by Giles Strong

An Englishman, two Italians, a Spaniard, a German, a Pole, and a Venezuelan walk into to a bar; the barman looks over and exclaims “What is this, some kind of European research-network?”

I’d been drafting a similar post to this a few months ago, but without a central point, it felt a bit flat and I never published it. But with seven of the ESRs from our network gathered in one place for a workshop in communication skills, I might finally have the theme it was previously lacking.

Held in Padova, the workshop give us the opportunity to receive feedback on our speaking skills in a variety of situations, such as running a meeting and giving short presentations. It was also emphasised that we should use ‘active listening’ to ensure we have understood what is being said; asking questions like “what I’m hearing is…” and “are you saying that…”.

I wanted to go on to highlight the diversity in languages and the importance of communicating such that others can understand you. When I say languages, I don’t mean just in the sense of French, Italian, Swahili, et cetera, but also in the vocabulary employed by various professions. A statistician might present research on anomalies and a physicist might learn nothing until they realised that anomaly was actually what they called signal. Similarly a physicist presenting to a group of school students would be better understood if, instead of saying “we apply multi-layer feed-forward neural networks to our data”, they simply say “we turn laptops into physicists”.

Having just returned from the previously mentioned workshop, thoughts on how I can better communicate my work are circulating in my mind. Prior to the event, our network had put on outreach talks at two high-schools in Venice. During this we gave three-minute presentations on what our research involved. Hopefully, I will be able to build on this experience since this week I will be speaking at event for university students looking for thesis topics.

Language, in the traditional sense, can also be a barrier to clear communication. Over the past year I’ve been in seven distinct countries and one thing I’ve found is that I frequently mix languages up; an example might be when I stopped in Frankfurt on my return trip from Padova. Having spent the past few days saying ciao and grazie I found it difficult not to unconsciously say them to the Germans there. Indeed in one particular situation I was trying to say ja (yes) and took four tries to finally get there: si, はい, да, ja. It was a bit embarrassing actually.

Luckily I don’t have too much of a problem living in Portugal, since much of the communication at LIP is in English, most of the population speak it to some degree, and I attend Portuguese lessons once a week. Still, I’m nowhere near the point where I could hold a conversation in it (I’m finding it particularly difficult to learn).