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Writing in English is tough, study shows

The subjects are hard enough already. But writing the papers in a language that is not your mother tongue is even harder. New research looks at how international students cope

One thing is to know enough English to get by in a strange city without starving. Another is to know enough English to be able to write papers in English at university.

Brazilian economics student Tadeu knew he had to write papers in English in Copenhagen, but when he first came here he pushed it to the back of his mind.

»I tried to think about what I will do in the exam and I was just so depressed. How can I explain: If I go to another country to the States for example I won’t be hungry, I can communicate a little bit. But here at university it is completely different«.

Feel the expectations

Tadeu is not alone with his apprehension. And his experiences with writing will likely resonate with most international students, according to Sanne Larsen, who is finishing her research on international students writing in English. Tadeu is a pseudonym and the quote above is from her in-depth interviews.

For her research, she singled out six non-English-mother-tongue international students for scrutiny to find out how they cope with writing in English. Her interim report was recently presented at the Centre for Parallel Language Use (CIP).

»Students experience a gap between what they feel they can do, and what they perceive as being expected of them,« says Sanne Larsen.

Sticking with your own

According to Sanne, other problems, what she calls ‘ideational issues’ may exacerbate language difficulties.

Students from abroad come from subjects that may not precisely match the subjects they are studying here. And what counts as knowledge at home, may not count here, and vice versa.

And writing difficulties may be compounded by what she calls interpersonal issues. International students tend to mingle with other students from their own language background. Tadeu, for example, prefers to stay with Portuguese speakers, because he is more afraid of talking in English and feels that he can’t express himself properly.

Language brokers

But students somehow find a way to manage, according to Sanne Larsen’s study.

One way is to use other students who have a cultural or language advantage. Student colleagues from Denmark become ‘cultural brokers’, helping internationals find out what to do, and what not to do, at Danish university.

Students from English-speaking countries come in handy here too. They become what Sanne calls ‘language brokers’.


Take ‘Andrea’ for example, a German student, who went through every sentence in her paper with ‘Susan’, who had English as her mother tongue.

»We go through each and every sentence and she asked me ‘what do you want to say, what do you want to tell’. And I was like ‘yeah right I want to say that’ and I explained it to her and she said ‘yeah but you can’t do that. You need to put it in this way,« says Andrea, adding that it helped the paper and helped her English.

But there is a downside to using native-English speakers. Andrea admitted that it was embarrassing, because it made her feel far away from being able to do a »good English written paper, so that was kind of awful to see actually.«

All six made it

It is not easy to write papers at university if you weren’t brought up in English-language countries, going to English-language schools.

But Sanne Larsen’s conclusions are heartening to students who struggle. Ultimately all of the students she studied were able to make it through their English-writing trials and tribulations.

All six in her study carried out their programme, although some of them opted out of individual, optional courses partly due to difficulty in writing papers.

Came here to improve English

In the end, the gap between what students can do, and what is expected of them was bridged, allowing »students to actually learn something,« says Sanne.

And staying in Copenhagen in itself improves students’ English, a positive side-effect that international students are well aware of, actually one of the reasons many come to Copenhagen in the first place.

»Some of the students come here with the motivation of learning English. Somehow this is to be achieved magically, while they are here. And some of the students did in fact improve their English,« Sanne explains.

Teachers just as bad

In the meantime, the consolation for international students who have difficulties may be the recognition that their teachers often aren’t much better. As the Brazilian student Tadeu puts it:

»I didn’t care too about the grammar, the synonyms, because the teacher he is not good in English. If you read the exam [questions, ed.] you will see a lot of mistakes…«

Read the University Post article Bad accent is considered bad teaching here. and article Lecturer provoked by poor English evaluation here.

Anxious about your first English paper? Or maybe you have some tips for others to help out writing English papers? Write in the comment field below.

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