By Rossana Zetti |

I still remember one of the first meetings with my supervisor. I had just submitted the first draft of the first chapter of my PhD thesis and, commenting on my clumsy and awkward English, he said: “Don’t worry, in three years your English will be perfect!”

After almost four years living in Edinburgh, writing and studying in English – first for my Msc and then for my PhD – I still haven’t reached that level of “perfection” prophesized optimistically by my supervisor at the beginning of my adventure. There are many challenges that we – that widespread “race” of PhD students whose first language is not English – have to face in our daily enterprise: such as teaching and writing a whole thesis in what is not even your first language! How does my non-Englishness affect my PhD life and what challenges do I have to face?

After reading, writing, proofreading, speaking in English, my spoken and written skills in the language have undoubtedly improved, but there are certain sounds that I still find difficult to reproduce (to the extent that, before giving a presentation in English, I always check the pronunciation of some words with native speaker friends or on Google translate), not to mention the much hated “idiomatic expressions” – particularly problematic in writing: the prepositions and verbs and articles and unpredictable position of adverbs. From my first year, I made a list of the “common mistakes” I did in my writing, and tried to avoid them in my next written submission.

At first, I perceived my (Italian) accent and my mistakes in the language as a weakness, an inevitable “lack”. Sometimes I still wonder whether I would be a better teacher in mother tongue, more confident and fluent: when I teach in English, sometimes a word just doesn’t come to my mind, and I suddenly falter, or I have to translate the Italian phrases floating in my mind and reproduce them in what I know sounds like an awkward sentence. Marking essays, often written by English native speakers, is another paradox: so many times I have to correct the spelling and grammar mistakes of essays written by students whose mother tongue is English!

On the other hand, when I was recently asked to write the abstract for a conference in Italian, I suddenly realised that my written Italian just didn’t sound right and I had to ask an Italian friend to proof read it for me. There are things that I can express better in English and expressions that have become so familiar that now I use them when speaking in my mother tongue; I have developed the tendency to create new Anglicized words in Italian that do not exist in the language, I formulate sentences with a typically English structure or I even have to think twice and translate from English into Italian what I want to say – to the extent that sometimes I do feel more fluent in English and I wonder whether I’ve half-forgotten my native language. However, I am not as fluent in English as a native speaker; therefore, what remains is this strange hybrid of Italianised – Anglicised language not existent if not in my own way of speaking.

Whereas at first I perceived my accent and mistakes as a weakness, now I like to think of them as something (partly) inevitable that (proudly) characterises me – and rather points to my achievement: writing academic articles and a PhD thesis in my second language! After all, I don’t think that we can speak of loss and not even of gain, but simply acknowledge this strange and complex process which makes it possible to assimilate a new language whereas, at the same time, the native one cannot fully disappear or be forgotten. I think that, to a certain extent, we should not be afraid of forging new words or using words of a foreign language in our native language: this is just who we are and who we have become – immigrant souls that belong to two different places and ways of speaking, facing the challenge of PhD-ing in another language. Sometimes it’s just easier to let it go, and write some kind of poetry instead:

Sometimes I feel more fluent in English
I forgot my mother tongue.

Sounds like “u” and “th” extinguish
Unlikely obstacles for my tongue.

I don’t know how to be angry in English
For that I need my mother tongue.

Sometimes I change the words
English takes hold of my mind
And I make up words undefined.

Am I losing both
Or am I simply inventing a new modernist language?

Scholars would speak of a complicated phenomenon
Would give it a label
Would say that
“No mind is equal!”

And mine is divided
between my two worlds.

Immigrant am I
And so poetry I write
Where no rules apply

So that I can escape
The awkward sensation
In English shall I
Or in Italian

… Write?



After graduating in Classical Literature at Università degli Studi di Milano, Rossana completed an MSc  in Classics at the University of Edinburgh, where she is currently working on her PhD project (third year) supported by the School Doctoral Scholarship under the supervision of Professor Douglas Cairns. Her PhD research focuses on the reception of Sophocles’ Antigone in twentieth-century Europe and her study aims at clarifying the ideologies and contexts which produced several renewed versions of Antigone in this century.

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