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Often they will answer, "Only in my lessons", or "When I'm at school". The first thing I will say is, "That is not enough! It is the same with speaking English.


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The most important thing you can do to improve your fluency is to practice. Speak to friends, co-workers, classmates, people on Skype or the web, people in stores, even complete strangers. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will be. I usually ask the student how they feel about speaking English, and they often say "nervous," "scared," or something similar.

The second most important piece of advice I can give is to relax.

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Don't worry about making mistakes. Fluency does not equal perfection! If you can't think of the right word or tense to use, don't worry about it. Just say anything that communicates the point you want to make.

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Speaking English fluently isn't just about practicing your speaking. It is also important to listen to as much English as possible. This is easy with access to the web, movies, TV and radio. If you listen, even if you are not concentrating on what you are listening to, you will start to absorb the language and will start using phrases and sentence constructions without thinking about them.

If you are with a group of people, there is a game you can play to help improve your fluency.

English as a second language: Who in Europe speaks it best?

It is called 'Just a Minute'. Write some different subjects on pieces of paper for example, holidays, Michael Jackson, being rich, dogs, my favorite movie, the politics of Outer Mongolia — anything you want. Each person takes a piece of paper and has to talk for one minute about the subject without hesitation.


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  • They are not allowed to repeat what they say, and they are not allowed to change the subject. It isn't easy, but if you practice it becomes much easier. Even native English speakers find this hard, so you don't have to be with other learners to play it. Students also need assistance from scientists who can help them to write for their specific disciplines.

    I know of a case in which a researcher from India submitted a paper that came back to him largely because of language issues. He thought that he had addressed the problem but it was rejected again, not for the quality of the research but for the quality of the English. He rated the experience as one of the worst of his life. I doubt that there was a huge amount to correct.

    Language support and translation services could be built into grants. English speakers have become the gatekeepers of science.


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    • Clarissa Rios Rojas says that scientists who are not fluent in English can benefit from being mentored in their native language to help them to adapt. Courtesy of Clarissa Rios Rojas. Being from abroad has some advantages. In my experience, people who grow up speaking a language other than English are at a real competitive disadvantage when it comes to science. They need real mentorship, and they need it in their own language.

      Learning English is still a priority. Almost all PhD applications are written in English, and most job interviews are conducted in English. But science is struggling, too. Consider the field of conservation, in which much research is still conducted in the local language. In a study in PLoS Biology , my colleagues and I surveyed more than 75, biodiversity conservation papers that have been published in T. Amano, J. Sutherland PLoS Biol. The dominance of English has created considerable bias in the scientific record.

      In a study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B , we found that biodiversity databases were more complete in countries that had a relatively high proportion of English speakers T. Sutherland Proc. In other words, biodiversity records are comparatively scant in countries where English is rarely spoken. We need to embrace linguistic diversity and to make a concerted effort to dig up scientific knowledge in languages other than English. I suspect that a lot of native English speakers view language barriers as a minor problem. They probably think that Google Translate can solve everything.

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      We need to change our attitude to non-native English speakers. If you have the chance to evaluate a journal submission or a job application, think about the perspective that a non-native speaker can provide. You should be very proud. There, I had to learn two languages at the same time: English for work, and French for daily life. Not being able to communicate was frustrating. There was absolutely no English-language training available at my university.

      In France, there were courses to help foreign students learn French, but not English. I tried to read a lot in English — not only scientific papers, but also literature. I was always looking for people to have informal conversations with in English. Because I was in France, most of my colleagues and friends were not from an English-speaking country, and we were learning English with each other.

      Some non-native English speakers would prefer to talk to other foreigners in English — it was easier. A language is a tool for success. Mastering the way in which we speak and how we define concepts is an essential skill.

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      We need a common language to communicate in science, and this is now English. A good level of English will help you to get the job or the project that you want, in both academia and industry. The language barrier has never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do. You need to fight with the language. At conferences, not speaking English perfectly is not a big problem: people will understand you. But there is a limit. Some people speak English poorly, and this can totally block communication. There is no subsequent scientific discussion, and we are missing the opportunity to share information and knowledge..