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I'm not a native speaker. However, I'm doing my PhD in an English country and I read Academic papers which are in English. How can I improve my English from those papers? Any ideas? Although sometimes those papers are not written by native English speakers and may still have problems.

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If you also want to improve your spoken communication skills, take a look at Toastmasters (toastmasters.org). There may even be a club in your school already. –  Dnuorg Spu Dec 19 '13 at 14:53
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One of the best ways to master the writing skill is to write a paper yourself, have you supervisor correct it, and then, thoroughly go through the review. If this process is repeated over 2-3 papers, you would have a strong hold in the style. But the key is to understand the corrections made to your draft. –  Barun Dec 19 '13 at 17:39
    
@Barun: Better than your supervisor might be a fellow student (with good English) who you can bribe with a case of beer :) Correcting someone's writing is kind of a tedious task, and kind of a lot to ask of an advisor who's more interested in the research itself. (Besides, the advisor's English might not be so great, either!) –  Nate Eldredge Jan 15 at 3:04

5 Answers 5

The old adage is: "the language of science is bad English" (and at least in computer science it is 100% true). That being said, I have known PhD students who have failed mainly because of their lacking English language skills – they had ideas, but they could not communicate them to anybody, and they could not write them down in a paper for the life of them. You need decent English to write any paper, and you need pretty good English to write papers at top venues.

You ask how to improve your language skills from reading papers. I would say, you can't do that effectively at all. Clearly, reading anything written in English will help you to some extent, but if you feel like you need to improve your English, taking one or more (good) courses in technical English will help you more than reading through a few dozen papers.

However, there is one language-related skill that reading papers for is really useful – if you are setting out to write the first or one of your first papers of your own, nothing beats analyzing existing papers (at the same conference, in the same journal) to find out how papers in these venues are usually structured. This gets you started much faster than drafting something only for your advisor to tear it apart.

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While I understand that there's a big difference between scientific and day-to-day language, I actually think you need both to succeed in academia.

While you do need to excel in research (e.g. publish papers, communicate ideas), only the "top level" will be done in pure scientific and formal language: writing papers and scientific presentations. A lot comes from communicating your ideas, either in formal and informal settings. The "level" of English varies from setting to setting: at some point, you would not want to host a prominent researcher in your country, and take him to lunch only to realize you do not know how to translate the menu.

That said, I think you need to improve your English overall, and the best way to do it is to expose yourself to the language as much as you find comfortable:

  • if you usually read (non-scientific literature), switch from your native language to English
  • when watching movies/TV shows, don't go for the dubbed versions: go for the original language, first with the subtitles in your language, then in English, and then no subtitles at all
  • try and find yourself in social situations where English is the main spoken language. Listen to people and talk to them. I saw a big change in a lot of people in just a few months from this.
  • take a course, possibly in technical English
  • specific terminology and style of writing will come in time, with immersion in your field, but it is okay to use a dictionary for rare terms
  • in addition to just using a dictionary (translations are not stellar sometimes), use Thesaurus to find synonyms and antonyms. It is also useful when you know the correct word, but you feel your writing is too repetitive
  • have some kind of spell checker activated when you type (not only your papers, but also your posts, chats and e-mails), use it whenever it tells you you misspelled the word, and try to remember you mistakes
  • start using an English-English dictionary, as often as you can when you come across an unknown word. For me, just typing "define:whatever" in Google works just fine.
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In addition to other good observations... : the idiosyncrasies of English are not easily codified in "rules", so considerable familiarity with many good examples of standard use, to allow faithful mimicry, (in addition to more formal study and hearing-experience) is surely helpful.

That is, rather than "composing" in a vacuum (worst of all translating into English...), it is very convenient to be able to recall already-vetted phrases and wording-choices and simply re-use them.

This is especially true with regard to "articles" "a", "an", "the", or their absence, and related seemingly-innocent modifiers. Also, verb tenses.

Thus: imitation from good models.

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Reading good papers from your field would improve to some extend your technical language specifically the style and structure in your field. I recommend you to read a few good books about writing science and manuscripts.

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  1. Participate in discussions strictly related to academic papers.

  2. Don't read only - be active in your discussions and write as much as you can (you can make errors but you will self-eliminate them with more practice).

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