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International transplant

I very much enjoyed Valeria’s recent post, so much so that it inspired me to think more about my own ongoing experience in faraway lands. I’ve written previously about how impressive I find those who are able to construct their research career in their second language, and that impression that has only been reinforced during my time as an expat. My experience however, is something like the reverse of Valeria’s situation – I am extremely fortunate to bring my native language to another country, with everyone else operating in their second language. Given that it has been pointed out that this may be the only useful skill I’ve brought with me – did I mention that the Dutch were fond of speaking plainly – I thought I’d offer some reflections on the situation.

One thing that I have noticed is that some degree of insecurity about the level of English language skills is practically universal, no matter how proficient someone is. Nearly all the people I’ve had anything to do with work-wise, write and present in English at a level far more sophisticated than most people in Australia. Many, many times however I’ve heard expressions of disappointment, or worse, apologies for their poor English. On numerous occasions I’ve also been asked questions about grammar and sentence structure that reveal my own limitations in this area. Mostly my answers end with something like: “I can’t tell you why, but this way just sounds better…”.

What I’ve very much enjoyed is being given the opportunity to proof-read or language-edit other peoples’ work. When I first arrived here I was advised to be careful about doing this too much as it can take quite some time and doesn’t add directly to my output. But for me the benefits more than make up for the time it takes. It helps me form relationships with other researchers around the place, it gives me some insight into what other people are doing, it helps me with learning Dutch and of course it adds to the general feeling that I’m helping and doing something worthwhile. Reviewing other peoples’ work also helps me develop my skills in writing, giving feedback and advising/working with other colleagues, all of which are particularly important to me at this stage of my career.

One thing that I have also realised is that I need to be more aware of how I speak during presentations. I’m used to trying to inject some humour and entertainment into presentations, having made the commitment to do so after battling afternoon sleep at one too many conferences. What I’ve realised though, is that humour often involves quite subtle (mis)usage of language, particular delivery, and context specific references and metaphors. Obviously all of these can be problematic when you are transplanted out of your own pond. From a personal point of view, there is nothing quite so exquisitely uncomfortable when presenting, as knowing you have a joke coming up, after the last one received a chorus of bored and uncomprehending looks. I’d previously heard the term ‘died on stage’ but I never really appreciated just what it was like until quite recently.

The final thing I have observed is that people won’t always let you know if they did not understand what you have said. Sometimes you will receive a nod and an agreeing smile instead of a question as to what you meant. In many situations this doesn’t really have any negative consequences, like in the case of a passing comment in the hallway or lunchroom, but you can imagine that it can be quite stressful if you’re not quite sure what you’ve just agreed to. From my point of view then it is important to be aware the language I use, especially slang, and how clearly I speak. In fact come to think of it, this is probably good advice for all Australians whenever the need to speak arises!