I'm a computer science student, currently at the Bachelor level. I'm also not a native English speaker. My native language is Dutch. This year, I have to write a thesis.

I've always been told at my university that whilst being a Bachelor-student all courses, assignments, etc should be available to us in Dutch, but we've had lectures in English before after an agreement with the professor.

Personally, I find it easier to write in my mother tongue (naturally), but maybe it's worth to go the extra mile and write my thesis in English. Also, all the research I've done so far, has been in English. So it's not really a problem for me.


Should a (computer science) thesis be written in English or in the writer's native language? What are possible pros/cons? Can it pay off to go the extra mile?

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    The answer will depend at least in part on what you want to do next. To take two extremes, if you want to get an industry job in the Netherlands post-graduation, the language your undergrad thesis is written in will make zero difference. If you want to apply to grad school in another country, however... – fkraiem Dec 30 '14 at 16:51
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    @fkraiem Very good remark, I hadn't considered that! I actually would like to get in an exchange program in my Master/graduate. – JNevens Dec 30 '14 at 16:55
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    It might be worth writing it in Dutch first, since that's easiest, and then translating it to English later on/as you have time. – TylerH Dec 30 '14 at 21:26
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    The majority of CS publications in the ACM digital library and IEEE Xplore that I've seen are in English. Almost all formal documentation for programming languages, libraries, frameworks, etc. are also written in English and I have not seen very many that were translated (e.g. Java (the language documentation) is not translated officially in French). So, at least in the field of computer science, the language of choice is English for formal publications. Plus, practicing another language is always a good idea :) – Chris Cirefice Dec 30 '14 at 23:00
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    Have you actually been told by your supervisor that you're free to choose? If not, I think you should first ask them. For instance, while there was no general rule at the institute I did my BSc at, my supervisor specifically requested a German thesis (and other supervisors specifically asked for English theses). – Martin Ender Dec 31 '14 at 17:18

As was suggested in the comments, if you want to share your thesis with researchers in other countries, it is better to write it in English than in other languages.

However, I will go further than that and say that in the 21st century, English is the lingua franca of communication in most technical fields. If you want to participate in the wider technical community in a meaningful way, developing your ability to express yourself in English, both orally and in written form, is essential. Therefore, you should avail yourself of opportunities to work in English whenever practical.

It is still important to be able to communicate in your local language, but this is becoming less of an issue as time goes on: for many people, they do scientific work in English, even if their everyday workplace conversations are in another language!

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    I would not go as far as to call English the technical linguage franca. But as someone who works in IT I do write documentation in English for my coworkers. This despite both my coworkers and myself being native Dutch speakers. – Hennes Dec 30 '14 at 17:52
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    @Hennes You wouldn't? I can't think of any top CS conference that's not held in English (I'm sure there are small ones that aren't, but nothing of importance), I can't think of any paper of the last two decades that made big breakthroughs that was translated, all technical documentation is foremost in English (well you get computer translated) and so on. Personally at least in Germany/Austria for CS I'd go so far as to say the telltale sign of an average or substandard thesis is that it's written in German (I'm sure there are exceptions, but as a rule of thumb it seems spot on). – Voo Dec 31 '14 at 11:03
  • Note: This is purely my experience in CS - as far as I can tell in other disciplines (law comes to mind, but also math) there's a fair amount of work being done in the native tongue. – Voo Dec 31 '14 at 11:09
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    English is the technical lingua franca. If you don't think it is, you probably don't know the definition of lingua franca: "a language systematically used to make communication possible between persons not sharing a native language" ... you're using it for that purpose right now. – Nate C-K Dec 31 '14 at 12:49

If your english isn't very good and it would be a considerable hardship to write it entirely in English then there is a third option:

Write the thesis in your native language but write an extended abstract in English.

By extended abstract, I mean a more detailed summation of your key findings than is usually provided in the short (250-500 word) abstract that prepends dissertations.

Quality is better than quantity. I would prefer having a short 3-page well-written English summation that has been meticulously written and proofread than 300 pages of poorly written English.

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    +1: for a bachelor's thesis, this seems the best solution in terms of effort and results. For a master/PhD, I'd recommend English instead (at least in my field). – Federico Poloni Dec 30 '14 at 17:40
  • If the question here reflects the O.P.'s ability to write in English, this might not apply. Even so, this is good advice for anyone in this situation. – J.R. Dec 31 '14 at 11:02

Pros of writing in English

  • You can share your work with non-Dutch-speaking people. Especially important for graduate school applications, since after that unless you did something really brilliant nobody will care much about your undergrad work.
  • It gives you some experience in English-writing, which it seems you need (since you are still somewhat uncomfortable with it). There is no denying that, like it or not, you will probably need to express yourself in English a lot in whatever your future career is. You want to do it well, beause working in English with people who are bad at it is a real pain.

Pros of writing in Dutch

  • Avoids having your point obscured by English mistakes, though based on this question it doesn't seem you would do more English mistakes than can be found in the average paper.
  • Less effort, but I would argue that the fact that it is less effort to write in Dutch is an argument for writing in English. It's something you want to fix.
  • You may (the question does not make this clear) simply prefer Dutch. Even though I am equally comfortable writing in English or in my native French, I still vastly prefer French, simply because I think it's a nicer language. (Yes, I may be biased.)

All in all, at this point I agree with aeismail that you should probably write in English. However, due to the point immediately above, I think his answer ceases to apply if and when you have attained a satisfactory level in English expression. Then, you shouldn't feel any need or obligation to use English "whenever practical", just because mostly everyone else does it. In fact, I think I do the opposite: I use French whenever practical, and only use another language when French doesn't work.

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    Regarding less effort, I always find easier to write about research in English than in my mother tongue, because that is the vehicular language. In fact, most of the technical terms just sound weird in Spanish. – Davidmh Dec 30 '14 at 19:07
  • Yes, the "less effort" part was specifically for OP's situation, since he said he finds it "easier" to write in Dutch. – fkraiem Dec 30 '14 at 19:28
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    I would add to the Pro English column "Writing in English would demonstrate your technical English skills, which are important to many businesses and institutions" – Patricia Shanahan Dec 31 '14 at 11:31

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