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Writing academic English: a non-native speaker’s experience

Writing academic English: a non-native speaker’s experience

Writing in English can be difficult for non-native speakers. Writing in academic English even more so. To be a good writer requires knowledge and awareness, both of the English language itself and how to maximize the resources at hand. By way of illustration, this post shares an interview I conducted with Mina Hirai of the Edanz Customer Service Team, who faced such challenges firsthand during her time at university.


LK: Your writing experiences started at University didn’t they?


MH: Yes, that’s right. I graduated with a BA in American Literature. It was a really busy time for me—I was writing and handing in at least two papers a week. I was very productive, although I wasn’t studying how to write.


LK: When did you start?


MH: Once I started my master’s degree, at the same University.


LK: Were there many other students in your MA class?


MH: Actually, no. There were far fewer students than in my BA class, which itself was small. American Literature was a minor subject—linguistics was a far more popular choice.


LK: What were you expected to write for your master’s degree?


MH: We had to write a thesis of over 10,000 words (including references) on a topic relating to American Literature, to be submitted in the November or December prior to graduation.


LK: How many years was your master’s course?


MH: The University allowed 2–4 years. My supervisor recommended I take 3 years if possible, which is what I did—had I studied abroad on a sandwich course I probably would have taken 4.


LK: What sort of challenges did you expect to face?


MH: As I mentioned, my course was a minor subject, so I wasn’t expecting to have an extensive network of information and materials. That said, my supervisor did give us a lot of guidance on how and where to find relevant resources. And of course I wasn’t sure that my English was good enough.


LK: When did you actually start writing your thesis, and when did you finish?


MH: I started at the very beginning of the 1st year, and the thesis was essentially finished by the start of the 3rd year—the rest of the year involved making minor revisions and tweaks, and writing further drafts, then more revisions and tweaks.


LK: How did you learn how to write a thesis?


Our department had some short courses on how to write basic essays and reports, but whilst they were good as an introduction to writing, they lacked specifics. Additionally, they were taught by a PhD student busy with his own studies, so they weren’t ideal.

My supervisor realized there was a need for a focused academic writing course, so he designed one, and two of my classmates and I were the first students.


LK: What were the specifics of the course?


MH: Over a period of 6 months, we met once a week for a couple of hours and carefully went through an MLA (Modern Language Association of America) textbook, page by page. MLA style has very particular guidelines for formatting and content, so the classes consisted almost entirely of trying to absorb this information and catch all the important details.


LK: Was it easy to apply this knowledge?


MH: In all honesty, no. I realized that if I wanted to be able to write well, I would need to start writing. The problem was that even though I had a lot of theoretical knowledge of the mechanics of English, I wasn’t sure how to put it into practice. So to get an idea of what I should be writing, I followed my supervisor’s recommendation to start reading as many things—books, journal articles, essays, online articles, etc.—that were related to my work as I could. Doing this helped me learn about the nuances and shades of meaning of English.


LK: Were you given any MLA assignments?


MH: Actually, no. Because my classmates and I had already started our theses, we applied our MLA knowledge to what we were writing.


LK: Did you receive any feedback on your ongoing work?


MH: Yes. I started meeting with my supervisor once a week—separately from the MLA course—and we’d spend 2–3 hours going over what I’d produced since we last met. He would read it aloud, sentence by sentence, which he said was a good way to catch any errors. It started out being a general check of my grammar and spelling, and gradually became more focused as my thesis started taking shape.


MH: My supervisor was Japanese, and though his English was excellent he knew that it would be best to have input from a native English speaker. So, he asked his friend—an American college professor in the United States—to periodically look over my thesis and give general feedback, and point out any crucial errors.


LK: What was your writing process?


MH: When I first started my thesis, I wrote a rough outline on an A4 sheet. Then I started putting ideas on smaller cards, which I laid out over the floor of my apartment to organize my thoughts. I used the reverse sides of these cards to flesh out my ideas and add details. Over the course of the 1st and 2nd year, some of these cards were moved, some were removed, some were expanded, some reduced, and others added. Eventually, towards the end of the 2nd year, once I had the cards how I wanted them, I clipped them together and started putting them into one document on the PC.


LK: Looking back, were the challenges you faced the same as those you expected?


MH: Yes, as I expected it was often difficult to find relevant resources. The available online journals and articles often required a paid subscription, and whilst I was able to get some financial assistance from my university, it was limited. Consequently, most of the resources I read online—at least initially—were introductions and brief outlines and not full articles or papers. Hard copies were available to some extent, but they tended to be in the libraries of other universities and therefore not easy to access. I’m not sure if it is still the case, but in the early 2000s bunkei (literature, social science) resources were much harder to find than rikei (natural science) resources, both hard copy and online. Anyway, I was able, eventually, to track down the resources I needed, but it certainly took a lot of time and effort.


LK: You mentioned before that you were worried about your English level. Was it good enough?


MH: Generally, yes, though it was a very steep learning curve. My level definitely improved over the 3 years, though it was hard to gauge any progress day-to-day—it was only when I looked back on previous months that I realized how far I had come.


LK: Finally, do you have any advice for current and future students starting a similar course?


MH: First, the same advice my supervisor gave me: read as much related literature as possible.

Second—and most important of all—from the very beginning, do everything in English. Note taking, writing, having discussions, thinking, everything. It’s a huge mistake to start in Japanese (or whatever your mother tongue is) and then translate, because your work won’t be the same. It will lose its identity.

And third, persevere. The journey is hard—it takes an incredible amount of effort and willpower to produce a thesis as a non-native speaker, and there were days when I wanted to give up, but the sense of accomplishment that came afterwards, and the skills and knowledge that I acquired, made everything worthwhile.


Mina graduated with a BA in American Literature in 2007 and an MA in American Literature in 2010 from Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.


by Luke Kenyon, Quality Control Editing Team