In the thread about astronomy coming under attack, Sam raised the point about my personal pages not being in any language except English. Of course since that's the language I speak, that's what I write in, and I consider that most of my readers do also speak it. Finding someone to translate those pages is a problem I have neither the time nor money to tackle (since I pay for my web space out of my own pocket and don't have an institution backing my informal outreach). More to the point, what languages would I choose? Which do I leave out? Will I be able to express the concepts I need to express in each language? Since I only speak English (and some French, and very little Spanish), it would be bordering on professional suicide for me to write everything in several languages and hope that I don't insult anybody in the process.
Over the years, I've run into the language issue in science education, particularly in informal outreach programs, such as the planetarium shows I do. There's no one solution that fits all -- if I translate into Spanish, for example, I have to use a broadcast Spanish (and I don't catch all the nuances of why it's different from say, regular Spanish as it is spoken in Mexico City, for example).
Yet, supposedly, broadcast Spanish is acceptable to most (if not all) of the Spanish speakers in the world. However, in practice, there are some who complain that it's too elitist sounding, and others who say it's a turnoff for them. We've been flat out told that unless we're native speakers of some language, we shouldn't bother to translate our materials -- we should let locals do it. All well and good, but Spanish, for example, has dozens of local dialects. Same with Arabic. The problem could get very complex very fast.
In my dealings with the Native community in New Mexico (which have been ongoing for a few years now), the issues go beyond language differences. Cultural differences are profound, with each side having misconceptions about the others in the process. For example, even though one of the people involved in the process is a native American student, he was also raised in the Anglo world. When I suggested that we translate some of the work we were doing into
Dine, he held up a hand and said that it wouldn't work because the language didn't include concepts we were trying to express. It would be an insult to try and make the language wrap around something that was already complex enough in English, and that indeed, may have been contrary to the Dine language.
As another example, some years ago we had a project at the university that came in for a lot of feedback from different language departments. The idea was to have a forum discussion (taped) between different speakers (who would be portrayed by actors) as if we were doing a radio show. One of the advisors suggested that we have different cultures represented by narrators with different accents -- so, a Spanish accent for the Latino crowd, a French accent, an Irishman, a German, etc. Then the Black Studies department chair asked the advisor, "Well, how would you suggest we portray a black student in a voiceover?"
If you think about it for even a little bit, you can imagine the kinds of negative fallout that would flow from trying to portray a black student on tape -- we'd have been accused of being racist, stereotyping, etc. Yet, it would have stemmed from an honest attempt to be inclusive. All it would have turned out to be was insulting.
We've faced this issue in the past with the materials I create, and each project has to seek its own solution. If you try to accommodate language needs you walk a very, very, very fine line, and it is entirely possible to go into something with all good will and still end up insulting somebody.
In the end, we do the best we can, trying to be sensitive to people's needs. You have to start somewhere. In science education, we'd like to think that the basic concepts of science and inquiry cross all languages and cultures. In practice, it's not so simple, but the National Ed. standards we were discussing in the other thread were a start at trying to make some basic proficiency standards that could be made to work by good teachers in a variety of situations. It was only possible to even come up with those standards through the efforts of a LOT of educators in every state, working together for the students. I have no doubt that a lesson on gravity will be taught by the science teachers -- but when and how they do it is left up to them. The standards are flexible enough to allow for differences in states and students, languages and cultures. But, the bottom line is still that there are certain levels of proficiency required -- how they're achieved is best left to the teachers who know and work with the students.
Cultural issues are important to understand -- there's no question about it.