Overseas students better at English

March 3, 2006

A senior academic has produced statistical proof of what many lecturers have long suspected: British students are more likely to make spelling and grammatical errors than their overseas peers.

Bernard Lamb, a reader in genetics at the department of biological sciences at Imperial College London, became so infuriated when marking his British undergraduates' reports, that he resorted to using a formula to calculate whether it was just down to chance that they made so many basic mistakes in their written English. The results confirmed his worst fears.

Dr Lamb used the chi-square test, a standard statistical tool, on a sample of 650 British and overseas students. He discovered that those whose mother tongue was English were more likely to have a poorer grasp of the language than those for whom English was a second language.

Dr Lamb said he was exasperated that students, many of whom obtained As at A level, confused "weather" with "whether", "their" with "there" and placed singular verbs after plural subjects.

He warned that if they made such basic spelling and grammatical mistakes, they would find it almost impossible to write complex scientific terms.

Some 81 per cent of the British biology undergraduates spelt "occurred"

wrongly compared with 55 per cent of those for whom English was a second language. None of the students was dyslexic.

Dr Lamb said: "Overseas students were significantly better at spelling and grammar than British students. "The overseas students have had more grammar teaching, more correction of errors and more emphasis on correctness than British students.

"How are these students going to spell complicated names, such as Drosophila melanogaster (the fruit fly) when they make errors such as confusing words and placing apostrophes incorrectly?"

Dr Lamb blames the errors on a reduction in the time spent reading and an increase in time spent watching television. He gives students a two-hour lecture on writing scientific English at the start of their first year.

Dr Lamb admitted that he had had a nonchalant attitude to spelling until a Sri Lankan research student corrected his grammar 35 years ago when he was a lecturer.

He said: "Now I realise the importance of correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. I also have to make a lot of corrections to staff submissions for departmental publications."

jessica.shepherd@thes.co.uk

COMMON ERRORS

  • This principal will be used to demonstrate (principle) 
  • An investigate is done (investigation)
  • The plant who (that)
  • Sex cones (combs)
  • Lager (larger)
  • Asterix (asterisk)
  • Garunteed (Guaranteed)
  • Wine (urine)
  • Poor diet effects a woman's pregnancy (affects)
  • Ejucation (ejaculation)

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