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Lost in Translation: The Underrecognized Challenges of Non-Native Postdocs in the English Scientific Wonderland

A postdoc presents his researcher and poster to conference attendees.

Scientific communication has transcended borders, yet scientists often encounter significant language barriers.

By Andrew Chang

Andrew Chang explaining his research to colleagues at the International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in Tokyo in August 2023. One is from Hong Kong, previously trained in UK, Germany, and Taiwan, now a postdoc in Japan. And the other is from Korea, previously trained in Germany, the UK, and the US, currently a postdoc in Germany. We communicated and chatted in English. Photo credit: ICMPC17 (https://jsmpc.org/ICMPC17/.)

Scientific communication has transcended borders, yet scientists often encounter significant language barriers.

English, hailed as the universal standard language of science, grants a significant advantage to native speakers. For non-native scientists, bridging this gap requires extensive preparation, and this journey can be isolating and anxiety-inducing, particularly for early-career postdoctoral researchers.

As a Taiwanese, Mandarin was my sole mode of communication until I embarked on my Ph.D. journey in Canada. While I was in Taiwan, English had only served as a tool for test-taking and reading imported textbooks.

My first semester in Canada proved to be an all-encompassing experience. Beyond adapting to English-based coursework, acclimatizing to the rapid and colloquial conversations of my peers presented a considerable hurdle. I had to familiarize myself with the natural flow of conversations, replete with slang and cultural references I had never encountered in a classroom in Taiwan.

Moreover, I lacked common ground with most Canadians/Americans, as I wasn’t familiar with their childhood pop culture, trivial facts, or internet memes. Despite being known for my sense of humor among my peers in Taiwan, I felt rather dull, unable to communicate beyond the realm of my science.

A Journey of Improved English Proficency

I vividly recall one evening when I was with fellow new graduate students. We were playing a party board game, and we drew a card that required my teammate and me to chat non-stop for a minute. Everyone anticipated the challenge it posed to me. I wore a reassuring smile, unwilling to disrupt the jovial atmosphere.

However, when the timer began, my partner launched into a rapid, uninterrupted monologue, denying me the opportunity to contribute. Although I knew she did it out of kindness to spare me embarrassment, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and excluded. It seemed that overcoming the language barrier was an insurmountable expectation, and perhaps people would never recognize my talent or charisma because I couldn’t adequately express myself in a foreign language.

Over the past decade, my English proficiency has significantly improved since the start of my Ph.D. I’ve also assimilated Canadian/American social norms, enabling me to engage with my peers while maintaining my individuality.

Now, tools like ChatGPT make proofreading and editing, including this very article, much more manageable. However, while I can attain good results to a certain extent, the process remains time-consuming and mentally taxing. It can even lead to anxiety: If I fail to make a lasting impression within the first 30 seconds on someone I meet at a conference, particularly a leading scientist in my field, using highly fluent language to express my ideas, I risk losing their interest and potentially missing out on valuable career opportunities.

Diving into the Research

It wasn’t until recently that I stumbled upon a study surveying over 900 scientists, which revealed that many early-career non-native English-speaking scientists encounter similar obstacles. Non-native speakers spend approximately 91% more time reading a paper, 51% more time writing a paper, are 2.6 times more likely to face language-related rejection, encounter 12.5 times more language-related revisions, and invest 94% more time in preparing and practicing presentations.

Also, unfortunately, it appears that overcoming language barriers has largely been left to the efforts of non-native English speakers (Amano et al., 2023). These statistics, based on academia, likely underestimate the extent of the challenges, as many promising scientists may have already abandoned their research pursuits due to language-related frustration (Ortega, 2020).

One might argue that language barriers should not be considered excuses since individuals willingly choose to pursue scientific careers in the United States. However, the reality is that when one opts to become a scientist, they inevitably commit to English as their primary professional language throughout their career.

Given the United States’ predominant position across various scientific disciplines and the fact that all top-tier scientific journals, including Science and Nature, are published exclusively in English, achieving a successful scientific career within the current academic landscape without proficiency in English is an extremely daunting, if not impossible, task. (Note: Perhaps the sole exception is Nobel laureate Tu Youyou.) Scientific findings published in non-English journals are often, if not always, overlooked (Amano et al., 2016).

Indeed, choosing to pursue a postdoctoral position in a foreign country is a deliberate decision, driven by the belief that it will benefit our careers. This choice entails willingly embracing the additional challenges of overcoming not only language barriers but also navigating various other obstacles, including cultural differences (where I’m expected to network in an American way, likely with plenty of socializing over drinks), geographical distances from family and friends (with round-trip flights between New York and Taipei consistently exceeding $2,000, and a 12-hour time difference), dealing with laws, costs, and bureaucracy for obtaining and maintaining a visa and adapting to different daily routines (such as handling taxes, accessing healthcare, and obtaining a driver’s license). However, as international scientists make greater sacrifices, the tolerance for failure diminishes, and it can evolve into unbearable stress.

Creating a Welcoming Environment for Non-Native Speakers

It is imperative for academia to recognize and address this issue to ensure that scientific progress remains unbiased and uninhibited by language barriers. Losing potential talent and dedicated international scientists due to these barriers is not only a disservice to individuals but also compromises the quality of scientific inquiry, potentially introducing biases rooted in the linguistic and cultural backgrounds of scientists.

