Learning to write in English is a lifelong journey

In her MA thesis "'My journey as a writer' – A Case Study of Literacy Autobiographies of University Students in Finland and the United States" Sinéad Schenk explores learning to write in English.

Born in New York with Irish heritage and moving to Finland later in life, Sinéad has had first-person experience of different and contrasting speech communities. After graduating with a BA degree in the United States, Sinéad worked as a teacher before moving to Finland to study for her Master’s degree at the University of Helsinki.

Sinéad learned to write through reading and with the help and encouragement of her mother as well as former teachers. She describes how the love of words was passed down to her from her grandfather who enjoyed literature. For Sinéad, coming to Finland to study taught her about the process of learning to write academically in English from a different perspective.

Multilingual study spaces

Sinéad says that applying to the University of Helsinki was surprisingly easy, and moving to Finland from the United States was an interesting experience. “When I arrived here, it just made me appreciate how good Finnish people are at speaking English. It makes me appreciate other people’s ability to learn languages.”

When asked to reflect on her experiences of studying in Finland, Sinéad says that the university allowed students freedom in choosing different study methods. Some courses, for example, could be completed as independent study. She says that she learned a lot about Finnish culture and even picked up a few words of the Finnish language during her MA studies.

Sinéad says that having had experience of different multilingual environments around the world where people speak English as their second or third language is a mind-opening experience about the power of language and how it affects relationships. “I also noticed that we Americans love to use idiomatic expressions that don’t make sense if you don’t speak English natively or really well, so I’ve had to be mindful of when I need to simplify language.”

A thesis on writing

Sinéad’s MA thesis is concerned with the development of English academic writing skills and whether there were differences between native English speakers and students whose first language was not English. The data for her research was collected from literacy autobiographies – personal descriptions of literacy development – produced by students representing these two groups.

Sinéad was inspired by a course she had taken at the University of Helsinki, in which she had written a literacy autobiography of her own. Alongside this experience, the time she spent in Finland and the multilingual environment helped steer her thesis topic towards the theme of native languages and their importance in developing academic writing skills.

Her thesis shows that there were differences in the ways native English speakers and L2 speakers of English viewed their development of academic literacy. For example, the native English speakers considered that factors outside their education, such as personal relationships, had an influence on their literacy development much more than L2 speakers did. With the influence of the English language continuing to increase in academia, it’s important to take these differences into consideration in the teaching of academic writing.

From considering possible thesis topics in November to submitting her first draft in May, Sinéad compares the process to running a marathon rather than a sprint. During this time, she had several peer-review sessions where students read through and commented on each other’s ideas, and her supervisor advised her on which parts of her text to expand and where to cut back on. The most important thing, she says, was to “just keep writing, and writing, and rewriting, and revising.”

Life ahead

Sinéad currently lives in Milan, Italy, where she works as an English tutor and is developing an online course. In her future career Sinéad wishes to continue to work with people as she enjoys interacting with others. Nonetheless, she also sees writing, such as editing and revising other people’s work, as a part of her career path.