Research Advice for Non-Native English Speaking Philosophers

Research Advice for Non-Native English Speaking Philosophers


A graduate student in philosophy asks:

I really enjoyed the daily habits of routine research post. I am wondering if you could open up a new discussion that addresses the related issues with regards to philosophers who use English as their second language. In my own experiences, doing research in a non-native language often comes with unique challenges that call for unique solutions, and we can all learn from each other.

Readers, please share  your advice and experiences with this. Thank you.

UPDATE (3/18/15): Moving up on the page, by request, to solicit further thoughts on this topic.

(image: detail from “Metamorphosis II” by M.C. Escher)

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Tomatis
Tomatis
6 years ago

1.
When ppl say things like “your paper needs to be revised by a native speaker”. Ask them what native speakers are supposed to know about writing philosophy and for specific examples of how your writing is supposed to be defective.

2.
They will probably respond, “it’s not my job to teach you English”. You should respond, “I am just looking for a couple of examples of what is supposed to be wrong with my writing. You are able to do that about my philosophy, why won’t you do the same with my English?”

If they can’t offer a couple of such examples, well you will have to decide what to do for yourself but you can safely conclude that you are being discriminated against because you text shows signs of non-nativeness.

3.
Stand up for English an International Language, not English as being a cultural good uniquely poossessed by ppl lucky enough to have been born in a couple of special regions of two or three special countries.
.
4.
When you eventually become an insider; i.e. you get to write peer reviews, give an opinion on grant applications etc. remember the position you are in now. Don’t be one of those who think “I was tortured for long enough about my English, now it’s my turn to torture others”.

So, down with native English speaker privilege.Report

Sherri Irvin
6 years ago

I offer these suggestions as someone who has helped non-native English-speaking philosophers improve their English, and as someone who has occasionally published in a language of which I am not a native speaker.

If you are a non-native English speaker studying or working in an English-speaking country, check to see if your university has a writing center that can help you. Writing center consultants can work with you one-on-one to identify and fix problems of grammar and style.

When you submit work in English to your professors or request feedback from your colleagues, let them know that you welcome feedback on the English as well as on the content. You could say, in line with some of Tomatis’s comments above, “Even just a few examples of corrections to the English will help me to improve.”

Cultivating relationships with one or more native or near-native English-speaking colleagues who are willing to look your work over specifically for grammar and style, perhaps as part of an ongoing exchange of ideas and feedback, can be valuable.Report

anon grad student
anon grad student
6 years ago

Something I struggle with, as a non-native English speaker, is a constant tendency to second-guess my own phrasing and word choices, which leads me to spend an inordinate amount of time looking up expressions on the internet or tweaking the same sentence over and over again, affecting thus my productivity. Importantly, this is something I don’t do nearly as much when I write in my native language. I imagine many others have this problem. I wish I had a magical solution to this, but I can only come up with some tentative advice: (1) go off the internet whenever you’re writing; (2) if possible, ask someone to check your writing for infelicities/wording/etc. when you’re done with a draft — this should give you more peace of mind when writing; (3) try to remember that your writing skills in English must be pretty good if you were accepted into a grad program in philosophy, and think of all the imperfections you’ve noticed in other people’s drafts, including native speakers.Report

New Asst Prof
New Asst Prof
6 years ago

I know someone who is a non-native English speaker that does research in an area other than philosophy. Her spoken English is excellent, but she often asks me to look over her work (papers, and sometimes important emails) to give her advice about matters of style. There are some aspects of English style (phrasing, expressions, word choice) that are hard to teach and learn, and highly idiosyncratic. But, it does seem to me like excellent academic writing should have correct grammar and style. It does not seem like mere native-speaker bias to insist on this, and to prefer, for example, journal articles that have elegant phrasing and just the right English-language expressions.

So, at the end of the day, I’m not sure what a non-native English speaker is to do. One fruitful possibility is to find a friend who can go through one’s work, giving advice and at times detailed explanations about how to use a certain phrase or idiom. But, not everyone will have a friend like this.

