Surviving Grad School When English Isn’t Your First Language

One of the biggest challenges that overseas students face when endeavoring academics in the US is the nagging feeling that one’s English is never good enough when writing papers or giving out presentations. How can you survive grad school when English isn’t your native tongue?

In the United States, the number of foreign students in graduate school has gone up and will probably continue to do so as time goes by. Overseas students face double the challenge of polishing their language skills as well as reading and writing immense amounts of material. This is particularly the case for students in non-technical fields, where the language of math and science can’t aid you in getting your message across, and a greater weight is given to sharp writing.

A single standard for a diverse group of people

“The biggest mistake academic institutions and their instructors make is force a single standard as a golden rule of excellence. This is a false goal that will only lead to frustration for both instructors and students alike.”

It's hard to establish a clear standard of proficiency when the reality is that foreign students come from a wide variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. This is already a problem domestically in the United States, particularly in the case of students that come from low-income backgrounds or are the first in their family to go to college. There have been some eye-opening articles treating this subject, and I’ve seen firsthand how these struggles affect self-esteem and performance of smart, hardworking individuals.

The biggest mistake academic institutions and their instructors make is force a single standard as a golden rule of excellence. This is a false goal that will only lead to frustration for both instructors and students alike. It creates the false assumption that failing to reach the standard means failure down the line. Instead, professors could learn a lot from foreign language teachers: they correct mistakes, but reassure the students that it’s good to make mistakes. Their philosophy is that it’s preferable to make mistakes because you’re bound to make them anyway. If anything, it’s good that you've done them in front of them so they can catch it! Language teachers rarely treat failure on a single essay or test as an inability to pass a course, much less as a sign that the student is incapable of completing a degree. Although these instructors constantly correct their students, they also attempt to understand why the students make such mistakes. They adapt their teaching to match those common blunders by looking for patterns. Nonetheless, although institutions keep becoming more diverse, they still lag behind when it comes to changing the teaching philosophy to one that embraces the variety found in present-day college campuses in the US.

Given such challenges, what can you do to keep your head afloat in an ocean of criticism?

Cut yourself some slack

If you’re experiencing lots of pressure and stress because of comments your professors or classmates have made about your writing or speaking, I would first urge you to cut yourself some slack. Although not a certainty, your teachers and classmates most likely mean well with their criticism, especially as they are aware of how mistakes in language can be confused with subpar critical thinking skills and lack of dedication or sloppiness. Whether you have friendly professors or mean goblins as instructors, you first have to believe that it’s okay to make mistakes and that the standards being imposed on you do serve a purpose, but are in no way a measure of intelligence and even lack of knowledge beyond language.

Native speakers make mistakes too

You might be surprised to learn that your fellow Anglophone classmates also make mistakes when writing, it’s just that they’re different in nature. While they may not have their grammar corrected as often, they may be struggling with coming up with good arguments or having a good structure. It turns out that writing well is only half the battle since proper grammar is only part of the art of writing – good ideas and innovative thinking are just as important, if not more.

Mistakes aren’t inherently “wrong”

“There is a growing awareness that language evolves, it does not belong to one nation or individual, we create it as a group.”

The challenge with academia is that it’s a very formal and serious endeavor that praises good writing and argumentation. This does not mean, though, that mistakes are inherently wrong, they can sometimes lead to new forms of expression. There is a growing awareness that language evolves, it does not belong to one nation or individual, we create it as a group. There are many linguistic innovations non-native speakers bring to a foreign language, and you’d be surprised to know how many of these stick, even though they’re technically incorrect or “unnatural.” Languages can become enriched by non-native speakers, and it should be accepted as a natural occurrence instead of being a reason to be scolded. The best attitude is to be fascinated by this phenomenon, laugh it off, and “correct” it so you make sure most people understand you in the future. There have been times where my friends have called me on my weird expressions (there’s probably a few in this post), but they’ve been really cool about it and are usually fascinated by the logic behind what I’m saying. They can’t help but feel like they’ve seen their native tongue in a whole new light.

