#Bilingualproblems…

…by Bérengère / from France / PhD Psychiatry / 5th Year

The Inception post.

We’ve been in this relationship for a bit more than 6 months now, and I feel it’s high time I tell you the truth about the why this blog started.

The real reason.

I don’t like to write… in English.

Which is problematic considering I’m expected to write an entire PhD thesis by the end of 2019.

My (stupendous) supervisor advised me to find a way to ease into writing in English, ideally by starting with sweet and easy stuff (and not dry and agonisingly bland papers — not that my research is dry and agonisingly bland, but let’s face it, the writing style for publications does not leave much space for creative freedom.)

I remembered that idea Sinéad and I had come up with a few months before, during a PhD workshop: a blog to share our experiences as female international self-funded PhD students in Edinburgh researching a rather niche topic.

And that’s how the PhD & Stuff was born! You’re reading this because I need to befriend English writing. Thank you for your support.

Why don’t I like writing in English, I hear you ask

English is technically my third language in terms of age of acquisition (French from birth, Spanish with my grand-parents), but it is rather my second language in term of proficiency (my Spanish is so miserable now I’m afraid my Mom might disinherit me.)

I only really started to work on my English when I started Uni, so even if my English is now rather good, it’s still not at all as refined as my French, in term of structures, vocabulary, and all these fancy little things that give languages their playfulness and beauty.

I’m the sort of person who’s always loved using unexpected synonyms, ideally very “désuet” (charmingly old-fashioned — see, I’m doing it again) that normal 10 or 16-year-olds don’t use. I relish in impromptu puns and sarcastic replies. I have been loving words for as long as I can remember, and I have fashioned a writing style that, according to my friends, is unmistakably myself.

And then, there is English. When I speak in English, it’s fine. Words flow, no need to translate things in my head. English mode full on. Indeed I’d rather be able to be as witty and funny when speaking English as I am when speaking French, but in conversations you rarely have the time to think about those things (or the conversation will continue without you, lost about 3 sentences behind, still trying to find that particular word that would be so fine.)

In writing though, you have all the time in the world to reflect upon your own incompetence. You start thinking too much … “is the right grammatical structure this one or that one ? Am I using the right tense ? Does this word need a preposition ?” When I write in English, I quickly start feeling helpless, unable to express all my thoughts as they are, limited by the few words I know. Subject — Verb — Object. The overall style: sprinkles of harrowing dullness. When I write in English, I feel pretty much like a baboon, a babbling bumbling (band of) baboon(s). — Minerva McGonagall is my life goal.

How to get past this feeling, you might wonder

Write a blog

Or anything else you could genuinely enjoy writing. Your own novel, movie reviews, travel journals, a diary, or even letters to your friends living abroad (sent by carrier pigeons cause you’re that extra). The key is just to find something you will enjoy.

Be proud of how far you’ve come

If, like me, English is not your first language, and still you are reading this and understanding my point, then let me tell you, you’re brilliant. Not because this text is so sophisticated master Tolkien himself would be impressed (cause it’s not, and he wouldn’t), but because the 10-year-old you who started learning English with “Where is Brian? Brian is in the kitchen. / Where is my umbrella? It’s behind the door.” would be flabbergasted by your current English proficiency.

Be on the lookout for new words

Read, read, read some more. Not just articles (which can be rather complex, I guess). Feed your language with as many writing styles as you can, and once you find a writing style you recognise yourself in, devour it all. But never be passive, always keep you mind sharp and ready to spot words or structures you’ve never seen before / you’ve seen but never instinctively used / you’ve been trying to use or you’re struggling with. One day, out of the blue, you’ll spontaneously use it, and you’ll be one step closer to your goal, and one step further away from “Brian is in the kitchen”. That day, treat yourself with a nice slice of cake / pint, because you’ve earned it (and also because … excuses ?)

Overall, I’d say this blog thing is working out quite well for me. 6 months in, and I no longer feel like a baboon. Look at all the fancy words I’ve just used, I’m definitely at least an orangutan.

I’m still not looking forward to writing my thesis though.

Sincerely,

Bérengère


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