Would it be good for research universities to have academic proofreaders who do something similar for faculty and graduate students? Or, is this too patronizing? I know that undergrad writing centers often like to ask students big-picture questions about their writing and NOT go through papers fixing small grammar and style mistakes. So, it seems like what I have in mind is distinct, and even opposed to, from what these writing centers do. I think undergrad non-native English speakers could also benefit from the kind of close proofreading I have in mind, so maybe writing centers just need to expand their focus to include this kind of help too.Report

New Asst Prof
New Asst Prof
6 years ago

PS – Also, I wonder if there are pay websites that offer the service I have in mind–that would, for a price, spend two hours or so on a paper and give very detailed grammar and style advice (for example, a whole paragraph explaining the fine nuances of why one specific phrase is better than another in a given context).Report

A PhD student
A PhD student
6 years ago

It’s unreasonable to ask non-native speakert to reach the level of native speaker’s fluency. What we need is that the profession becomes aware that analytic philosophy is now internationalized, and it should be more friendly to non-native speakers.
When you give a talk, do use PowerPoint or a handout.
Do not refuse to review or reject an article because it contains mistakes only nonnative speakers would make. Your don’t need to correct their English. But as long as the article is comprehensible, language errors shouldn’t be a reason to rejection.
Be friendly to non-native English speakers, analytic philosophy would be enrichedReport

non-native English speaker
non-native English speaker
6 years ago

Thanks for the useful advice above. I want to add one thing. I totally agree with anon grad student that one’s writing skills should be at least okay if she has been admitted to grad school. So, at least for me and some of my friends, the most difficult thing in writing is the accuracy (of using specific words) and elegance (of composing sentences). But once your writing is understandable, people, both your colleagues and those working as writing tutors, tend to ignore about the accuracy and elegance and focus on the content instead. And finding someone who can and also want to spend time helping you with wording and elegance is not easy. (Of course you may have really good friends.) But all I want to suggest is that, don’t hesitate to pay for a writing tutor. Some writing tutors are well trained in writing and experienced in teaching and tutoring. And you do not have to do it for every paper. Just once or twice would help you a lot. Most of you are smart and may just need one or two this kind of tutorial sessions.Report

tomatis
tomatis
6 years ago

“excellent academic writing should have correct grammar and style. ”
the problem is that there isn’t a simple set of rules (or even a complex set ) to define what the correct grammar of written academic English in philosophy is, still less is there a universally agreed correct style. There isn’t even agreement about what”excellent” is, the most you can say is that texts with the following characteristics xxxxx are published in the following places YYYYY

and yes, I know all about English grammar, prescriptive, descriptive and otherwise, we are talking about C1 and C2 users of English here, not people who can’t write a coherent paragraph.

“the fine nuances of why one specific phrase is better than another in a given context”

since when did all native speakers of a given language agree on fine nuances of meaning of words ? they are often very subjective, even more so given the multi-polar nature of English

“There are some aspects of English style (phrasing, expressions, word choice) that are hard to teach and learn, and highly idiosyncratic. ”

the ability to place surface features in a text the presence of which convinces readers that the text was written by a native speaker of English is what you mean. Is that a merit, philosophically speaking?

My advice to the person asking would be that instead of worrying about unhelpful notions like “correct”, in some abstract, universal sense, they should think more of “appropriate”, given all the relevant contexts and the expectations of readers and their goals for their text.

thus if you were writing something for New Asst. Prof you had better find a colleague who can put a gloss of nativespeakerness on your otherwise correct text as New Asst. Prof seems to find such a gloss philosophically meritorious.Report

