In my previous post I wrote about acquiring a language while living among its native speakers. Another opportunity for learning a language is presented by demands of workplace. This is particularly the case with English. You might recall that earlier German was the language of science communication, as also was French. Slowly English took over due to several ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ causes. Perhaps you are involved in scientific research, and your work demands reading, writing, collaborating, exchanging emails, giving seminars and presentations, communicating manuscripts and so on. Consequently, during your PhD you get ample opportunity to practise and hone up your English language skills. However, unlike the previous case, here it is not optional, as your bread and butter, and to a certain extent, your academic survival depends on how comfortable are you with this language. You are not supposed to win a Nobel Prize in literature, nor will you be asked to write a masterpiece like Shakespeare or Milton. Writing a paper or giving a talk which your readers or audience may easily understand and enjoy is all that is expected from you.
I am very disappointed by lack of interest and concern among students towards writing error-free English. Students do not have interest, professors do not have time. They simply assume that by reading research papers and giving talks they would somehow automatically absorb the language. Well, that is true to a certain extent, but there is risk involved. That way you will absorb the language, but in order to learn correct and error-free language, you do need to make some effort. Note that something is clear in your mind does not mean that your reader would also see it equally clearly. Learning and polishing your language takes time and effort, and your PhD years is good time to make that investment. One student remarked, ‘Oh, here nobody gives feedback. If I give my manuscript to someone, all they do is correct the English. Here comments mean corrections!’ I could understand his concern — he was restless and anxious to get feedback and criticism of his work, to which nobody — not even his supervisor — had contributed anything. And he was not getting that. At the same time, I also knew first hand that his English was indeed terribly bad, to the extent that one had to resort to guess work to decipher its intended meaning. I could understand the thoughts and response of people who gave more attention to his grammatical errors than technical content. Before people can remark whether your work is good or not, first they have to understand your manuscript, don’t you think so?
In fact, I have seen young students who used to write terrible English, started writing extremely good paragraphs within 6 months or so. And some of them did not even read any grammar book or attended any courses. All they did was keep their eyes and ears open to what is generally accepted ‘good English’. They had strong desire to improve themselves and were actively pursuing that objective. On the other hand, I have also come across final year PhD students and post docs whose writing even Brihaspati cannot understand. I suppose it is all a question of willingness to improve oneself. I feel very awkward and disappointed, and can’t help wondering that within an year or so these scholars would themselves become teachers and would be supposed to guide young minds. And what would they teach their students, what real life skills, which would create the next generation of scientists, scholars or academics? Passing on technical knowledge is not the only responsibility of the supervisors.
photo credit: shixart1985 Apple and journal on the table near the laptop with glasses on it’s keyboard. via photopin (license)
No one learns a language by learning grammar. One should expose onself to the language, swim in its ocean.
Thanks Amit. Well written on an important issue, it is not only in our place and I was shocked to see such a post in Adelaide University, probably in other English speaking countries as well.
Very well written. Let me add my experience. Whatever communication skills o have today it is due to my subject Physics. I mean if one practices an academic discipline seriously that discipline finds its own way of expression. For example I’ve never participated in any oratory competitions, essay writing in the school I’ve a huge public fear but when it comes to talking/teaching physics I’m absolutely comfortable on the stage.