Insights into academic writing when English is your second language

Sabrina Islam, a PhD student in the Wells Lab shares her experiences and perspectives as a speaker of English as a second language as she does her PhD.

Sabrina Islam is a PhD student in the Wells Lab, in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience at the University of Melbourne and like her fellow PhD students, communicates her findings and drafts her thesis chapters in English. English is Sabrina’s second language.

In an editorial for Doctoral Writing SIG, Sabrina shares her experiences and perspectives as a speaker of English as a second language as she does her PhD.

“Just as we write in different voices and styles for different forums, say an editorial piece and an academic dissertation, I realised I switch personalities when I communicate in my first language and when I communicate in English” writes Sabrina.

Sabrina describes speaking English as her second language as donning a “work outfit” and speaking and writing in academic English as “putting on a suit”.

“To an outsider or someone who is communicating in English as a second language speaker, this may feel like a new dress-code with a new, more complex set of rules” said Sabrina.

In her editorial, Sabrina shares insights into switching between languages and advice for honing your ‘cognitive toolkit’ by practicing speaking and writing in English.

“Be kind to yourself as you practise and improve communicating in English and academic English” advises Sabrina.

“As you sharpen your toolkit, you will sharpen your awareness of the quality of your performances. You will register your faults and imperfections more quickly and reflexively” she said.

“Simply accept your mistakes” writes Sabrina, acknowledging that the grammatical frameworks, vocabulary and style of English will never be her natural mode of thinking.

When speaking with fellow international students, Sabrina has realised how much our mother tongue shapes our thought processes.

“I would encourage [everyone] to seep your individual thought processes into your academic writing, and, hopefully, craft your own personal brand of academic English” concluded Sabrina.

Read Sabrina’s full piece “Academic Writing: Perspective from an English as Second Language Speaker” on Doctoral Writing SIG, a forum where people who are interested in doctoral writing can come together to share information, resources and ideas.

About Sabrina:

Sabrina is studying the factors that guide a cell’s decision to respond to serotonin, a neurotransmitter which is crucial in mental health and wellbeing.

Cells that receive and act on the serotonin’s signal do so by expressing receptors specialised for serotonin.

Sabrina uses computational biology programs to decode biological data from cells types that respond to signals transmitted by serotonin, and cells that don’t, to explore the molecular characteristics that are associated with a cell’s choice to express these specialised receptors.

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Sabrina Islam