If you love travel, new cities,different cultures and people, then there are some major perks to working in academia. If a place has a university, it’s a potential workplace and home. In addition to the excitement of travelling the world for work, there are some serious benefits to living and working away from your home country. Research is an international effort – that means we have to be in touch, form collaborations, and ultimately work together. Experiencing first-hand how academic centres function across universities and countries is an important part of developing your skills as a researcher, and it is something that most have done at some point in their career. There are of course challenges – first and foremost, the language barrier. But – with English becoming increasingly dominant in the world of scientific research – overcoming language barriers is more important than ever. And what better way to overcome it than living and working in a foreign country?
Three researchers, who have taken full advantage of the travel opportunities and triumphantly mastered the English language (and a few others) along the way, share their stories here. Between them, they have studied or worked in Sydney, London, Cambridge, Frankfurt, Granada, Madrid, Pavia, Marseille, Berlin, Stuttgart and Thessaloniki and Bangor…. (!!) None are native English speakers, and achieving the fluency and confidence they now have has not been easy. Here’s what they had to say about the highs and lows of getting ahead in the world of English-dominated academia.
Lisi’s story: From home (Germany) to the UK to Australia to France and back to Australia.
Elisabeth Beyersmann is an Associate Investigator at Macquarie University, Sydney. She researches automatic reading mechanisms in adults and how children develop reading skills.
Lisi is from Bremen, Germany. She started learning English in Grade 5 (age 10) and continued until the end of high school. She also learnt French from Grade 7 (age 12) and continued through high school. This is standard in the German schooling system – English is compulsory and learning a second foreign language is also required. She became passionate about learning French because of school organised exchange trips to France, which involved staying in a French family and going to a French school for 2 weeks (“So much fun!”) Lisi says her school also organised exchange trips to the UK, but she never participated in these because she used every opportunity to go to France, and as a result her English was pretty poor by the end of high school. “Class room language exposure is just not enough”. During her bachelor degree in Stuttgart (Germany) she did not study in English at all.
Since undergraduate, where have your studies and work taken you? While doing my Masters (in Stuttgart), I realised that my English was terribly embarrassing. So, I got in touch with a lab in Cambridge, UK, to see if I could do my Master Thesis there, and I got accepted. I ended up spending about a year in Cambridge and finally learned to speak English properly. In Cambridge, I went to a talk by one of Max Coltheart’s collaborators, and decided that Australia was the way to go. I moved to Australia in 2006 to do my PhD. Then in 2015 I won a postdoc grant work at Aix-Marseille Université in France for 2 years. In 2017 I moved back to Sydney to take up the post I hold now.
When living overseas, my first rule was always: never live or socialise with any Germans!!! I’m not here to speak German. I am here to learn the local language! I took this rule pretty seriously actually. Not these days anymore though.
What was most difficult about the first post you held in an English speaking country? My biggest challenge of working in the UK and Australia is the British indirectness and politeness. I find it difficult to read between the lines, for two reasons: 1. I grew up in Germany where people are generally quite upfront, we don’t hold back. 2. Speaking a foreign language is more effort and learning about subtleties and sub-tones, local expressions, etc. is even more effort. I still struggle with this these days.
Do you think you’ve ever missed out on anything because you are not a native English speaker? Nope. It’s native speakers that miss out! Work uses a lot of technical terms, so work vocabulary is more limited and easier to acquire. I don’t feel there’s a huge gap between natives and non-natives.
Do you think there are any advantages to conducting your work in your a second (or third, or fourth!) language? Not huge. The only possible advantage I can think of is that speaking a foreign language introduces a bit of distance between words and emotions. To me, speaking a foreign language is less emotionally loaded, and I don’t judge people as easily as I do in my native language. That can be beneficial in a work environment in which you are trying to treat people equally, with respect and separate between professional and private aspects.
Could you write a paper, or give a talk, in your own language? Very difficult for me actually. I had to give a talk in a German lab 2 years ago and I asked if I could give the talk in English. They were happy for me to do this, fortunately, because I don’t know any of the technical terms in German, and I also don’t know how to ‘talk science’ in German. It’s just like a ‘work slang’ that I have never acquired in my native language.
Advice to early career scientists who are working or studying in English for the first time? Socialise a lot! But don’t socialise with people from your home country. Go out, drink beer and talk lots!
Betty’s story: From home (Greece) to Spain to Australia to Wales, back to Australia, to the UK and then to Germany.
