I believe that everyone in academia, especially those who are not English native speakers, has to, once in a while, write in a language that is not their mother tongue – be it simply an email, a job application or a paper submission to a journal. In Brazil, most universities offer translation services when an academic wants to submit a paper to important scientific journals, as most journals don’t accept any paper that isn’t revised by a certified translator.
As a Brazilian, my mother tongue is Portuguese. While I studied Spanish as a teenager in school, I only decided to really learn English in 2007, when I started to have private classes with an English teacher. These classes lasted one year, and then I decided to just teach myself. Almost 10 years later – even after living in USA for one year, I am far from being fluent, especially when it comes to writing.
What are the major challenges?
There are two major challenges to writing when it’s not your mother tongue. The first is grammar. Grammar tends to be my biggest nightmare. Different languages have different grammar rules and, when you are writing or speaking in a second language, your brain tries to find similar rules to what it already knows, trying to make more sense of something, or make a literal translation of the sentence. More often than not, it doesn’t fit.
The second major challenge is vocabulary. We tend to use the words we feel comfortable with – safe words that we know how to use. But in order to write more creatively, we need learn new words, better words.
Suggestions for successful writing
I am, by no means, expert in writing. I am just an academic who had no other option but to learn a second language and improve it in order to succeed in my career (Ok, I really love learning new languages!). Last year I studied and finished my PhD in an American university and now my job at piirus.ac.uk requires writing in my second language .
My 5 tips on starting to write in a language that is not your own
Start corresponding with a friend who speaks the language you’re trying to learn. With practice, comes confidence and, sometimes, writing with a colleague in easy day-by-day conversations is a good start. It also helps with grammar. The trick for me here was practicing helped me to start thinking in the new language. Hard work, I know! But when you start thinking in the language you are learning, you’re automatically doing more than just directly translating inside your head, and things improve quickly.
Read scientific articles, blog posts, books and more in the language you are trying to improve in writing. The more we read in any language, the more we know. And the more we read in another language, we learn new words and phrases and this helps build our vocabulary and improve grammar. This is especially the case in scientific writing – jargon is widely used and the more you read, the more you get familiar with all the different terms.
3. Use a dictionary
There are plenty of online dictionaries, as well as plenty of online translators. They are good for easy, quick translations (like a word or two), but they can’t be trusted 100%. Use carefully when you are translating an entire sentence. Online translators can’t, sometimes, translate specific jargon.
4. Proof reading
Before sending your email or your application or your blog post, ask to a friend who is a native speaker of that language, or a professor who you know that speaks that idiom very well, if they could kindly proof read for you. They can correct grammar mistakes, improve a confusing sentence. I always ask for help and it never fails. I also learn a lot from their corrections.
5. Keep writing!
Don’t give up just because your first manuscript is not good enough. Writing requires practice, as once you needed with reading – or eating with a spoon!
What are your tips for successfully writing in a language that is not your mother tongue? Do you have any different suggestions that you care to share with us? You can leave a comment, below.