Doing science as a non-native English speaker: Important takeaways from the first Portuguese Multilingual Seminar
Guest post by J. Humberto Cunha, Danielle F. Mello, and Jadson Carlos dos Santos.
The Genetics Society of America, Portuguese Multilingual Seminar took place on November 16, 2021, and was attended by four guest panelists and three organizers with diverse scientific backgrounds, from different regions of the world. The panel was designed to represent the diversity of the Brazilian scientific population, considering gender, region of origin, area of expertise, and ethnicity.
The event was held entirely in Portuguese and was focused on the central theme of scientific communication in English for non-native speakers. It highlighted the importance of bringing together diverse experiences and views to discuss the challenges and opportunities in building an international scientific career. Here are some of the insights and tips the panelists shared with their audience:
Challenges for Portuguese-speaking scientists
During the seminar, guests shared the challenges of adapting to a new language, country, and way of communicating science. Despite the diversity of origins and training, the panelists had several points in common. These included the role language plays as one is adapting to a new country, and the social issues surrounding the study of English.
Among the points addressed, the following stand out:
English language and culture are not the same throughout the world
Although English is considered the “language of science,” certain variations, such as those in American and British English, can make scientific understanding difficult. Grammatical dissimilarities for example, can sometimes make writing and understanding scientific articles more difficult.
But the biggest challenge highlighted by the panelists involved spoken English and cultural differences.
The English spoken in different regions of the world can be considerably different. This diversity in accents, everyday expressions, and scientific jargon is an additional challenge for learners looking to master the language and actively participate in scientific discussions.
Additionally, being in a region of the globe with an entirely different history and traditions can add an extra level of challenges for communicating science. Depending on what region or community the scientist is now in, science may take place in a very different environment than what they were previously used to. It may be more formal or strict, increasing language barriers and posing an extra weight on the foreign scientist to bear. Or, as is often the case, science may take place in a more friendly and welcoming environment, allowing the scientist to feel comfortable and encouraged to overcome any language or cultural barrier.
Differences in basic education aggravate inclusion in science
In Brazil, the education system introduces students to English very early in their schooling. However, the intensity and quality of English exposure is far from homogeneous, depending on the nation’s region and its level of development. This factor, combined with socio-racial issues, can make learning a new language unattainable for future scientists and aggravate diversity, inclusion, and equity in science.
Even scientists struggle with scientific jargons
Each scientific area has specific technical terms or jargon used not only in scientific publications but also as a part of a scientist’s everyday life. The proper use of this kind of vocabulary can be particularly challenging for non-native speakers and this challenge can be even greater when they have a different background or are starting in another scientific area.
Unexpectedly, studying or practicing science in a foreign country also presents challenges when the scientist shares science in their native language, in our case, Portuguese. This is because scientists sometimes learn different technical terms for the first time in English and are either unaware of their Portuguese translation, or often these terms have never been translated. As highlighted during our seminar, making an effort to have these terms translated is important to ensure inclusion in science.
By aiming for perfect English, Brazilians increase their socialization barriers in the new country
Another factor that posed a significant challenge, according to the panelists, was difficulty socializing in an English-speaking country. In addition to the role that cultural environment plays in facilitating or aggravating socialization, a scientist’s own insecurity about communicating properly in the foreign language can also contribute to the challenges they face. Most panelists agreed that this insecurity can be linked to the fact that most Brazilians worry about speaking with faultless grammar, which is probably due to the prevailing English course systems in Brazil.
Practical tips for overcoming the English language barrier
Each of the invited panelists suggested valuable tips for understanding the language with less headache or butterflies in the stomach. Some of the recommended tips include:
- Try not to get stuck in the grammatical rules of English. Accept the fact that it is okay to make mistakes and that jest and mimicry can be a great ally in your every day or scientific conversations.
- Be mindful of the fact that many native English speakers can only speak English and so they are usually impressed with people that can speak more than one language.
- A critical factor to truly experience the English language is continuous exposure through various experiences and sources (for example, traveling for tourism or scientific conferences, social events, music, movies, TV shows, social media).
- When living abroad, try not to limit your social interactions to other Brazilians or foreigners only.
- Always have a book in the English language handy to better understand text interpretation and expand your vocabulary.
- And last but not the least, if you are unable to travel to an English-speaking country, always be aware of opportunities where you can listen to native English speakers through virtual meetings, such as events held by the Genetic Society of America.
About the author
J. Humberto Cunha graduated in Biomedical Science and is a member of the Genetics Society of America. He is also the Creative Director at Academic Genetics League.
Danielle F. Mello, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher at the laboratory of Environmental Marine Sciences (LEMAR UMR 6539), Functional Physiology of Marine Organisms Unit at Ifremer/University of Western Britanny, France.
Jadson C. Santos (Jall) is a PhD Candidate and Project Manager. He is the Co-chair of the Career Development Subcommittee at Genetics Society of America’s Early Career Leadership Program. He also writes a newsletter about Scientific Leadership, Collaboration, and Project Management for Scientists.