Writing your thesis in a second language (Part 1)

By James Hayton,
June 20, 2011
I'm James, I'm a former physicist (PhD, Nottingham, 2007) and author of "PhD: An Uncommon Guide to Research, Writing & PhD Life".
Since 2010, I've been helping PhD students all over the world overcome barriers in their research and writing
My strategies have helped thousands of PhD students just like you to build confidence, write better and finish on time

If you have to write your thesis in your second (or third or fourth) language, how can you make it easier for yourself?

Ideally, it should start long before you sit down to write your thesis, so here are some things you can do from day one.

Practice Writing.

If you sign up for a postgraduate degree, you know what language you'll have to write in, so start practicing as soon as possible.

That doesn't mean pulling out all your old grammar textbooks, learning the rules and going through set exercises. It's not only boring, but also a terrible way to learn a language.

Practice by using the language in writing at every opportunity. Need to send an email? Try new sentence constructions and new vocabulary.

Don't over-complicate things, just try to just push your ability a little bit each time.

Why email?

One of the basic principles of learning anything is that it's very, very difficult to learn or improve a skill under stress.

In conversation you have to speak without thinking too much. People understand, but it might not be technically correct or the way a native speaker would say it.

Even when corrected (which might not often happen), you'll soon revert to the way that you're accustomed to speaking.

Zero pressure

Writing email, you can take your time, stop, check and rethink phrases without any pressure. You're also practicing writing the things you naturally want to say, rather than what a textbook author thinks you might need.(If you don't have a native speaker to email, try to find one. Or you can probably email your supervisor in English. There is always a solution.)

Practice Reading.

Pick a research or review paper written by a native speaker, and related to your subject.

But don't read it from start to finish, just read one section or paragraph at a time over several days, and look at the language style.

Is that sentence written the way you would write it? Is there a difference in meaning because of the word order? Or is it different in tone or formality?

I don't understand that... How can I use it?

When you notice something new, or something you don't understand, before moving on with reading you should ask yourself, "how can I use it?"

Keep a notebook, write down no more than 2 or 3 things then try to use them in real-life writing over the next few days.

Language Resources

My favorite is definitely Wordreference.com

It doesn't do translation (online translation is often unreliable anyway), but is an amazing resource. Full dictionary definitions, verb conjugations and so on, and online forums where you can see native speakers' translations of phrases and ask questions.If you have any great language resources you want to share, comment below!

Coming up in Part 2...

Stuff you can do once you start writing the actual thesis...

Free Live Webinar:

How to adapt your PhD during the coronavirus crisis (and beyond)

Sunday 3rd May, 5pm UK time*
(6pm CET, 12 noon EDT, 9am PDT)
register free
*if you can't make the live event, you can still register and watch the recording

Stay up to date...

The PhD Academy:
Online training and support for PhD students

learn more...

For more detailed guidance and support...

The PhD Academy All-Access Pass

Weekly calls with James

You don't have to do it all alone! Get the All Access Pass for weekly group calls and Q&A sessions with James

Every online course

Build your skills and confidence with our detailed video courses. Go at your own pace and get advice and support when you need it

Get the book!
PhD: an uncommon guide to research, writing & PhD life

order now on amazon