There is no such thing as knowing too many languages! As someone who began to communicate in English on a daily basis only as a young adult and who learned ancient languages through English (a language that was not my own), I can say that I still live through the pleasures and anxieties that being an English as a Second Language (ESL) or EFL (English as a Foreign Language) student brings. To know two or more languages and communicating in school in a different language than the one you speak at home gives you the ability to be a participant in different cultures and traditions, to be part of several communities, to have a unique perspective on seeing the world around you, and it also makes you a well-rounded human being. However, having to formally communicate in English as a language that you did not speak growing up can be challenging and even frustrating at times.
As ESL or EFL graduate students, one of the biggest challenges that we may face is to get ourselves to write, and after writing, the next challenge is to give the deserved value to our writing. The impostor syndrome is true for many students, but it can affect ESL and EFL students in a distinctive way, because some of us may think that our ideas are not coming through in our writing. We may often feel that we are constantly engaged in the process of translation and code switching, and that the real meaning of our ideas is misrepresented or even lost in our non-native words. Nevertheless, as part of our academic journey we are required to write, not only academic writing but also other genres, such as the genre of fellowship and grant applications.
To help you face some of the challenges of applying for funding as an ESL or EFL student, here are some tips on how to prepare a competitive application:
- Be confident in your ideas: The first thing that you need to remind yourself is that your ideas are good, and there are others that think the same. There are probably many reasons why you are in graduate school, and one of them is because the ideas that you presented in your graduate school application were appealing to a group of people who evaluated your submission. If you remember that you have something important to say and that your ideas bring something different to the table, it will be easier to begin putting them on paper.
- Focus on these ideas, not on your grammar or punctuation: Now, this is connected to how confident you are about the value of your ideas. If when you are writing something you only focus on grammar or punctuation, you will not be able to put your ideas down on paper. Because English is not our first language, it is easy to endlessly “correct” every sentence we write. It is fine if these ideas seem rough, or if they are not as polished or clear as you would like them to be, just get yourself to write them down. Use whatever works best for you, this could be doing some free writing or writing an outline if visual organization allows you to think better; bullet pointing your ideas if you want to be brief, or perhaps starting at the end or the middle of the statement if you do not know how to start; or, if you are better at expressing your ideas verbally, you can even record yourself and then write down what you said. Everything is allowed when writing that first draft.
- Have a few people look at your work: This step may also be difficult because many of us ESL and EFL students have a hard time showing our work to others. We might be afraid of criticism or just unhappy with our own writing. A good way of facing this fear is to start getting feedback within a low-stakes environment. Ask a graduate student that you trust to look at your project, or ask a professor with whom you have worked closely to give you feedback. GradFund is another great place to go get feedback on your funding applications, and to work on the structure of your ideas. Meeting with us can also help you brainstorm and think about how you can further develop your thoughts when writing fellowships and grant applications.
- Edit and check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation: This must always be the very last step, because you do not want to focus on grammar when you have yet to finish your final draft. Thus, when your draft has been developed, and has gone through several revisions and rounds of feedback; it is then time to look at spelling, grammar, and punctuation. We do not work on these aspects of the application at GradFund, but this is something that you can ask some of your peers to help you with, and you can also ask your advisor or any of your professors if they would be willing to give you feedback specifically on these aspects.
Being bilingual or multilingual is an asset, not a fault. Do not let the fact of having English as your second (or even third) language be an obstacle for your writing. Instead look at writing — and especially fellowship and grant writing — as a way to overcoming your writing insecurities… and perhaps obtaining some external funding along the way!