English is the language of science and you need to master it to progress in your scientific career. Scientific writing for non-native English speakers is one of the biggest struggles when writing a scientific paper. Non-native speakers tend to have spelling mistakes and their sentences don’t read well.
English can be a tricky language to learn, but your ability to communicate in the language of Shakespeare can help boost credibility in your academic papers. Your experiments or hypotheses may be spot on, but improving your written English can result in a better impression by your peers and other colleagues.
When I taught English in Chile last year, my key phrase was this: sin errores, no hay progreso – without mistakes, there’s no progress. It means that you need to test your capabilities, even if you make mistakes along the way. In this way you will learn a lot more from those particular errors instead of “playing it safe” by repeating the same phrases over and over again.
I’m sure you know many non-native English speakers who write impeccable scientific English or make very few mistakes. Even those mistakes are quite natural for native English speakers. There are others (like students) who may feel uneasy or lack the confidence in their spoken English, but their written English is much more refined.
But look.. from someone who’s taught English on a different continent, I can assure you that many native English speakers will be pleased to help you improve your English-speaking abilities. Think of how a non-native Spanish or French speaker might feel while attending a scientific conference in certain parts of South America or Africa.
However, improving your written English can really impact your connections with colleagues around the world. It can also grow your reputation among other experts in your field.
Next Scientist already touched on several points in his post on 5 tips to improve your academic writing. Here you have five more tips to improve scientific writing for non-native English speakers.
1. Cut Down On The Apostrophes
I’ve seen it done in Chile, in the Netherland’s, in part’s of other countrie’s. Too many apostrophe’s make sentence’s appear ugly – plu’s they dont make sense for many word’s in the wrong place.
See what I mean?
There’s been a huge over-emphasis on apostrophes in written English lately. It affects those people who are trying to learn English. Remember that an apostrophe symbolizes possession in many cases, like “Ahmed‘s experiment”, “la bolsa de Javier” or “Place d’armes”.
If you’re working on improving your scientific writing in English, then minimize your use of apostrophes if you are unsure, especially with plural items. In my opinion, it’s easier to read a sentence without the right apostrophe instead of a sentence that used it in the incorrect place. “Footballs”, “soft drinks” and “beakers” do not need apostrophes because an apostrophe could be describing the item itself.
Example: “the footballs are muddy” describe the dirt all over the football, but if you said “the football’s slippery”, then you would be describing the football that is currently on the pitch.
2. Sometimes You Use “the”.. Sometimes You Don’t
It’s a common word, but the word “the” translates strangely into English – or not at all, depending on the language.
When you wake up in the morning, what activity do you do with a toothbrush? For native English speakers, they would say “brush my teeth”, but native Spanish speakers might answer with “brush the teeth” instead.
Nothing’s really wrong with this, but sometimes that darn word just hits the ear wrong – think of a phrase in your language that makes you cringe when it’s said incorrectly. That’s what happens if a spoken phrase or sentence “hits the ear wrong”.
Anyway, the point is this.. “brush the teeth” or “comb the hair” doesn’t sound terrible, but improving your written English with the right words can help improve your ability to communicate without awkward interruptions.However, don’t be too concerned with this minor rule because English speakers may disagree on certain ways to use “the” in a conversation.
Example: “in the biology” should just say “in biology” when you are talking about the science of biology. And an example of “the” in conversations is how the British use “attending university” versus the Americans who use “attending the university” – it’s basically the same, even though more Americans are starting to drop “the” for some phrases as well.
3. When To Round Numbers
Remember: if you are talking about measurements or mathematical equations, then please, please make sure your numbers are exact. I don’t want to hear that someone melted down the laboratory because they used this tip incorrectly!
In casual conversations or emails, you can explain certain things without being too specific. It seems that a lot of people are getting too picky on specific things nowadays.. especially if it’s not that important.
Example: “0.453 liters” or “24.67 seconds” is absolutely essential in your documentation, but there’s no need to tell someone to call you in 8.34 minutes or 0.9 hours. Just tell them to call you back in 10 minutes or about an hour.
4. Improving Your Written English Means You Understand Particular –isms
In the previous point, I used the word “call” to describe an action. However, from my experience, even one simple word can be confusing to native speakers, too.
On my first day at a job in Ireland, my boss sent me an email to “call down” to her in 10 minutes. OK.. so I waited 10 minutes, picked up the phone and dialed her office extension. However, most Americans understand “call” to mean that you use the telephone, but in Ireland.. yes, it meant to go to her office. If she wanted me to “call her” (using my Americanism terminology), then she would have asked me to “phone her” in 10 minutes.
I know.. it’s confusing, but every language has its own fun, little quirks. This can become a great learning experience, even a funny one. Don’t let these moments of miscommunication prevent you from improving your written English. Just make you learn from your mistakes, especially if a certain word or phrase could mean something else.
Example: “taking the piss” is a phrase used in English-speaking parts of Europe, but don’t get it confused with the point above! “Taking the piss” is NOT the same as “taking a piss”. One is a phrase that means you’re fooling or joking with someone, while the other means that you’re urinating. You may quickly find out if you said the wrong one!
5. British Or American English?
As you may have noticed, I have been using British forms of words, like “apologise” not “apologize”. I’m doing this because I know readers of Next Scientist come from all over the world, even though this blog is written by a European who likely uses British English.
The point is that many of us have seen or know the differences between British and American styles, such as “color” versus “colour” or “honor” versus “honour”. Improving your written English can also include practicing the different ways to write a particular word in both styles. One is not better than the other, just different. Similar to certain words in Spanish, they may seem more formal or more casual, depending on the country or continent.
Extra Tip: people have access to calculators or computers, but make it easy for your peers and write measurements in universal terms for American, British, Australian or other native English speakers. I can calculate Celsius or kilograms in my head, but I need a computer if you merely talk about Kelvin or millilitres.
Whether you’re a native Spanish speaker who is learning English or you’re a native English speaker who is trying to learn Russian or Swahili, everyone encounters the same challenges as they try to communicate in a different language.
Improving your written English may not always be that easy, especially when too many native speakers use a lot of slang or shortened “text-speak” in online communications.
And keep in mind that one apology for your limited English skills is a courteous act, but don’t use it as an excuse if you have an advanced understanding of the language.
Improving your scientific writing as a non-native English speaker takes time, although several years of practice should be sufficient enough to give you a near-native level of written English.
If you’ve spent more than five years to work on your improved skills, then don’t apologise ahead of time. It’s very likely than a native English speaker won’t even notice at first!
Be more confident in your own writing abilities, even if you are self-conscious about your accent or your overall speaking ability. There are plenty of native English speakers who write poorly (I blame text messages and too much focus on video communications).
It’s disappointing (but not shocking) to read material by a native English speaker that is worse than someone who just started to learn English last month.
Be proud that you are working hard to improve your scientific writing in English.. and don’t be surprised if people are unaware that you’re not a native English speaker!
Resources about scientific writing for non-native English speakers
Check these resources if you want the take your scientific writing to the next level.
- The book Science Research Writing: A Guide for Non-Native Speakers of English.
- The lessons Scientific English as a Foreign Language.
- The Four principles to help non-native speakers of English write clearly.
- Literature Review BootCamp
- The book How To Write A Thesis, by Umberto Eco
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