English is my mother tongue, so for a long time I never had to give much thought to speaking about science in a different language — something many researchers have to do every day. But my privilege was upended in July 2020, when I started my research group as a junior faculty member at the University of Montreal, a French-language institution in Quebec, Canada. I now communicate daily in both English and French: during meetings with colleagues and collaborators; when interacting with trainees in committees and examinations; when writing grants and teaching; and for administrative tasks.
When I moved to Montreal after my postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I had a solid but rusty foundation in French grammar and vocabulary. I had taken classes in French as a child in Ontario, Canada, and as an undergraduate from 2010 to 2012, but there was lots of room for improvement.
Over the past two years, I have communicated science in French to a general audience, to the wider scientific community and to graduate students at the university. I believe that learning how to communicate science effectively in a language other than English has helped me to become a better science communicator in general.
Don’t be afraid to try
Explaining my research to a general audience in a second language proved challenging. But with practice and continuous opportunities, I started to find my footing. For instance, shortly after starting at the University of Montreal, I gave an interview in French about my research projects and goals for a blog at my university-affiliated hospital. This was a great opportunity but also a big test of my skills.
I have learnt to keep practising and to have confidence in myself and in my ability. It is important not to be afraid to make mistakes or to ask for help. The primary goal is to get the message across clearly, which is not the same as articulating with perfect grammar or pronunciation all the time.
I am continually being given new opportunities for science communication in French. These include teaching concepts in my field of computational human genomics to graduate students (and maybe soon to undergraduates) and preparing and marking homework and exam questions. In the first term of 2022, I taught my first graduate classes in French. This will help me to streamline the content and articulate the main messages in an engaging and coherent manner, as suggested by student feedback and performance during in-class activities and homework assignments.
Factors for success
I have also faced difficult tasks, notably learning French field-specific jargon, and translating slides, abstracts, course material and so on. Alongside these academic challenges, I have to tackle administrative and management duties in a second language (including ordering lab equipment, filling in forms for student thesis committees and completing ethics-protocol requirements).
It has not always been easy or convenient to have to include French in my professional life. However, starting with a good foundation has given me a major advantage, even though I am still learning. Here are some other factors that have allowed me to make substantial progress on the path to communicating science in French.
A strong support system. The university has a one-on-one tutoring programme to help faculty members who are not fluent in French with their communication, professionally or in daily life. The programme is flexible and structured around the faculty member’s schedule and needs. I am very grateful to my French tutor, my colleagues who speak French as a first language and the members of my research group. They consistently provide me with a safe and supportive space to communicate by editing my written work, giving feedback on my conference presentations and helping me to navigate administrative tasks. They have been my cheerleaders, encouraging me throughout the process.
A desire to learn. I appreciate the value of using a second language, which gives me a strong sense of motivation to continue to learn and improve.
Lots of opportunities for practice. Montreal is a bilingual city (French and English), and there are lots of opportunities to use both languages professionally and in daily life.
Despite the challenges, talking and writing about science in a language other than English has helped me to communicate more effectively with general and scientific audiences, and has proved to be rewarding!
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.
The author declares no competing interests.