New Asst Prof
New Asst Prof
6 years ago

Tomatis: Thanks for the response. I am certainly conflicted about whether excellent style should count toward the merit of academic writing, even though I incline toward the view that it should. I will take your comments to heart. Certainly, once text is comprehensible, style is often irrelevant to a paper’s philosophical content. So, if our only goal is attaining and sharing philosophical truth, refining style beyond a certain point is unnecessary. I guess my intuition that a refined style should still count toward a paper’s merit rests on the idea that truth is not the only value worth realizing in philosophical writing. Not all the great philosophers write with good style, but many do (in many languages), and I think there is something of value in this. Still, this may be a kind of value that the philosophy profession needs to let go of, or consider supererogatory, given the many non-native English speakers who participate in contemporary philosophy.Report

Jozef Muller
Jozef Muller
6 years ago

My own view is different from Tomatis. To my mind, philosopher is, to a large extent, a writer in a certain tradition. Unlike most exact sciences (say, physics or mathematics), philosophy is not a global discipline. We do not communicate and share research projects, methods, or goals with philosophers in China, India, Iran, or Nigeria in the same way in which mathematicians or physicists do. This means, to me, that philosophy is to a large extent tied both to the language in which it is done and to its cultural context (whether or not it strives, in a given context, for universalism or cosmopolitanism). From this point of view, in order to fully participate in a given philosophical discourse – not just to observe it – one needs to be competent in both the language and the culture in which it is done. This is, obviously, difficult if the current language is English and one is not a native speaker of that language. But in philosophy the situation has always been of that sort – people wrote in Greek, Latin, French, or German even if they were not native speakers and they always had to make those special efforts. This seems to me true conversely too – it is difficult to be a contributor to, say, Russian philosophy if one does not know the language and understand the culture. Similarly, in order to contribute to analytic philosophy – in its current form – mastering English is a sine qua non. After all, it’s not just about proofs and bare-bones arguments – it’s also about offering new and interesting perspectives, being persuasive to others, and about being able to think within and in a language. I also tend to think that from a certain perspective non-native speakers of a language who master it can make use of their different, less internal, relationship to the language – it is easier to see if some issue is simply a matter of how particular language works rather than a universal issue, if English is not the only language that one can think in and use. Concerning strategies – read a lot and learn languages on an on-going basis…Report

tomatis
tomatis
6 years ago

“mastering English is a sine qua non. ”
totally agree, as i said, I am talking about C 1 and C2 users. mastering English is not the same as being able to produce texts indistinguishable from those of certain kinds of native speakers.

” it is difficult to be a contributor to, say, Russian philosophy if one does not know the language and understand the culture. ”

there are dozens of cultures that express themselves through English

” I also tend to think that from a certain perspective non-native speakers of a language who master it can make use of their different, less internal, relationship to the language – it is easier to see if some issue is simply a matter of how particular language works rather than a universal issue, if English is not the only language that one can think in and use”

totally agree. another advantage of being a NNS is that you know you have to learn to to write, you are not fooled by the false ease of native speakerness

“read a lot and learn languages on an on-going basis…”
totally agreeReport

tomatis
tomatis
6 years ago

thanks to New Asst Prof for a very decent repsonse.

I am all for English as an International Language, for it being the lingua franca of philosophy and academic life in general . for that to work well NNSs will have to learn to speak and write it as well as possible – a lifelong effort – while NSs will have to let go of any idea that a chance factor like place of birth brings special insights about how to write philosophy well.Report

Julia
Julia
6 years ago

I am not a native speaker of English, and I now write all my philosophical research in English. When I first started writing in English, the following strategies helped a lot:
– I booked one-on-one sessions with a writing tutor to go over the papers I was writing (usually when I felt like I was done figuring out the content and organization of the paper)
– I kept track of mistakes I was making, and proofread my own drafts hunting for those specific mistakes
– I used google a lot in order to figure out if a certain word or turn of phrase worked in the context I was trying to use them in
– I kept track of specific idioms or expressions that I found very elegant in other people’s writing, and tried to use them myself
– I encouraged people to correct my mistakes
It’s been about 8 years or so since I started writing in English, and just having a lot of practice helped a lot. However, I think it’s a lot harder to become good at writing in English if one’s research environment isn’t English-speaking.Report

