First up an apology of sorts for this post being at best, only peripherally related to research and at worst, self-indulgent. Just a few months ago I moved from Australia to take up a post-doc position for a couple of years in The Netherlands. My motivations for doing so were neither completely professional nor completely personal but, in all honesty probably more the latter than the former.
Aside from some minor annoyances, a few adjustments and discovery of the Dutch fetish for administration, paper-work and red tape my transition has been pretty smooth. Obviously moving away from social (friends), support (family) and professional (work colleagues) safety-nets at home has its moments but certainly nothing that isn’t manageable. One challenge that is proving a little more prickly though is learning a new language. I am exceedingly lucky in that I don’t need to be able to speak Dutch for my work or in fact to function in society here, practically everyone here speaks English perfectly. However, there is a bit of a downside. I didn’t realise the extent to which I would feel isolated by my inability to understand the small, day-to-day conversations that go on all around, along with the advertising, radio, newspapers, graffiti etc. It can really be like living in a bit of a bubble.
This has provided some motivation for me to try and learn the language here which is an ongoing, challenging, frustrating and often-disappointing process. Knowing another language is probably no big deal for most of the Europeans reading this, but for us Australians it is a bit of a novelty. Anyway, through a mixture of ignorance and blind self-confidence, I kind of assumed it would be something I could learn once I put my mind to it. It hasn’t proved that simple. The fact that a friend of mine has a daughter who can converse in English, Spanish and Japanese at the age of 3 years only makes things worse. And I know all the stories about how children are able to learn things much faster blah, blah, blah, but I’ve spent more than half my life in school or university, she hasn’t even learned to wipe her own bum yet!
These pondering also set me to thinking about being comfortable with not knowing and keeping on with it despite the likelihood of making mistakes, very similar to what Zoe was talking about in her post a couple of weeks ago (hyperlink). Probably most of us in this line of work have something of a perfectionist in them, it’s useful in a lot of ways, but in some circumstances an aversion to making mistakes is a barrier to moving forward.
This process has also reinforced the respect I have for people who are in research – writing papers, teaching, giving presentations, running discussions etc, in their second language. I have been very lucky so far to work with people from a number of different countries and the thought that they are able to convey so much material, of such complexity and subtlety in another language blows me away. After five months I have just about learnt the words for train ticket, good-morning and beer, in a couple of months I’m hopeful I’ll be able to use them in the right places, I can’t even begin to imagine trying to explain what an intention to treat analysis is.