Our guest blogger this week is Ailsa Naismith, a third-year PhD student at the University of Bristol, England. Ailsa is researching the active Fuego volcano in Guatemala through satellite imagery and interviews, looking to discover why the volcano erupts and how previous eruptions have been experienced by local people. We have thoroughly enjoyed her thought-provoking reflections on “research languages”—and we’re sure you will too. 

Ailsa can be found on Twitter (@AilsaNaismith) and through the occasional blog post (www.reasoningwithvolcanoes.com).

What language do you do research in? If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that it’s English, this being the “lingua franca” of much of the academic world. So far, so conventional. But – wait! Could it be that you are secretly more talented than you think? (Based on the overwhelming proportion of doctoral students that reportedly experience Imposter Syndrome, versus what it actually takes to achieve a PhD, the answer is probably “Yes”.)

Despite our fears and reservations, throughout the years we spend studying we learn a wide range of research skills, from communicating our ideas with confidence, through networking, to presenting our arguments clearly in written form. I think these skills can be viewed as a group of “languages” in which we become fluent during our training.

Let’s consider a week in the life of a typical PhD student. (I’ll admit this is from the perspective of a science student.) Perhaps you attend a reading group on Monday, where you discuss a recently published paper with other students. On Wednesday you are involved in an outreach event with the general public, and on Friday you attend a departmental seminar, where you present work you did last month. You fill the hours between with writing and multiple email dialogues. This week contains five different research “languages” – at least! There’s the semi-formal peer discussion at the reading group; colloquial pop chat at the outreach event; “jargonese” at the seminar; your writing language [1] and your email language, which may range from terse missive to expansive flourishes, depending on whom you’re addressing. Suddenly your Friday-afternoon fatigue makes sense: you’ve unwittingly spent the week functioning as a polyglot!

Perhaps my perspective seems uncontroversial to you. It is a well-understood aspect of the PhD that we work in many different environments in which we communicate various purposes and goals. Consider, however, how much more complex these “research dialects” would be to someone who is relatively new to speaking English. This brings me to my second point: the challenge, and extraordinary achievement, of completing a PhD in a language other than your first.

I first became aware of “research dialects” through a recent experience where, for two months, I became a researcher in another language. In spring 2019, I spent two months in Latin America conducting ethnographic research with communities close to an active volcano. My stay included the same activities as my previous life: I presented at a conference, I discussed science with colleagues at lunch, I participated in outreach events. However – what a difference! I no longer had any previous experience of using language tailored to each environment, and I realized how much I had taken for granted in speaking English. In operating in a different language (Latin American Spanish) I was newly challenged in the expressions I could use; in the level of formality I should attempt (called register or appropriacy [2]); in how much I should say. In addition to language, I was also immersed in a different culture (that’s a topic for another post, but how language and culture interact is not to be underestimated).

This experience was very difficult and hugely enriching. In my dialect-blindness, I found new challenges in the way I expressed myself to research participants, to peers, or to collaborators. Changing from a well-established palette of tones to experimenting with new phrases and expressions was eye-opening for me – and not necessarily bad! Of course, there were many stumbling blocks (a memorable moment was when I found out that I had been referring to the volcano as “naughty” throughout a formal interview). I was nevertheless able to approach the way I talked about my research in a fresh way.

An interesting outcome of this experience was discovering my personality changed when speaking a language other than English, as I’ve described above. (By “personality” I mean the way I presented myself to those I interacted with.) In the early days of my research, I “mapped across” thoughts from English into Spanish. I was endlessly misunderstood!

My explanation is that English is a relatively subtle language which often includes ambiguities that are resolved by context, tone, and body language. These ambiguities weren’t available to me in Spanish; and even if I tried to approximate them, they were not familiar to the people I worked with, hence the confusion. I eventually found that in Spanish I used more direct speech and effusive body language to express myself clearly. There is some evidence that language does shape the way that you think – this TED talk comes to mind [3] – but it was fascinating to see from personal experience how the way you think changes the language you use.

I returned from abroad with a new appreciation for the effort required to operate successfully in a foreign language and encourage us all to consider our colleagues who have adopted, mastered, or recently learned English. Perhaps you’ve noticed they use different registers or tones. I invite you to consider where they’re coming from, what their words say about the language they grew up with. Sometimes if you notice a consistent error you could mention it, although be careful – I was always grateful to have my errors in Spanish politely corrected, but others’ mileage may vary! Further, I’d suggest occasionally complimenting these colleagues for the daily effort they make. We all know that doing a PhD is no mean feat – even less so when the doors of language are only held ajar, rather than wide open.

And for the people who grew up with different languages, who are doing a PhD in English: let’s start a discussion. My experience in Latin America is probably familiar to many of you. However, I wonder how often there is the opportunity to share these experiences with domestic English speakers! It would be fascinating to hear different experiences of “research dialects” for those who have had to master English.  What is your first language, and what is your research language? What “research dialects” do you use during your work week? How do you differ in the way you express yourself in your first language versus your research language?

Hope to hear from you in the comments section!

[1] https://thesiswhisperer.com/2017/09/27/academic-writing-is-a-painful-upper-middle-class-dinner-party/

[2] https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/register-degrees-formality