Graduate Student
Graduate Student
6 years ago

Thanks everyone for the advice so far. I am the graduate student who wrote to seek advice on Daily Nous. Two comments:

First, I want to encourage even more specific advice on the specific sub-routines involved in the research processes. From my own experience, achieving a high-level of proficiency in a complex task, such as philosophical research relies on optimizing many smaller sub-routines of reading, note-taking, outlining, drafting, and revising. The more specific the advice is, the more likely for it to be helpful. (Although idiosyncratic individual differences may need to be taken into account, and being a non-native English speaker is one huge, significant difference). To share some of my own sub-routines developed over the years:

(1) for reading: try to develop the skills for skimming as early as possible. It took me a while to become confident in my own English language skills to start skimming articles, books, etc. But, I was glad that I forced myself to start skimming anyway. (I got better at skimming very soon). We, non-native English speakers, have limited linguistic resources, and as a result, cannot waste any time on irrelevant literature.

(2) for note-taking: I constantly feel that my working memory is strained terribly due to working with a non-native language. When my working memory is strained, I cannot think properly and feel overwhelmed by the amount of information that I need to consciously maintain in my mind (in English). I learn to offload the information onto the notes. I take a large amount of notes, either in my own words or simply copy and paste the relevant passage from the PDF. By organizing my thoughts into properly taken note, it helps me think more clearly (in English).

(3) for writing: before drafting, I start out with extensive outlines. Outlining helps rid myself of worries about grammar, sentence structure, and style and focus solely on the argument structure first. Then, I often start a new outline, with which I plan how to express the arguments into grammatical, stylish, sentences.

Second, although I am sympathetic to Jozef Muller’s comment (#10), I find his response ignores the larger structural problems of the current globalized academia. He said:
“In order to fully participate in a given philosophical discourse – not just to observe it – one needs to be competent in both the language and the culture in which it is done… But in philosophy the situation has always been of that sort – people wrote in Greek, Latin, French, or German even if they were not native speakers and they always had to make those special efforts.”
I will first grant what Josef said about Philosophy is correct. What Jozef still ignored is the fact that increasingly in the globalized academia, Greek, Latin, French, or German philosophies are now done in English because it has become the common language for the academic world. Noting the fact that one still needs to learn the relevant culture and language in order to do, say, German philosophy well, native English speakers have the privilege to read, publish, give talks, and network (in the “international” conference) in their native language. Requiring the non-native speakers to “master” the English language (without sharing the relevant cost) has led to a gross linguistic injustice:
Linguistic Injustice: “[In situations where] the members of one linguistic group learn the language of another without the latter reciprocating…the cost of learning is borne by one group, whereas the benefit is enjoyed by both. …in the absence of any cost-sharing device, such situations are unjust.” (Philippe Van Parijs, 2002)

Moreover, what Jozef said about philosophy is at best partially true. He said:
“Philosophy is to a large extent tied both to the language in which it is done and to its cultural context (whether or not it strives, in a given context, for universalism or cosmopolitanism).”
If we assume what Jozef said is true of Philosophy overall, and also interpreting it as prescriptive, not just descriptive (and I believe it has to be interpreted as prescriptive in order for the rest of what Jozef said in the rest of his response to make sense): We should see philosophy (as a whole, not just German or Greek or American philosophy) as more similar to literature or cultural studies than science or mathematics. We should rename the department of philosophy “the department of Anglophone philosophy), the journal of Ethics “Ethics for Native Speakers of English”, the sub-discipline of philosophy of mind “philosophy of English-speaking mind”.