Betty Mousikou is a researcher at the Max Planck ‘Reading Education andDevelopment’ group in Berlin, Germany. She is interested in mechanisms that underpin our ability to process language, and how these mechanisms may fail in speech and language disorders.
Betty is from Thessaloniki, Greece. She started to learn English when she was 7, just some vocabulary and playing games at school. She started studying grammar at age 9, and by age 16 she had obtained an English Proficiency Diploma from Cambridge (this is popular in Greece, and indicates advanced language skills). When studying for her bachelor degree at Aristotle University (Thessaloniki) she was already fluent in English, but all assignments and lectures were in Greek. However, she took the opportunity to study Spanish and spent a semester in Granada as an Erasmus student. After her undergraduate, she spent 4 years in Madrid, then moved to Sydney to take up the PhD scholarship, she then moved to Bangor University in North Wales for 2 years, back to Sydney for 6 months, completed a 3.5 year project in London, and 2.5 years ago she took up her current post in Berlin.
What was most difficult about the first post you held in an English speaking country? After living in Spain for 4 years and speaking Spanish the whole time, I almost forgot my English, so at the beginning I had difficulty expressing myself in English. I often thought of a sentence in Spanish and translated it into English. Expressing myself on paper was particularly difficult.
Do you think you’ve ever missed out on anything because you are not a native English speaker? Perhaps, when I first started writing scientific papers from my PhD work, I felt that I was lacking the right vocabulary to express a concept, because of not being a native English speaker. Of course, after a few years of experience, this was not a problem anymore.
Do you think there are any advantages to conducting your work in your a second (or third, or fourth!) language? I don’t think that there are any advantages to not being a native English speaker as we all know that it is the language that is used in scientific research. So unless you are able to write articles in English, it is very unlikely that your work will be disseminated/read. But… I guess it is an advantage that I’m actually conducting my work in in English, and not in my mother tongue.
Could you write a paper, or give a talk, in your own language? There is no way I could do it in any language but English. However, when I came to Germany I realised that all Germans can do it, even spontaneously. So if they have prepared their slides in English and you tell them that they can give the talk in German, because everyone in the audience understands German, they just do it. I have no idea how they can do it as I’d be unable to do it in either Greek or Spanish. I would lack the vocabulary and the terminology.
What would your advice to early career scientists be who are working or studying in English for the first time? It is important to learn to write in English properly. From my own experience of reading papers and drafts from PhD students who are non-native English speakers, it is more than common to read sentences and whole paragraphs that make no sense, because they are direct translations from one’s own language into English. Getting some help will improve the quality of the paper and its chances of getting published. As a reviewer, clarity and coherence are the things that I value the most in a scientific article.
Davide’s story: From home (Italy) to Australia to Germany to the UK and back home to Italy.
Davide Rivolta is an Associate Professor at the University of Bari, Italy. His research focuses on the cognitive and neural bases of face processing in typical subjects and those with prosopagnosia (a lifelong impairment in face recognition).
He started learning English at school at the age of 11. When studying for his BSc in Psychology at the University of Pavia (Italy) he was required to pass a basic English exam, but all the work was conducted in Italian. He stayed in Italy for his Masters studies, then moved to Macquarie University in Sydney to complete a PhD in Cognitive Science. He then spent 3 years at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt and 4 years at the University of East London, before moving back to Italy in 2017 to take up the academic post he holds now.
What was most difficult about the first post you held in an English speaking country? The language! The English we study at school is very basic, and mostly focuses on grammar and writing. The problem is when you try to speak and when you listen to native speakers speaking so quickly. The first few months were hard.
Do you think you’ve ever missed out on anything because you are not a native English speaker? I do not think so, but maybe few friendships have not bloomed (especially at the beginning) because of my limited language skills.
Do you think there are any advantages to conducting your work in English? Pragmatically speaking, the only advantage is that the English language allows having the “world” as an audience.
Could you write apaper, orgive a talk, in your own language? Yes, I am. However, it took me months to get used to it. The problem is that my work is in English, and the translation back to Italian is hard. Grammar errors, unfortunately, are not so rare and I feel a bit embarrassed; but then people realize that this is because I have not practiced the language for a long time.
What would your advice to early career scientists be who are working or studying in English for the first time? The advice is to force yourself to learn a bit the language before going to the new country. You can watch movies or TV series, but do it in English! This helps you a lot (especially during the first few months).