What has happened to my English?

Rediscovering yourself in a foreign land

On Research Discussions

When you find yourself struggling in high-bandwidth research conversations, the best thing to do is to record everything. The worst thing that can happen in a high-bandwidth discussion is you miss one thing and you start to fret about that thing while missing everything afterwards. Just record everything, try to follow everything as much as you can and don’t stress about things that you might have missed. When you get back home, before you go to bed, set aside some time to revise everything that has been discussed in the meetings. Try to analyze whether your brain could predict the track of conversation ahead of time, try to analyze why a person in the discussion group ask a particular question or made a particular point, try to listen back to whatever you have said in the meeting and try to analyze whether what you said made sense or not. You may sometimes really hate what you said (be it grammatical structure, intonation, discussion point or even the way you sound!). Be mindful of those and make a deliberate effort to fix them. That is the reason, you have to do this exercise before you go to bed or set aside a fixed time. This is a training procedure and you have to deliberately mold your brain to work the way you want. One does not become better at comprehending research discussions just by being there and getting exposed. One has to deliberately train his or her brain to wrap around the subject matter to have more predictive power of the conversation track.

If you can predict the track of conversation ahead of time, you are less likely to be bogged down by heavy parsing and processing steps in your brain. You can basically override certain unimportant details and think the topic from a high level. Therefore, giving yourself a feedback from those recordings that you listen back before you go to sleep can be helpful. Your brain will be better molded to handle the high-bandwidth research conversations efficiently if you exercise it well enough.

Hang on, why is my English getting worse day by day?

You can speak, write and comprehend English very well when you were back in your country. Now, you have been in the United States and day by day you may probably think to yourself, “What is wrong with my English? I have been pronouncing certain things wrong, I cannot write as much as I wish I can, I cannot follow certain research discussions in a research group. What is wrong with me?”

If you feel that way, don’t worry. That is natural. But do this simple check. Can you still converse, comprehend and discuss very very well with international students and notice that you are not as smooth when you converse with native speakers? Do you think that your English is better than that of your international friends? But when it comes to your advisor or some important research meetings, do you suddenly forget how to grammatically structure your points? Do you feel like you could have written a better paper or report but your advisor is scrutinizing every word that you write and pushing you to be more terse and clear? Or do you just feel unsatisfied with your English even though everyone is saying that you are doing fine?

The main point here is, your English is not getting worse but your psyche is flipped. When you were back in your country you are more confident. You know that you can speak and comprehend very well and that ability alone can “wow” people. You can even make small mistakes and get away with them. But here, you are more aware of yourself. You are constantly being bombarded by your inner voice that if you say something stupid, your title is at stake (Fulbright, grad student or other things that you hold dear). You cannot make a mistake and you have to be very terse, lucid and sharp when talking with your advisor or your American colleagues. Sometimes, you are totally fine but other times you can be stuck. But whenever you converse with your international friends, you may think that your English is better or same as their English. You are more confident and less worried about making some mistakes or talking in a more circuitous way or even making stupid remarks. Remember, those may not be happening on your conscious level. They may all be on your subconscious level. That is one of the reasons it is very hard to pin them down. Basically, we, humans are more scared if we have something to lose and you being so worried about what your advisor might think when you made a very obvious point or a very lame remark can hinder you quite a lot.

The simple way to handle this it to be mindful of yourself. Be mindful of your insecurities and don’t ever lie to yourself. Know that your confidence can swing back and forth like a pendulum but be mindful of all of your confidence swings. Know your high times and know your low times. Analyze your high times very carefully and think of how you can bring some of the elements from your high times to your low times. I know that this is a hand-wavy way of saying how to handle the issue but everyone has his or her way of being mindful. Just by being mindful and knowing what is happening with your psyche can make wonders.

Last but not least, you are just simply tired. Back home, you only use English from time to time and you are always or mostly ready when you have to converse in English. Here, whether you like or not, you just have to speak in English all the time. Remember, you can have different personalities with respect to the language that you are using. If you realize this, call a friend who speaks your native language, talk hell lot and have fun! Then, look yourself in the mirror, crack a smile and tell yourself, “I am doing great!”