Jojanneke Bastiaansen schrijft
Photographer: Sander Martens

Insecurity is bliss

I have to be straight with you right off the bat.

Although I am thrilled to be a new member of the BCN Newsletter family, writing in English feels a bit like wearing a straitjacket. It was fine when writing my scientific papers; over the years I have become quite adept at throwing my mights and howevers at the reader. But it turns out it is quite different when you want to speak more from the heart than from the mind. All of a sudden the English language does not feel nice and safe anymore, but leaves me feeling somewhat inhibited and insecure. Maybe some of you foreign researchers have experienced the same. You just feel more free expressing yourself in your own language. You feel funnier too. Just ask my friends; I am hilarious in Dutch. Unfortunately you guys have to settle for the English version.

Words of wisdom

I think the most annoying part about not being a native, is not being able to translate the expressions and sayings that are meaningful to you. My biggest supplier of both nonsensical and erudite expressions is my father. His “goed is goed”  is still fairly translatable and helped me through various activities from painting walls to finishing my PhD thesis: “enough is enough”! Also very helpful during my PhD was his expression “elke wijze uil is ooit een uilskuiken geweest”. Unfortunately, trying to translate this expression might make him seem like a regular Louis van Gaal (a Dutch football manager who concocts an interesting brew of Dutch-English expressions whether his team is winning (“the three points are inside”) or quite far from winning the game (“running after the facts”)). The translation of my father’s expression would be something like: “every wise owl was once a fledgling”. Many young researchers feel like simpletons at the start of their PhD. They forget that even the smartest professors were once students and have made their fair share of mistakes.

The good news is that with a new language also comes a great variety of new expressions. I am a particular fan of British expressions (but then again, reading adverts aloud in a British accent already sounds like poetry to me). For my PhD defence, I made a pact with one of my paranymphs: I would integrate “shipshape and Bristol fashion”, one of our favourite expressions, in one of my answers. Of course I got completely carried away in heated discussions about brains, blobs and behaviour. Probably for the best: being originally about boats, it might have been a bit strange to compliment my opponents with their mint condition.

The English literature is also a source of great inspirational quotes. Last year I added an important one by British novelist C.S. Lewis to my list of favourites:

“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching”.

To me this quote exemplifies the scientist I want to be. But insecurity struck: was I using the expression correctly? In my search on the internet, I found out that my beloved integrity expression was actually misattributed and misquoted. C.S. Lewis appears never to have written such a thing in his delightful old-fashioned British manner. Rather, the quote seems to have been derived from a recent novel by the American motivational speaker Charles Marshall:

“Integrity is doing the right thing when you don’t have to – when no one else is looking or will ever know – when there will be no congratulations or recognition for having done so.”

Ironically, Charles never got the proper recognition for this insight.

This integrity incident made me realize that my uncertainty about my second language actually helped me gain knowledge. It helped me detect an error and avert any potential harmful consequences (such as being booed at by the BCN community or walking around with a misguided tattoo on my back). Perhaps insecurity is not always such a bad thing. In fact, I think we should cherish it in the language that is second to us all: science. Uncertainty is what makes us run back and check our formulas, our data, and our references. Uncertainty is also the basis for scientific breakthroughs by questioning the status quo. Therefore, I added a new quote to my list of favourites:

“As long as I know how much I do not know, I am still on the right track.”

Hmm, whose expression was that again?


Picture: Courtesy by Sander Martens

This column was written for the newsletter of the Research School of Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences (BCN)