I am an undergraduate student from India. English is my third language and I am not grammatically sound in it. How bad could it be for my career (in academia) and how can I improve on it.

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    Who else in the world is not in your situation (or even worse)? – Alchimista Dec 22 '18 at 13:39
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    @Alchimista: Native speakers of English. – Wrzlprmft Dec 22 '18 at 16:32
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    @Wrzlprmft From what can be read across the Internet, and sometimes even here, I'm not sure about that ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Dec 22 '18 at 16:45

Like anything that you need to learn, the key is practice. Reading alone won't make you a better writer. You need to write. Moreover, you need to get feedback on your writing. Of course, if you submit a paper and it is sound but uses poor English, the reviewers will often try to help, but their patience is limited. So, in some way, poor skills in the language of expression can hold you back until you improve.

I assume that you are also in a place in which it is easy to use your first and second languages, so English may not be in everyday use in your circle. But if you are in India, for example, there are plenty of competent English speakers around you. You can try to associate with them to improve your speaking skills. You can also, perhaps, find or create a small group of people to work together on improving your writing skills, giving feedback to one another. The writing needn't be scientific writing, actually. Anything will do to start. But in such a group you should all force yourselves to use English nearly always. The only exception would be to provide definitions of uncommon terms.

You can probably also find local classes in English as a Second Language (ESL) which offers help both in speaking and writing. The local secondary school might be able to help, for example.

Practice, practice, practice. Get feedback. Practice some more. Getting feedback is probably the harder part of the problem.


Clearly it's a big advantage to be comfortable at writing in English to work in academia. If you really struggle with it, it's definitely worth investing your time to improve your level. The good news is that you're not the only one (the vast majority of people in academia are not native English speakers either). Don't worry, it will improve naturally by reading and writing papers.

you can find a few ideas how to improve here. My personal advice is to read multiple times the papers/authors that you like, and make note of the phrasings that you could reuse later.


English importance:

Poor English is tolerated a lot in science/engineering (compare for instance to marketing). I would argue too much but this becomes very touchy. In any case, you should just worry about YOU, not the system.

Bottom line in math/science, it will not be a major hurdle. Furthermore in general (in general, not every instance, caveat, caveat), Indians have better English than a certain other large population Asian country. So. You might have some protective cover.

All that said, English is the language of the world, of academia and of science/engineering. It's the lingua franca. (Now the French are mad at me.) Having a better facility in English will help you interact, attract grants, tell jokes, make connections, etc. It's not the end of the world. But it is helpful to want to get better. You have the right impulse here.

How to get better:

The key way to get better in a language is TO PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE. Talk, drink, ask gi...people out. Just converse. Readily and openly and making mistakes as you go. You will get way better, way faster, and have more fun along the way. DON'T hold back because of worries about grammar but just plunge along bravely. I have learned this in several foreign languages, including in intelligence work in country. GET INVOLVED. [None of this is to say not to study the language and do formal instruction...you can/should do that ALSO. But you must get involved, immersed, and bravely.]

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