The role of language in engineering competence

Monk, John (2005). The role of language in engineering competence. In: International Conference on Engineering Education and Research, 1-5 Mar 2005, Tainan, Taiwan.


The behaviour of engineered products is becoming less evident from their outward appearance. Thus many current engineered products have unseen properties that become evident only after protracted investigation, analysis or use. Nevertheless marketing staff, potential users, disposal experts, financiers and so on will wish to make informed decisions about products and commonly their choices will be based on more accessible descriptions, explanations, scenarios and accounts of a products use rather than their direct experience. Engineers usually work with others in enterprises that produce things or provide services. The engineer rarely provides the service or makes the goods but, as a professional, the engineer guides the rest of the enterprise and persuades others to take particular courses of action. It is clear that an engineer's central interest is the artefact. Interestingly the artefact may be in the process of design or the subject of a feasibility study and hence will have no material existence, but it will be circumscribed by a wide variety of texts including specifications, technical reports and standards. Using their specialist language and analytical techniques, the individual engineer will gain assurance about his or her view of the artefact through discussions with fellow engineers, but at some point they will have to convey that view to non-technical specialists. Within the enterprise the engineer will become either an advocate or an adversary of the artefact faced by other individuals or groups who because of their professional or cultural background will value things in different way. The role of the engineer is then as a protagonist or opponent of the artefact within, using Bruno Latour’s evocative phrase, a “Parliament of Things”. And competent engineers, as competent advocates of artifacts, need fluent linguistic and rhetorical skills as well as analytical proficiency and the knowledge that will give them the confidence to project their views. The paper examines the implications for engineering education.

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