Writing your thesis in a second language (Part 1)

OK, this one’s tough…

… But I’m not interested in why it’s difficult. 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 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…

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3 thoughts on “Writing your thesis in a second language (Part 1)

  1. I agree with both Ada and Lara: man-made and culture-made materials are really handy!

    A Thesaurus has that great advantage of teaching with an example. it’s not just about knowing the meaning of a word but about knowing how and when to use it. In this respect, my favourite thesaurus is: http://thesaurus.com/ I also use http://oxforddictionaries.com/?view=uk for specific words, but usually Wordreference would do for that matter.

    Somebody who knows the language from the cradle comes handy, and you get to learn the ropes… but careful, there might be millions speaking the language… but do they do it in an academic way? You have to learn to make that difference. I find in native speakers a good tool for practicing and gaining more confidence.

    Finally, I’d like to add a tip. I keep a tiny notebook next to my computer. I called it my “good words for great academic writing” friend. Whenever I’m reading a paper/thesis/journal and I see expressions/words that explain something beautifully (in an academic sense, that is) I write them down. Every once in a while I flip through it and enrich my writing. Nothing pompous, but in the line of ‘research unearthing, rather than just showing’, ‘the first and the latter’ rather than repeating the nouns’ and so on…

    Hope that helps you as well!

  2. Having an english mothertongue friend is a great help. We trade proof-readings for lunches. Because there are always some expressions that I would use wrong…

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