Dissertation Guide

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What are the issues if English is my second language?

“Some of the people from China, Thailand and Vietnam cannot even question information. If it appears on a website they just take it. We have a huge problem with plagiarism. In general, a Chinese person has never been asked to summate views and give their opinions on what they see. It’s such an alien concept.”

“For international students, a lot of writing issues are often addressed by engagement with organisation and the kinds of things that benefit native speakers. But there are cultural aspects to the academic requirements that can be highly individual: What role does authority have? What has gone before? What is accepted in written work? For example, Arabic writing is very circular in the way it is organised. It has a spiral rather than a linear course. There is a convention which has the writing arrange itself in this way. It is not seen as a clear linear progression.”

“Problems come from authors using English as a second language. They quite often get the English more or less right but the authors have not checked it well enough. They’ve rattled off a paper but haven’t really read it. I don’t know whether they’ve dictated the copy and had someone else type it into the PC but it certainly seems like it.”

“I’m not sure about the answer but I do know that it is a very real issue. I supervise overseas students. I don’t supervise a lot of overseas students at the Masters level. We have quite high English-language entry requirements but nonetheless the difficulties that those students often face in conveying what it is they want to say in written English are often quite severe, and often they may find it less difficult to express themselves verbally that they do in writing.”

“I’m often aware that I’m confronted with US students who, when thinking about the possibility of writing something that’s 80,000 words, suddenly realise that that’s about 78,000 words, or 79,500 words, longer than anything they’ve ever written before. They’ve come through an examination system that doesn’t require them to write things at length, where essays are the usual format, where multiple choice is increasingly common. By contrast, southern European students, say, Italians, feel as if they inhabit a culture where almost everything is a thesis, where the real challenge is writing a short essay and what they really should be doing is writing something much more extended. One of my Italian students told me last year that culturally she came from an environment where they were invited to speak much more as if it were a stream of consciousness, and you didn’t need to worry about structure or order nearly so much as occasionally casting out the jewel, whereas we are much more obsessed with structure.

I’ve got one very practical issue, which I guess may lead to other things. I have a very bright PhD student from Athens, who I’m sure will do very well with his PhD in due course, and one of the things he’s doing is a survey of one of the schools in Athens. So we spent a fair bit of time designing a questionnaire, and of course, questionnaire design is absolutely about language and construction – how a question is seen, how it will be perceived, how people respond and so forth. It took months, and of course he translated it all into Greek and I haven’t a clue what the translation is. I can’t check the translation, I don’t know whether it works, I just have to trust him. So he will then go out and do all this in Athens, come back and retranslate it so that I can read the answers.”