A major achievement in the sociology and philosophy of science over the past two decades has been the recognition that science is a form of culture with its own creeds, language, material practices, perceptions, theories, and beliefs. Learning science then amounts to participation (from more peripheral to central ways) in the particular practices of this culture. We argue here that there are some fundamental, heretofore neglected, ways in which newcomers come to perceive and talk about natural phenomena. Beginning with “muddled” talk and supported by deictic and iconic gestures, learners isolate salient objects and events which are, in increasing ways, represented in linguistic forms. More abstract forms of communication (writing, abstract symbols) are competently used only later in the emerging communicative patterns. As such, there lies tremendous potential in science activities that focus on observational and theoretical language in the presence of the relevant phenomena. © 2002 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed86:368–385, 2002; Published online in Wiley Interscience ( DOI 10.1002/sce.10008