Consider my research field of cognitive neuroscience of audition, which explores how the human brain perceives speech and music. Without contributions from international scientists, understanding the universal and culturally specific mechanisms underlying these perceptions would be severely limited and biased.

I extend my heartfelt appreciation to all my colleagues who have valued my contributions as a scientist and treated me equally, regardless of my occasionally peculiar English phrasing and my penchant for using amusing words. My hope is that other international scientists, especially those in the early stages of their careers, receive the support they need as they diligently work to overcome their barriers.

Ultimately, I aspire to witness a future in which language differences evolve from barriers into diverse perspectives that benefit the scientific community as a whole.

References

  1. Amano T, et al. (2016). Languages are still a major barrier to global science. PLOS Biology, 14(12), e2000933. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2000933
  2. Amano T, et al. (2023). The manifold costs of being a non-native English speaker in science. PLOS Biology 21(7): e3002184. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3002184
  3. Henrich J, et al. (2010). Most people are not WEIRD. Nature, 466(7302), 29-29. https://doi.org/10.1038/466029a
  4. Ortega RP. (2020). Science’s English dominance hinders diversity—but the community can work toward change. Science. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.caredit.abf4697

Andrew Chang, PhD ,is a 2023 Leon Levy Scholar in Neuroscience.

This piece was originally published on the National Postdoctoral Association member blog as part of 2023 National Postdoc Appreciation Week. Current Academy Members can receive a 20% discount on a National Postdoctoral Association postdoc individual membership by emailing customerservice@nyas.org and requesting the NPA membership discount code

Supporting International Postdocs: “How Can We Make This Place More Like Home?”

Every international postdoc has a multitude of interests, experiences, fears and dreams. Supporting them means taking into account all of those things, as opposed to just focusing on their research project.

By Thiago Arzua, PhD, Academy Fellow

Even after doing this countless times before, I was still nervous waiting outside my advisor’s office to talk about some experiments that did not work.

“What if they ask for more data than I have? What if I picked the wrong project?” These thoughts quickly devolve into something darker like: “Do I deserve to be here? Have I done enough?” My own internal imposter syndrome aside, my advisor’s response was comforting, “Cool, now we know that doesn’t work.” By contrast, his feedback made me realize that support is something we need.

International postdocs leave behind all of their support systems – family, friends, culture – in their home country and are often expected to adjust and start working right away. In reality, the support international scientists need is not unusual. Instead, it is something we do not realize we missed or needed until it is gone.

At the most fundamental level, supporting international postdocs looks like increasing support for all postdocs – temporary visa holders still represent a majority of postdocs in the U.S. It can be a bit of a conundrum. Being involved with science policy and advocacy for a while, a conversation with a political consultant once made that clear to me – “No matter how rational it is to fund international scientists, in some politicians’ minds, you are constituents ­– you are not voters”.

In that sense, support comes from peers, advisors, and the universities themselves fiercely advocating for their international researchers at every level. Internally and institutionally, this can also look like providing reliable advice and resources for international postdocs who need to navigate a new world of healthcare, taxes, visas, and more that people born and raised here in the United States take for granted.

At the core of this international postdoctoral account of “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” are the basic things every postdoc needs, e.g. fair salaries, good working conditions, etc. At the top of this hierarchy, there is something less tangential – something that took me a while to realize I needed.

The U-Shaped Curve of Culture Shock

There is a famous U-shaped curve used to describe the emotional states of culture shock. In it, people go from a happy honeymoon stage, then through anxiety and adjustment periods, to finally get back up to an adapted stage. I went through that whole curve at least three times since leaving Brazil; once for every career level which came with a location change.

At every stage, the excitement for science was so front and center that I would lose track of the fact that everything was culturally changing around me. During those times, the support I needed had nothing to do with scientific research, but receiving an abundance of humanity and compassion from others.

Case in point, Thanksgiving of my first year in grad school, I was, in essence, adopted by the family of another student for the week. Years later, as a postdoc in a new city, almost as a repeat, other international postdocs and I were stranded by visas or simply by the weather and decided to host a potluck Christmas. So, when the next holiday season comes up, make sure to ask the international postdocs around you if they have plans, and if not, make a point to invite them.

Do Your Part to Make International Postdocs Feel Welcome

Having spaces where international postdocs can thrive means not just helping them adjust to the U.S., but fully acknowledging and incorporating their individualities in how they work, and above all, understanding that people cannot dissociate their personality from how they do research. In my case that has sometimes looked as simple as having my peers text me when they hear some news from Brazil.

It also means having an advisor who knows I enjoy science communication and connects me to opportunities I would not find by myself. Every international postdoc contains a multitude of interests, past experiences, current fears, and future dreams. Supporting them means supporting all of those and not just a finite research project.

At the end of the day, the question “So, do you think you’ll go back home?” is always present whether in talking to people or back in my internal voice. We all have our reasons either way, but in thinking critically about how my international peers can be supported while in the U.S., I think a much better question might be “How can we make this place a little more like home?”

Thiago Arzua, PhD is a 2023 Leon Levy Scholar in Neuroscience. You can learn more about him and the Leon Levy Scholars HERE.

This piece was originally published on the National Postdoctoral Association member blog as part of 2023 National Postdoc Appreciation Week. Current Academy Student Members can receive a 20% discount on a National Postdoctoral Association postdoc individual membership by emailing customerservice@nyas.org and requesting the NPA membership discount code