Seshi (10:36):

For example, if there is a lesson on Mahatma Gandhi, same lesson across three or five languages. So the moment you make that change, it' allow you to study sentence by sentence and word by word in five languages. And that would make it highly efficient in my view, because the dimensionality of the information is greatly reduced. So the focus is in learning the language, not so much in learning the content. So keep the content minimum and include as many languages as you would desire or need it or whatever. So that is the crux of my project.


Amanda Seewald (11:23):

That's a, it's an incredible project. Maybe talk a little bit about what you wish that, that people in positions of power knew about the intersection of multilingualism and science in, you know, specifically.


Beerelli Seshi (11:38):

Diversity of languages. You know, for example, India has 2000. In the world all over, six or 7,000 languages are there. We have to understand that each language has its own culture intertwined with it. Language is more than just a means of communication. It carries culture with it. What makes language so exciting? And also language, study of languages is science. And if you look at language, it is an organism by itself. It has a life of its own. Someday, it started, and it kept evolving over thousands of years, in the case of some languages, they are not static. So given these facts, given the diversity of the languages in the world and consequently diversity of cultures in the world, so if you learn a language, you are necessarily learning the culture associated with that language. The diversity of languages can be gold mine because it's richly endowed with the you know, valuable thought process embedded into it.


Beerelli Seshi (13:02):

At the same time, it can be a mine field. So in other words, it can be a boon or a bane because, you know, some language might try to dominate over all kinds of issues would arise. So there, there are two people, politics because of the self interest, whatever. What I think, that teaching them in parallel takes away that bias against our fear of other languages. So the lawmakers need to understand, if we properly understand and properly make use of the diversity of languages, we'd be the strongest in the world. At the same time, if we are not careful, if we do not think through, and then it could be a disaster. I mean, all these things played a significant impact at the back of my mind in arriving at this system of teaching because I know how sensitivities, especially in India, this language issue. When I was a high school student, there was street level agitations against Hindi.


Beerelli Seshi (14:27):

And again, in 2019, you know, after 40 years later, it did the same situation. So in other words, the sensitivity still persists and, in other words, the problem remains unsolved. And I'm hoping that multilanguaging is solution for this longstanding problem. You know, India got independence 74 years ago, and all these years, the language problem has been in the domain of politics. And I believe I have taken it out of politics and given a scientific solution, but it remains to be seen, you know. I'm not saying anything final at this point, and you know, the idea of multilanguaging, learning multiple languages simultaneously using identical content is a very attractive idea. And nonetheless, I have to be humble. It needs to be validated before it can become a routine tool.


Amanda Seewald (15:42):

I love how you're thinking like a scientist all the time and everything that you're doing. And I love, I find that fascinating. As an educator who doesn't have the same type of background, I feel like it's, I'm learning so much from you just from listening to you. So thank you. I wanna just ask you, just to kind of pull back a little bit and give me in a broad sense, how do you feel that scientific advances are made possible by multilingualism? Or to put it in another way, how would scientific advances be hindered without supporting linguistic diversity?


Beerelli Seshi (16:16):

You know, the multilingual person is uniquely equipped with a thinking skill set compared to a monolingual person, because a multilingual person who had learned multiple languages had no choice, but to have learned how to sort out the differences and interference of one language with the other in his or her mind. So, in other words, the mind, a multilingual mind, is in a different world. And also if I may mention that if you look at the radio images of the brains of multilingual persons versus monolingual, there are a lot of structural differences, functional differences. So to answer your question, a multilingual person is in a better position to make scientific advances in other fields than compared to a monolingual person for that matter.


Beerelli Seshi (17:27):

Imagine like a musician, a musician who has the knowledge of multiple systems and the, you know, broad background. So he's playing the music and based on the response of the audience, he can rise up to, he can pull from his repertoire and rise up to the occasion. Same way, if a scientist, the prepared mind can see an accidental, an incidental finding. Whereas if your mind is not prepared, so many good things pass right in front of your eyes, but you won't see them. So in other words, the eyes can see only what the mind knows. And in other words a multilingual person is is going to be better scientist and a better human being and in every respect, that's my opinion.


Amanda Seewald (18:32):

I concur completely. I think that's, it's a very important point, especially here in our nation, which is primarily, you know, monolingual in its thought, right? And of course we have so many multilingual people across the United States, and one of the places where that becomes most evident is when we have our students, you know, children, I have a daughter in college and a son getting ready to go to college. And as I think about that, I think about I've visited many campuses and on the admissions tours, and too many times, I've heard people talking about testing out of language and not having to take language classes. And so thinking about that, thinking about the attitude of so much across the United States, what I want to ask you to, to final my last question to you is really, it's, it's basically twofold. You know, we wanna encourage multilingual studies in science focused majors. We want science majors to start to require actually you know, language proficiency as a part of the degree process. So if you were going to speak to an aspiring student of medicine or science about the value of language learning, what would you say to them?


Beerelli Seshi (19:45):

Well, this is very, very important because oftentimes it bothered me the concept of STEM education bothered me so much, because it doesn't include languages. It includes science, technology, engineering, and whatever the M is, mathematics, okay. It doesn't include languages. In my opinion, language is the root, you know, the STEM doesn't have a root. Okay. So it's hanging in the air. Learning of languages is fundamentally critical, no matter what you want to become, whether scientist, or a musician, artist, or whatever. Imagine Amanda before the science and math became popular, what were the brilliant minds doing? What was their focus? They were learning Latin, Sanskrit, or becoming poets becoming that kind of thing. But now, so much focus is out of proportion, put on these vocational fears, such as engineering and medicine and so on. I think the emphasis has been misplaced by neglecting languages, and I think languages should be brought on par with other fields.


Amanda Seewald (21:17):

Just I've so enjoyed listening to you. You've shared so much. And actually your answer to this is exactly perfect. It's exactly what we're looking to do. But no, this was, this was, I could listen to you talk about this for hours. I'm just so fascinated by one, the way that you're applying your scientific background and the breadth of your knowledge and experience, and your years of study to looking at language education and looking at the way people learn language. I think that it has really important implications, across the way that we look at language. What you just said about the essential nature of language, not just STEM, right, is something that we literally have to battle all the time as language education advocates. It is the central part of our challenge. And we are just so grateful for your time and the generosity of your sharing of your experience.


Beerelli Seshi (22:14):

You know, I mean, this gave me such a wonderful opportunity. I have expressed in a public way, some of my thoughts first time.


Amanda Seewald (22:22):

Oh, well thank you for, thank you for sharing that with us. And we are honored that you, that you would be willing to do that with us. And so we wanna make sure we, we honor that by including you in our video and making sure that people get to hear your voice.


Beerelli Seshi (22:35):

Thank you.


Amanda Seewald (22:45):

That concludes today's featured story from our "Language at the Intersection Insights" Interview Series. For more information about the advocacy work of the Joint National Committee for Languages and National Council for Languages and International Studies, please visit www.languagepolicy.org. To learn more about this interview series, hear stories from other professionals, and explore how language moves our world, visit www.languagepolicy.org/languageattheintersection. Thank you to our interviewees for sharing their stories, thank you to our series sponsors Vista Higher Learning, and thank you all for listening.


This series is made possible by a generous sponsorship from Vista Higher Learning. To learn more, please visit https://vistahigherlearning.com/.

_____________________________ About JNCL-NCLIS: Established in 1972, the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (NCLIS) unites a national network of leading organizations and businesses comprised of over 300,000 language professionals to advocate for equitable language learning opportunities. Our mission is to ensure that Americans have the opportunity to learn English and at least one other language. Contact: info@languagepolicy.org

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