I hope that pointing out these two disagreements can encourage the readers of this blog to think more about the current linguistic injustice of the philosophical community.Report

Griff
Griff
6 years ago

I am a native English speaker who works in an analytic philosophy department in Germany. I think around 75% of my colleagues publish regularly in English (with varying degrees of linguistic and stylistic success). I also know how difficult it is to write philosophically in a foreign language. Grammar is always an issue, but most of my objections when I proofread/copy-edit colleagues’ work are stylistic. At the same time, it’s often difficult to convey in a second language what one would say in one’s native language *in the way that one would say it*. I’m currently translating a colleague’s paper from German to English. I did a paragraph last night, trying to stay as faithful to the German “Sinn” of the passage without being stylistically infelicitous in the English. When I reread my translation of the passage this morning, I thought, “Well this sounds like a paragraph written by a German in English.” Yet to change it would be to change what the author wants to convey. So it’s tricky.
Further, there are some words/phrases/locutions that just don’t translate well. You can call a case of question-begging a ‘petitio principi’ in German, but there’s no easy way to say something like, “Well, that just begs the question.” The German word ‘Bewusstsein’ can be translated as both ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’, but we often want to make a distinction between these concepts. Likewise, both ‘Erfahrung’ and ‘Erlebnis’ can be translated as ‘experience’, yet there is a big difference between these terms. And how the hell do you translate ‘commitment’ into German? (Seriously: I’m wondering! And please don’t say ‘Selbstverpflichtung’! LOL)

Anyway, my advice to young NNS scholars:

1. As Grad Student says above, learn how to skim English texts. This has been by far one of the most difficult skills for me to learn in German, and I still need a lot longer with German texts than with English ones. But I now know what to look for, and I’m learning to work my way through texts much more quickly.

2. Devise a good note-taking technique. I write a lot of “Denglisch” notes, but I’ve been trying something new lately. When listening to a German lecture, I try to take notes in English and vice versa. This helps me get used to (code-)switching quickly and develops skills for going back and forth between what is said/written in my NN language and my own way of thinking. This allows me to think of philosophical problems in a more fluid fashion and makes writing in my NNL easier.

3. This advice applies especially to Germans, but I think it’s valuable for all NNS (and also to NS): Keep your sentences short, sweet, and to-the-point. Despite the way many native-speaking English-language philosophers *actually* write, concision and brevity *are* virtues. Germans have a tendency to write very long, “verschachtelte” sentences in their native language – but this WORKS in German in a way it doesn’t in English. Break up complex thoughts into more simple ones. Try to use more connecting words (‘thus’, ‘additionally’, ‘moreover’, ‘yet’, ‘still’, ‘of course…’ etc.) and keep sentence length to a minimum. Just because a sentence is long and complicated doesn’t show “mastery” of the language – and it definitely doesn’t show you’re intelligent.

4. When speaking publicly (especially if you have a strong accent), use PowerPoints and/or handouts. Some people don’t feel comfortable speaking freely in their NNL, but even if you’re reading a paper aloud, it’s helpful for your audience to see your main points presented to them. Also, do try to emphasize important phrases/points. This sometimes gets lost when one is concentrating on just getting the words right. Different languages stress different words/phrases, so practicing with a NS might help.

5. DO ASK FOR HELP. It’s unfair that the lingua franca in philosophy is not your native language, but if you’re trying to publish in it, I think it’s worth using all the resources you have at your disposal. Send paragraphs or pages to different people instead of the whole paper. That will keep them focused on style/grammar, not argumentation. Use an online service like proofreadingpal.com. (They send each paper through two proofers, and many of their employees have MAs/PhDs, so they know academic writing.) Apply for funding to get papers translated/proofread. Accept the fact that it may take you more time to write/revise than your colleagues.

