16 October 2007

the wicketh language

Dear audience,

for today's course, please read the paper Advice for Foreign Students Wishing to Pursue Graduate Study in Computer Science at UCSC by Jim Whitehead.

This paper is only the top of an iceberg, the big issue that I am thinking about. So let's just grab the main points:
  • the department of computer science at UC Davis receives many hundred applications from foreign students each year (my remark: so does the University of Toronto and many other schools in North America)
  • it is a lot of work to select students out of these masses and that's why students should write applications that make the selection fast and easy
  • taking international students is more expensive for a professor and demands more advisory work and more reviews of the student's writings, but still the finished papers of international students are usually not as good as those of domestic students.
You might feel that I am misrepresenting these points, but if you read the paper you'll see that he actually repeats them in the paper, so it can't be too unimportant.

Now, an emotional reaction to the paper: If I am, as an international student, going to be an extra burden for my advisor, taking up his precious funding money and his scarce working time, but my work will be worse than other student's work anyway, why then should I go to that great foreign university at all?

Of course, I see that for many students in many countries, going to an international university is seen as a way to get them a degree that will assure them a well-paid job and a save future. And I think it is okay for him, to inform those people about his side of the equation and encourage them to be more responsible when doing their applications. But has he ever thought what impact his writing has on the average shy genius, that wants to go to an international school just because that's the best place to nourish his interests and his talent? Won't that poor shy guy be quite scared by reading such a statement?

Okay, this was the top of the iceberg. When you've finished thinking about it, come on and dive into the deep water.

Imagine you are an international student doing PdD research in a great international university. What do you think about the suggestion that your research will be worse on average than that of domestic students? How important do you think is language for research?

For my part, the researches that I admire most, are also Great Masters of their language. And in Computer Science that means: Great Masters of the English language. Several people come into my mind whose writings I adore for their clarity and also their imagination when it comes to including "real-life" analogies or even making word-plays on idiomatic expressions. And it's true: most of the people that I remember for doing this are native speakers of English. Although there is one exception that I cannot forget, one French engineer who became not only a Great Master of Computer Science, but also a Great Master of the English language. Perhaps the latter is easier for life-savouring perfectionists. Like Bertrand Meyer.

I just can't stop wondering how people like Bertrand or some of my friends who are foreigners in Germany can achieve such a mastery of the language, being better writers and better talkers than many native speakers, while others can spend years of the life in a foreign country and still have some problems with basic communication!

Well, I see that not everyone can be as talented for languages as a Bertrand Meyer and Pavol Kurina. And I know that some people just get frustrated at some point, being misunderstand so often they perhaps give up on improving their language? And if I tell them how important language is then they feel even more bad about themselves and rather want to ignore the subject.

Okay, I know that I can write a positive ending here, but not at this time of day. Thanks for reading up until here and please come back soon to read my optimistic outlook which I'll hopefully write until then.

Yours sincerely,
Jack the foreigner


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