Working in the Humanities if English isn’t your first language

I’ve spent six years in English-speaking academia now, and in many ways I’m thoroughly assimilated into it, culturally, philosophically, linguistically. As a German, the culture and language barriers are comparatively low, but there still are some. Whenever you write, talk or present yourself in English in the Humanities, there are many implicit assumptions as to how you should express yourself, how you should write, and most importantly, how you should sound. Failing to adhere to these norms is likely to activate various implicit biases: it will make your work appear less sophisticated and precise, more exotic and irrelevant, and so on. This will sometimes put you at a small, but noticeable disadvantage.

This topic is rarely discussed—perhaps because it justifiably pales in comparison to more pressing dividing lines, such as race and gender—but it is real nonetheless. (For some discussion, see an article by Sarah Ayala in the APA Newsletter, this article in Nous, the Blog “what is it like to be a foreigner in academia?”, Gabrielle Contessa’s blog, and discussion at the Philosophers’ Cocoon.) I hasten to add that being German has barely any significant disadvantages, at least none I’ve experienced; Germans are one of the big, accepted non-English groups in philosophy, and German is even associated  with philosophical profundity for historical reasons.

So I’m not interested here in tracing the political and social facets of the issue, though there are a couple of interesting questions to ask (are non-native speakers underrepresented in high-profile journals and jobs? what accommodations should audiences, journals and supervisors make for non-native speakers? what level of English can be demanded of everyone? etc.). Instead, I wish to focus on recounting my personal learning curve of doing philosophy in English, and give some practical advice. I’ve routinely taught German undergraduates at a German university in English, so I have a good feeling for the characteristic errors, especially of German speakers; lastly, I’ve been to various philosophy conferences “on the continent” where I have seen a variety of non-native speakers present. In short, I’ve seen a rich diversity of good and bad.

There is some obvious but unhelpful advice I’ll skip over quickly. Academic English, like standard English, requires practice, practice, and then some more practice. So you should write, read, talk and listen to academic English as much as you can, with a particular emphasis on the active parts. Seek feedback from native speakers, and force them to go into particulars. Where your university offers it, attend writing courses. Make a list of common errors in your writing, and continue to check for them. In short, improve your academic English in all the standard ways that you can improve your language skills. Unfortunately, there are few magic tricks or obvious shortcuts in this respect.

Still, there are some more useful workarounds. The following is advice which I’ve found to help me and/or advice I would give to my students. Take it with a grain of salt—different learners have different needs.

Do Everything in English

One natural impulse when working in English at the start is to conduct a large part of it in one’s native language—you might take notes and write drafts in your own language, and acquire translations of primary texts where possible, and then only switch to English at the last point, when writing the paper itself. The general advice I would give is to do the whole process in English—to even talk about the issue with your friends in English, to think about the issue in English.

There are several reasons to do so. First, it forces you into the language, which will make learning faster. Second, switching back and forth between languages is inefficient, and can also (I suspect) sometimes lead to translation errors. The German term “Recht” and the English term “law”, for example, do not mean the same, and along those lines Rechtspositivismus and legal positivism are not (necessarily) the same!

Most importantly, academic English flows differently from your native language. Many English papers by inexperienced German writers read like a one-to-one translation of German; and that’s simply awful style. As an example, here’s a random sentence of academic German from the early Habermas:

Die angeführten Argumente stützen die Behauptung, daß spätkapitalistische Gesellschaften in Legimitationsnöte geraten; aber reichen sie auch hin, die Unlösbarkeit der Legimitationsprobleme, das heißt: die Voraussage einer Legitimationskrise, zu begründen?

If we translated this sentence directly, we would get something along the following lines:

The expressed arguments support the contention that late-capitalist societies get into legitimation needs; but are they also enough to motivate the unsolvability of the legitimation problems, that means: the prediction of a legitimation crisis?

This is an awful sentence (which, admittedly, I have translated awfully) for several reasons. First, the grammatical structure of the sentence is awkward in English, while comparatively natural in German. Second, academic German favours noun-heavy constructions, while those look cumbersome in English. Third, Habermas’ compound neologisms (“Legitimitationsnöte/-probleme/-krise”) have no easy or natural translations. Fourth, several of the word choices are, if not outright errors, at least unfortunate (“expressed arguments”, “legitimation needs”).