To English native-speakers: BE FORGIVING. Yes, we want papers to meet a certain stylistic standard, but our job as reviewers is to look at the argumentation, at the ideas. There is definitely a bias against NNS in the Anglo-American philosophical community. In part, this is because of certain linguistic expectations about “how philosophy is done” and the often implicit assumption that lack of linguistic elegance means lack of philosophical competence. In part, it’s because we have certain cultural biases that are tied up with the linguistic biases. Just try to be aware that you, too, might be biased. And this doesn’t just go for NNS: We should be more concerned about content in philosophy, not style or structure. (For example, there is a tendency to view arguments with autobiographical content as somehow inferior or irrelevant, yet it’s not clear why this should be so.) Now content and style are not always separable, but if a paper is solid philosophically but needs revision linguistically, this should not be a grounds for rejection. The same goes for the way we treat NNS who are colleagues and students. NNS may sometimes experience difficulty expressing complex ideas when that expression requires complex grammar, but that doesn’t mean the person is incompetent.

I, for one, have benefited greatly from working in an environment where we are often speaking languages that are not our own.Report

elisa freschi
6 years ago

Jozef, don’t you think that it is a real pity that “We do not communicate and share research projects, methods, or goals with philosophers in China, India, Iran, or Nigeria…”? This is not only unfortunate, this is a real loss of philosophical breadth. If philosophers are not challenged in their own prejudices*, they will risk to overlook them and in this sense views coming from outside should be more than welcome.** If English in obstacle for that, let us lower a bit our expectations and accept correct papers by non native speakers.

*Gabriele Contessa has a nice example about the semantic of knowing in English and other languages in his posts about the Languaged Conference Campaign.
**I have discussed the topic several times, for instance here: http://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2015/01/why-testing-logic-or-philosophy-in-general-on-non-western-ideas.htmlReport

Stan
Stan
6 years ago

For the past 2 years, I’ve been working in a research institute in Europe with fellows that come from all over the world. English is the language we used, but the non-native speakers always out-numbered the native English speakers (whatever type of English they spoke in). It was a refreshing experience. Once we got used to how the Spanish, French, German and Chinese fellows “mis”pronounce particular technical terms, we learned what to expect given a person’s accent. Sometimes, none of these terms were pronounced “correctly” according to American English (and I wonder if for some words whether there is a common pronunciation across all American accents). Makes me think if *everyone* knew what to expect with various types of non-native speakers they could get over their “earhurt,” conditions by years of being in a homogenous environment, and just listen to the talks. I wonder if the biases attributed to non-native speakers at a talk only exist in such homogenous environments. In continental Europe, where there is a wide variety of languages yet English is the academic tongue, would there be such a judgmental bias against non-native English speakers?Report

Stan
Stan
6 years ago

As for my thoughts on research and writing in a foreign language:

(1) mimic good authors: I’ve received this advice the first year I entered grad school in the US. Mimic paragraph structure and sentence structure. Mimic captivating hooks and conclusions that pack a punch. Mimic the set-up (by a paradox, a dilemma, or an inconsistent triad, or by desiderata that cannot be fulfilled, dividing responses into two or three camps, etc.). I have been told to mimic recent up-and-coming philosophers instead of established old-timers. The latter, due to their reputation, have much more leeway when it comes to style (I recall vaguely some famous philosopher swearing in one of his publications). Mimicking is for practice, of course, not for plagiarism. Many writing books talk about the importance of mimicking role models.

(2) become aware of your own “error patterns” : I ask a trustworthy friend to read a sample of my raw paragraphs and point out repeating mistakes. Conscientious of those mistakes, I write some other paragraphs and have the friend point out new repeating mistakes. This I’ve only done once or twice, but it’s enough to establish a mental guideline when writing.

(3) spend a LOT of time reading: I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. Because reading English takes so much time and I had so many term papers to write, I acquired the bad habit of skipping to the main argument of a book without reading through the whole thing. It worked for term papers, but it was horrible for the dissertation. Reading entire books (and many of them) was necessary for me to get a good grasp on the bigger picture, which was necessary for me to figure out how to situate my arguments. Each person might be different, but it was not enough for me to just read review articles and encyclopedic entries. The books provided better understanding.Report