Why you have to dive head-first into English to master it

Scientists whose first language is not English need to speak and write it constantly to gain fluency and become comfortable, says Lia Paola Zambetti.

I had made it — or so I thought. After fulfilling all the requirements, including passing the English test, I moved to London to start my master’s degree. Sure, I had never lived in a predominantly English-speaking country before, but if I had passed the test, I clearly had enough English to live and to thrive on my course, right? Wrong.

A couple of days were enough to disabuse me of the notion that passing an English test equated to being able to survive in an English-speaking country. I struggled everywhere — on the Tube, in class, in my student hall, at the supermarket. And that didn’t even cover the slightly more advanced tasks such as visiting a doctor, passing an exam or — gasp! — writing a thesis. I still remember a transport worker calling me ‘stupid’, quite loudly, because I wasn’t able to understand his directions at the first go, and the trepidation I felt having to explain to a pharmacist, for whom English was also a second language, what I needed — I remember wondering whether I would have been better off looking online for the exact chemical formula and asking for that. There were times when I thought only a periodic table would have been of use.

On the positive side, I’ll remember forever the saint-like patience of one of my course mates, a native English speaker, who carefully translated and explained English words and phrases (including his father’s job; he was the son of a pastor, which shocked me, coming from a deeply Catholic country, where priests do not marry). He translated and explained for weeks without ever losing his calm. I still treasure the memory of how he never made me feel ‘stupid’.

After this, I realized quickly that I had to put much more effort into improving my English if I wanted to (a) survive and (b) graduate. I was very lucky, because I was not alone: first languages in my class of 20 or so included Greek, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic. And, even more luckily for me, I was not the only recent arrival in the United Kingdom: I wasn’t the only non-native speaker struggling, and that made a huge difference. One of my classmates, a fully qualified physician in her home country, was struggling, too — her portable translator kept giving her the wrong words and, while looking for the correct translation of ‘tone’ (as in ‘muscle tone’), she kept getting prompts for music-related words instead. Her frustration was palpable. I was able to spot the issue, but didn’t have enough vocabulary to explain it myself. We bonded over our frustration and we both realized we had to do something to overcome the English barrier — quickly.

Here are some tips based on what helped me in that first, hard year.

Read and listen

I re-read books and novels I knew well and had loved in Italian, my native language — in English. Jane Austen and Harry Potter, cheesy as it sounds, were pivotal in building my vocabulary.

I tried to listen to the BBC news (and other mainstream media) whenever possible. Clear, slow elocution and a mix of accents were very useful in getting ‘an ear’ for the language.

The first time I went to see a play at the theatre, I understood perhaps 10% of what was said on stage. Frustrating as that was, it only encouraged me to go to as many plays as I could — and, sure enough, I began understanding more and more. Same for films. Or poetry slams. Find anything word-related that you like, and do as much of it as you can.

You are not alone

I tried to keep this perpetually in mind: always remember, you are not alone. Even if you are the only non-English-speaking PhD student in your group, you’ll belong to an institution or graduate school where you won’t be the first to face an English-language barrier. Seek out your fellow non-English speakers, and band together — in a peer group, you’ll feel a lot less isolated and your struggles will look easier. But try not to end up only with people speaking your native language, or this initiative will backfire.

It’s hard, tiring and frustrating ‘living in English’ when your brain is still geared to another language, but total immersion — although painful — can make the pain shorter-lived, because you’ll become more fluent more quickly. During my first year, I spoke Italian only during Skype calls with my parents — everything else was in English.

Writing the thesis

By the time I got the hang of everyday English, more or less, it was already time to start writing my thesis. A new challenge loomed, rather too close for comfort. I was slightly more confident in my language skills at that point, but seeing the first draft come back covered with corrections still hurt. A few tips immediately stood out.

Any text to edit is better than no text. It doesn’t matter if the first version is terrible — it’s easier to improve on something than on nothing. Try to avoid the blank-page bogeyman and just give it a go.

On the same note, any editing is better than no editing. There is no piece of text that cannot be improved by another pair of eyes, and this applies to students writing their first thesis as well as to professional writers.

As hard as it was at the time, I kept in mind that the editor was on my side and not against me. After all, we both had the common aim of making my piece better!

I always started with the least threatening and easiest part of the task. In my case, this was writing out the experimental protocols, whereas for others it might be analysing the results or writing a paragraph of literature review. Whatever the easiest entry point is for you, find it and start from there. The most difficult sections will come once you feel a bit more confident.

Although they were not available to me at the time, writing groups are now spreading in many graduate schools and institutions. They typically consist of in-person or virtual gatherings of people at a similar career stage, who have blocked out time in their diaries to write without distraction. No such group in your environment? Organize one! The entry barrier, especially if the group is online, is very low. Plus, if enough people are interested, you can use this as leverage and ask your department or institution for more resources (such as dedicated support for non-native English speakers and/or some editing services).

Whenever possible, ask a native English speaker to review your writing. Importantly, think outside the box here: supervisors and peer colleagues are the people everyone will think of first, but departmental and support staff (their exact job titles will depend on where you are) are an often-untapped resource.

The key is to always ask nicely and not to persist if you get a flat refusal. I’ve had pleasant surprises. Also, if you build a wide-enough network of native-English-speaking reviewers, you’ll spread the workload widely.

If your aim is to get a readable document in English, it does not need to be reviewed by a scientist. Keep your boss or supervisor, if you can, for the final revision, and see whether there is someone else in your network who can help.

And when everything seems terrible and you can’t get your message across and frustration mounts like a wave, remember you are not the only one. Generations of students went in with broken English and came out at the other end with a thesis and a degree. It does get better.

If writing is something you liked to do in your native language, hold on to that dream. When I started my master’s, I never thought I’d be able to get published in Nature. Yet that’s what I did, albeit nearly 13 years later. If you love writing, start small and local — your local daily newspaper, if your region has one, or a local interest group’s newsletter, for example. It doesn’t matter that this is not grant or manuscript writing: it will still help with fluency and with all the idiosyncrasies that make a language lively and engaging rather than stilted and clunky. Good writing is good writing everywhere, and all writing practice will make your papers and grants better, and easier to both write and read.

I have now been living ‘in English’ for more than 15 years, and I write and edit in English regularly. I still remember the pain and frustration of that first year in London, but now I am grateful for it. It was the push I needed to improve quickly and get to where I am now.

By Lia Paola Zambetti first published 01 APRIL 2021