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  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 ); 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  – 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!
To acquire a new language skill up to high school level takes about 90 days on a 3 hours/day regime. This requires you to study every day approximately 15 new words and their accompanying grammar. It’s of no use to want to do it in an intensive course that takes 30 days on 8 hours/day rhythm, because there is only that much information a human brain can process at once. Antigua Guatemala has some great schools for those who want to learn Spanish, but also its fair share of amateurish money grabbers. After this, you should be able to read an academical paper when you have a good thesaurus at your disposal. You’ll not be able to write a paper or conduct a conversation in that language on an academical level. This will require years of practice.
Thanks for this interesting perspective.
Do you have experience in speaking different languages in an academic context? I would like to hear your story. I respectfully disagree with the last point – at least in my discipline, writing a paper or conducting a conversation is most successful with contributions from diverse backgrounds!
Have you ever attended a class were they were teaching Latin American or Asian academicians English? It’s just a part of the curriculum and teachers are just paid to administer grades. And then you have the so called “fortress mentality” where they speak and write a version of their language that is aimed at excluding “intruders”. The most common example that comes to my mind is the legalese that’s used in notarized documents. Even educated native speakers have difficulties to decipher it when they didn’t get a law degree. And so it is in most fields. Medical doctors would ask you if you’re suffering of flatulence, while not realizing they’re also using some professional lingo. So far for the multi-cultural approach. If you write a piece that’s sounds like written by a high school student, that’s how it will be treated like.
Unfortunately I have not attended such a class, nor do I have great experience in reading legal documents – so I cannot share my experience dealing with those! However, I do share your frustration with the over-use of jargon and/or technical language in many cases where it isn’t needed. So often we underestimate how plainly we should speak to be understood.
Averil Martin said:
Hi Alisa, I was raised bi-lingual in New Zealand but the dominant language was English. I found the construction of the spoken and written languages to be different and challenging as explaining Maori concepts, contained in a single word, took longer in writing and a glossary just didn’t do it justice. I also found that Maori language is more direct and required quite a depth of understanding of the worldview to detect the nuances, whereas English has more nuance in the written language so there is less reliance on a worldview to interpret it. Thinking in two languages, blending academic dialects and complying with writing conventions was sometimes difficult, worth it for ensuring representation of both languages and cultural perspectives though. What I found useful was employing the ‘plain English’ principles as it required directness and the least amount of jargonese to be applied to writing.
kia pai to ra (have a great day)
Hello. Thank you very much for your comment – it is fascinating to read! Your point on ‘worldview’ is another facet of different languages that I hadn’t explored, but will newly think about. Does your research involve communicating in Maori, or interpreting Maori language? I admire your dedication to preserving both cultural perspectives, as I think this is a very difficult challenge to master.
This very interesting. I learned research in my native tongue (Afrikaans). It uses many composite words, fairly long sentences, and is more formal and less direct than English. When I started writing research papers in English, I had to learn how to express myself more directly and concisely. And then I moved to South America, where academic writing is much more indirect and wordy, using extremely long sentences and paragraphs that I find very difficult to follow. When I supervise the students here there is always a bit of conflict as we try to find a middle ground between concise-wordy and long-short sentences/paragraphs. My lack of fluency in the research language has been both good and bad. Good because I focus more on the ideas and the logic; bad because I miss subtleties so that some professors criticise my students’ writing as difficult to understand. Then, even within English, there are different research languages as you mentioned. A student may be fluent in expressing ideas in the language of a research blog for example, but less fluent in the language of a thesis. And when they try to write directly in the language of a thesis, their writing ends up being confusing and incoherent (even if it is coherent when they write as if they were writing for a research blog). Part of the reason may be that they try to translate directly from one into the other, which often presents difficulties (as happens when one tries to speak Spanish while mentally translating from English).
Thank you for taking the time to write such a considered response! You’ve expressed the complexity of these issues very well. I have no experience in Afrikaans, so it’s interesting to learn that English is ‘intermediate’ in formality, rather than (as I perceive it) the most formal. Your perspective from South America is also intriguing; I have a family member in a similar situation and it would be interesting to compare your experience with theirs.