Google is your friend

Google. Yes, google the word or phrase you're having doubts with. The hardest part about writing in a foreign language is making sure your sentences aren’t just grammatically correct but sound natural and organic. For this purpose, Google can be a great tool. I recommend you put the expression in quotes, which will tell the search engine to look for exact matches. This will help you immensely since you’ll be able to catch odd word order and simple mistakes that make your writing harder to read. Keep in mind, though, not all search results are created equal, and a result from a news organization is more reliable than an angry YouTube comment.

Read more

Read as much as you can about the subject you’re writing about and try to mimic writing styles. Perfecting a language is all a game of imitation that you slowly become good at. This is probably one of the advantages of being bombarded by lots of theory related reading materials. After imitating these sources for a while, you’ll slowly become more comfortable with your writing, and your mistakes will begin to decrease.

Writing centers help

I was a bit skeptical at first about how useful a writing center could be, but I then realized that I was actually afraid to expose myself to more criticism. If there’s one thing I can assure you, it’s that the people working in writing centers tend to be the kindest most helpful folks out there, and are actually better at evaluating arguments and structure in a more productive manner than most professors. When you receive overwhelmingly negative feedback, writing centers serve as a second opinion and help you organize the mess of red ink.

Engage criticism

When criticized, engage the person making the critique! I cannot stress enough how important this is. One obvious benefit is that you’ll be able to better understand the mistake you made and learn how to avoid it in the future. This is what we’re usually told time and time again, but it rarely makes us feel better. This is because it’s a summary that leaves out the complexities of giving and receiving criticism.

When you engage the person, you have a better idea of what was their thought process when reading your work. This can provide loads of information about the nature, severity, and validity of the assessment. It takes practice, and it’s not an easy skill to hone since it can be intimidating to ask questions. This is normal. Criticism can make you feel vulnerable and exposed – a common fear amongst grad students (and just about everyone in general), no matter how good their English is.

You can also learn a lot about the intentions of your criticizer. If the person means well, you’ll be able to see that and learn from what they have to say. You’ll become less scared of listening to criticism, and you’ll reinforce the idea that it’s okay to make mistakes.

“It’s particularly useful to engage the person in these situations because it will empower you and make you seem sharp and analytical.”

If the person doesn’t mean well or appears to believe in a tough love approach, this will also come across. It’s particularly useful to engage the person in these situations because it will empower you and make you seem sharp and analytical. Particularly intense criticism will become less intimidating if you ask questions because the critic will have to verbalize their critique clearly and in a well-thought manner. This is essential because it forces the reviewer to be careful about what he or she is saying. Moreover, be particularly doubtful of language that makes allusions to all or nothing scenarios – these tend to be red flags of nitpicking and overcorrection and are in contradiction to what learning should be, a process.

This technique became indispensable to me, and I’ve lost count of how many times the tone of my professors changed after taking a more proactive approach. There were times when a teacher would initially point out a mistake and label it as “critical” and “severe,” but just by me asking a single question, the tone would change. Suddenly the error became less severe, and the all or nothing narrative would weaken, giving way to a more helpful, constructive form of criticism. I’ve even had comments go from critical errors to suggestions simply by becoming more proactive.

This means that you can still learn something from harsh critiques. It’s a matter of putting aside the fact that the person may have lacked tact and was possibly too blunt. See this more as a matter of difference in character and delivery, and avoid identifying with the negative tone.

Finally, it's surprising how often the instructor or student is basing their judgment on a misunderstanding. I would go so far as to say that a high number of “mistakes” turn up to be for the most part misunderstandings that can be resolved by talking, requiring only some minor corrections instead of full rewrites.

Healthy skepticism is your friend

This is not to say you won’t have professors painting your paper red even after several attempts at engaging their comments. The reality is some teachers have either strict standards and/or firmly believe there are very few ways to do things correctly. In the end, it’s all about keeping a healthy level of skepticism. Do what you must, within reason, to succeed in your courses. Listen to criticism, but in the back of your head, keep reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes, and your critics are no exception.