I’ve also made the issue deliberately worse by extensively using a dictionary. Leo is a powerful online dictionary which seems to be almost universally used by my German students. The problem is that Leo makes it too tempting to do a one-on-one transposal of German words into English words. But often, those suggestions are less idiomatic or even wrong. “Expressed”, for example, is Leo’s only half-way usable suggestion for “angeführt”; but “previous” would be the more natural choice. In general, you are often better off by using an English word whose precise usage and meaning you know, rather than grabbing a term from the dictionary you’re unsure about. The latter strategy leads to a “dictionary-ified” English which often reads very awkwardly. (There are equivalents within English.)

A much better and idiomatic translation of Habermas’ passage, for example, might be:

The previous arguments support the claim that societies in late capitalism will experience problems of legitimation. But do those problems suffice to predict that there will be a legitimation crisis, that is, an unsolvable problem?

That’s of course not a literal translation, though it expresses the same thought. But that’s precisely the point: English favours other grammatical structures and word choices. Your aim should be to learn those, rather than unthinkingly transpose German forms into English. And this can best be learned by going through the entire process of doing philosophy in English.

Keep Things Simple

Here’s a dilemma you’re facing as a non-native writer. On the one hand, you want your writing to be enjoyable: you want it to be succinct, complex, interesting and sophisticated—not only in content, but also in grammar and style. But you well know that you’re not as capable to bring those qualities across as you are in your own language, in much the same way as you know that you do not sound as funny, witty or sophisticated in English. (Let’s face it, most of your favourite zingers fall totally flat in English. At least the language barrier is what I am blaming.) The other horn of the dilemma is a fear that one’s writing comes across as too simplistic, as too dumbed down, and will not be taken seriously then.

There’s no general solution to this dilemma—a lot depends on your experience with the language—but by and large, I think that keeping things simple is the better advice to give. So here’s some advice:

  • Write short sentences.
  • Keep grammatical constructions simple—e.g., use few subordinate clauses.
  • Avoid words you had to look up in a dictionary, or where you’re not fully sure how they’re used in context. Use dictionaries very carefully.
  • Stick to vocabulary you’re comfortable with. Avoid fancy vocabulary.
  • Do not try to be funny or witty, and don’t go anywhere near puns.
  • Check carefully whether you’re using idioms correctly (for a long time, I thought it obvious that you could have your cake and eat it too—after all, how could you eat it without having it first?). Perhaps even better, don’t use idioms at all.
  • Use lots of signposts to guide the reader (“First I will argue …, then I will argue …. Now I am considering the argument that …”).
  • If you’re making evaluative statements, be careful with your phrasing.

Yes, your writing will be unexciting, but that’s the price to pay, at least in the beginning, for writing in a foreign language. Especially analytic philosophers like to pretend that it’s all about the arguments, and that style doesn’t matter. I am sceptical whether this is true. I suspect that the rhetorical form of a paper influences the perception of its intellectual content in innumerable, and largely imperceptible ways—e.g., by associating awkwardly expressed writing with muddled thinking. Furthermore, analytic philosophers have an obsession with linguistic clarity which is unfortunately often coupled with an unwillingness to charitably reconstruct slightly imprecise writing.

There are some points more specific to analytic philosophy which concern (i) giving definitions, and (ii) appealing to linguistic intuitions. A common demand in philosophical writing is to make a commonly used term more precise; and another characteristic form of argument is to appeal to linguistic “intuitions” about how certain words or phrases are used. As a non-native speaker, you are inevitably at a disadvantage at playing those kinds of games. Personally, I would recommend that you stay away from these types of arguments—playing the linguistic intuition game isn’t the most enjoyable game in the first place—but where you think you have to use these types of arguments, I would recommend extreme caution. Consult native speakers, or have examples ready where native speakers use a term in the way which supports your argument.

Ze Akzent

You’ll have an accent, perhaps even a strong one. If you don’t believe it, record yourself and listen. Yes, your mental accent is much weaker, and sounds much more than the English you hear in others, than your real accent. (In my mind, I speak British English.) And you won’t be able to get rid of your accent, at least not in the weeks leading up to that presentation you’ll have to give. Trust me, sometimes the accent stays even after years, like an unwanted relative who has overstayed their welcome. So for most people, you’ll need some way to cope with your accent.

The situation is aggravated by an often overlooked dilemma. You might have already presented in English, but to other speakers of your own language—e.g., at a seminar at your home university. Unfortunately, this is an unreliable indicator of how good you are at speaking in English. This is because you share the characteristic accent, errors and idiosyncrasies which come with your country’s version of English. I almost never find it difficult following my German students in their essays or presentations, because even where their English is lacking, I can usually work my way back from what they said to what they meant. Your same-language audience will give you the same benefit, and normally they will not even notice that they do: they might even compliment you on your English. Unfortunately, this advantage disappears once you set a foot outside a community of speakers with whom you share your language.

