Science is universal. Broken English is the language of science. Therefore, according to Aristotelian logic, English must be universal. Certainly, speaking and understanding English is of paramount importance nowadays if one wants to work their way in any professional scientific endeavor.
Science is probably one of the most diverse professional fields out there, because scientists move all the time in search of better training, research and opportunities. It is rare to find a lab where all members come from the same place and speak the same language. So I would say that Aristotelian logic does not work here. Sorry, Aristotle.
Science is an intricate subject. It deals with complex concepts that even an English native speaker may find overwhelming at times. So imagine if, in addition to the complicated nature of science, there is the possibility of getting lost in translation. Many scientists have to learn English during their adulthood, when learning takes extra effort. I learned English when I was a kid at school, and still found bumps in the road.
Most of my education took place in my hometown Oviedo, in northern Spain, and everything I learned I learned in Spanish. Thankfully, my parents were always interested in languages and cared enough to send me one summer to Ireland. There, I realized that my English was quite poor. I wanted to get better.. After Ireland, I took it seriously, and improved through self-teaching. Back in Spain, though, I hardly ever had the chance to practice it with native speakers.
After finishing my undergraduate and Masters studies in Spain, I decided to go down the PhD pathway, and ended up at the University of Bristol, UK. By this point, I was confident that my English was good enough to get by, but what I didn’t know is that attending a scientific talk in English — where the speaker has a thick regional accent — was a very different story. I started to lose confidence, especially when I thought about what would happen when I had to give a talk.
Another language-related challenge was to learn a technique crucial to my thesis project from a researcher who was originally from China. He’d been in the country for much longer than me, but was still dealing with the same language problem I’d found. The first time we met, even though we were both speaking English, we couldn’t understand each other. The struggle was real. There were a few days of confusion, to the point that my advisor had to act as translator (from English to English). But in time we got used to each other’s accents, and things began to run without a hitch.
These are just a couple of examples among many others which kept me pushing harder to reach fluency. My accent’s still prominent (though I don’t especially mind), and my grammar has improved and is getting better.
All it took was lots and lots of practice — about 38 million words of English since I left Spain. The bright side is that science is a very welcoming environment, and when I came to realize that, insecurities were not much of an issue anymore. Chances are that nobody is judging based on English fluency, and the more aware you’re about this, the less you will worry about mistakes.
Getting lost in translation, mispronouncing a difficult word, misunderstanding questions at the end of your own talk, even being occasionally patronized are some of the handicaps we have to take on as non-native English speakers. But, as with most things, practice makes (almost) perfect. So if you deal with this kind of insecurity, my best advice is to seize every opportunity to practice English:
Speak in public presenting your research or about the weather with the lady in the grocery store line. Read the English translations of your favorite books. Take part in conversation exchange programs, where you pair up with an English native speaker who is interested in learning your mother tongue. Talk to other foreigners, scientists or not, to find out you’re not alone in your struggle and learn how they deal with it. Volunteering at public science events helped me to become more confident about my communication skills. When a 10-year-old boy and his grandmother both understood my explanation of synapses, presenting my research to other scientists didn’t feel so intimidating after all.
So, talk: a lot. Consider it a shock treatment; I promise it helps. You may not become Shakespeare, but close enough to convey your thoughts. And since English isn’t going to be replaced as the universal language of science any time soon, it’s time to start learning. Shape up your skills and you’ll be able to communicate science as easily as ordering fries at your favorite restaurant.