“Absolute beginners”: how to improve English language

Here we are at the second appointment of the “Absolute Beginners” section dedicated to those taking their first steps in the world of research.

We would like to apologise to those of you whose mother tongue is English. Still, in today’s article, we will talk about one of the first problems young researchers (and students) run into when they start doing research: the English language.

How to write (and read) better

This is a question I am often asked by students. In general, even in native speakers, the only way to write better is to read a lot. By reading a lot, you can store vocabulary and expressions and become more familiar with grammar. Read a lot of scientific articles. You will also quickly understand the differences in ‘style’ of scientific language and the cloud of words most often used about your research topic. It is not always necessary to understand every sentence precisely at first glance or to translate line by line. Still, it is advisable to keep a vocabulary handy first, especially for the more ‘technical’ terms. Obviously, getting to grips with grammar is not a bad idea either. Often in Italy, advanced courses are organised for doctoral students and researchers to ‘refresh their memory on grammar, but it is also easy to find material on your own. Online many sites offer courses, although for me the best thing was to buy two English grammar books, one at ‘intermediate’ level and one at ‘expert’ level, with lots of exercises, and start from there. I had studied English well in high school. Still, all the courses and exams were in Italian during university, and I had lost a bit of my edge.

Photo by Lewis Keegan on Unsplash

How to listen better

Not only reading is essential in research but also in listening. All scientific conferences and symposiums worldwide are in English. All keynote speeches, workshops, presentations and sometimes even specific courses are in English. Also, to meet researchers from other countries, make contacts, establish relationships, and talk about your research, it is essential to understand what is being said. And in my opinion, this is the most fun part of learning! You can take advantage of the options of all the streaming platforms that allow you to watch a film in its original language: you start by watching movies with subtitles in your own language and then watch them directly in English without subtitles. I started with films I had already seen and then moved on to new movies. Afterwards, you can also switch to audiobooks, which are more difficult because you don’t have any images to support your understanding. In this case, however, you can start from books that you have already read or that are simpler and then move on to new and more complex novels or essays. Finally, I have always found podcasts helpful. You can choose the topic that interests you the most (science, music, history, sport, fashion, there are really for all tastes) and deepen it. On Spotify, the BBC (but not only) also makes podcasts, especially for those new to the English language.

How to speak better

There are few alternatives here: you need to practise. It’s difficult at first, especially for shy people, but you have to take the plunge. Most people you meet will have the same problem as you and will be happy to talk and meet new people. Every now and then, you will also meet someone who is even shyer than you or ruder: don’t worry and don’t give up. It also happens in everyday life that you meet more or less helpful or open or kind people. The same thing happens at conferences or on an aeroplane. As in the case of grammar, if you want to improve your pronunciation and conversational skills (as well as your listening skills), you can also take private lessons with native speakers, courses of this kind are offered in every city. Obviously, you will see the real difference after having done a visiting period abroad (do it if you have the opportunity, even for a short time): your English will improve in all aspects.

Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

Online tools

Once you have improved the main aspects: reading, writing, listening and speaking, you can also use some online tools. I do not recommend doing this before. Online translators and proofreaders are better than they used to be. Still, they are of no help if you do not already have an excellent knowledge of the language. Only you know what you want to say and how to say it most correctly. However, especially when it comes to assessing what you have written, various tools can help. The one I used the most is Word Reference, which offers an extensive vocabulary with definitions, synonyms, usage, correct placement in sentences and conjugations. For the proper use of a word in a context, I have always found beneficial Converso, which shows many examples of using a word in common sentences showing all the meanings and nuances. Finally, I always find Grammarly useful, unlike the others, not a translator but a corrector. Entering a text, Grammarly identifies the main grammatical errors and incorrect uses of the language. Grammarly has also recently added the possibility of selecting different “styles” to get suggestions accordingly (“formal”, “informal”, “colloquial”, …).

In the following episodes, we will start talking about independent work and valuable sites and research tools. Stay tuned!

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