There’s the obvious recommendation—speak slowly and clearly—but another, I think, is often overlooked, having to with signals and structure. Speaking to another native speaker, you send lots of small rhetorical signals about the logical structure and importance of your talk, which might suggest that this sentence is important, while here we’re entering a digression, while this part of the talk moves on to a second question. What signals these changes is often done by small, somewhat easily overlooked words. German, for example, is full of them, having lots of little but hard-to-translate words like “dennoch”, “ja aber”, “doch” etc., which provide crucial guidance to the emotional tone of a sentence. (The German of non-German speakers often sounds blunt because it lacks those subtle markers.)

Cadence, tone and rhythm in speaking also work as signals in this respect. Imagine your professor saying that your essay was “interesting” in different tones of voice. You will be much better at discerning whether this was praise or criticism if it was said by another native speaker.

The point is that you’re much worse in sending these signals in English than you are in your native language. So as a solution in the medium run, you should force yourself to do think more explicitly about which signals you wish to send, and then highlight them much more explicitly in speaking as well as writing. Thus:

  • Make sure you know how to pronounce key terms and names. (This applies to English speakers as well. As an exchange student in America, it took me half an hour to realise that the “Nai-chi” my professor talked about was in fact Nietzsche.)
  • Leave deliberate gaps in speaking between important sections, paragraphs, even sentences: some of the worst presentations by non-native speakers I’ve experienced have been those where someone “drones on” monotonously, without clearly marking where different individual thoughts begin or end.
  • Use lots of explicit signal words (“I now turn to my third point … This concludes my third point …”).
  • Emphasise the importance of the points you’re making in no uncertain terms (“Here’s the important point … while now I turn to some side remarks …”).

Not much is lost by following this advice, and many native speaker would be well-served by following some of this advice as well.

Don’t Normally Read Out Your Papers

If you’re not too confident in your English and you’re asked to present at a conference or seminar, the immediate instinct is to read out your paper, as you have more time to prepare something which is written nicely. This can sometimes be a good choice. But there are also several reasons which speak against it. First, and this is just my personal preference, reading out papers is generally bad style, and leads to boring and unengaging talks. Second, I have found that reading out a paper invites you to speak too quickly and too monotonously. (If non-native speakers talk more quickly, that also makes them harder to understand.)

Importantly, your written English is likely to be better than your spoken English, which leads to important mismatches. There are many things you can write, and which read well in writing; but they are often not things you can say, or which will sound awful in a talk. In a lecture I gave, for example, I found out that for the life of it I couldn’t pronounce “neglibility” or “negligible”. This became a problem when I had to talk about neglibility assumptions in economics—I had to switch to calling them “marginality assumptions” instead.

Generally speaking, in your writing you can achieve a much greater density of thought: you can formulate things succinctly and nicely. But however nice your writing might be, there’s a good chance that you won’t be able to bring across the same points in speaking, at least not to the same degree of precision and clarity. This is why you ought to cultivate, from early on, a written English style and a spoken English style, and you should accept that they’re different.

My personal strategy has always been to prepare a talk on the basis of slides or a handout. Prepare here really means prepare: I would give the talk in my room several times, till I felt confident that I could give it fluently. (Feedback from friends can also help.) Difficult passages, or parts where you want to precise, can then still be read out, though I have generally moved to avoid reading out altogether. This strategy certainly requires much more time, but I think it’s for the better in the long run.

If you constantly read out, your spoken English will stagnate. More importantly, you will bore you audiences to death.

Have Handouts (or Slides)

The crucial complement to my last advice is that you should always try to have slides, or preferably, a handout. Doing so has several advantages. First, if you panic, you have something to fall back on. Second, however badly you mispronounce key terms, you’re unlikely to spell them wrong. (Saying “Nai-chi” is one thing, writing it another.) Third, wherever you might lose your audience, or make yourself not perfectly clear, you get a second chance by making your point on your handout.

I’ve had to listen to some presentations by non-native speakers which I found difficult to follow, but where speakers remedied the problem through comprehensive and informative handouts. With this being said, you need to ensure that your handout tracks what you’re saying. At least in its major outlines, what you say must be on the handout, and vice versa.

Again: Practice, Practice, Practice

With this being said, most of the advice I’ve given are workarounds to lessen the impact of less-than-perfect competence in academic English. But to repeat, nothing in the end can substitute for practice. Present at English-speaking seminars and conferences, search out social contexts in which you have to speak (academic) English, take your notes in English, and so on.

If you’re a non-native speaker too, feel free to contact me with your experiences, or additional recommendations you might have.


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