For many students, both native and international, one of the most significant challenges of their time at university is the struggle to develop an academic tone of language in both their written work and when speaking in seminars. The required academic tone includes several strands: formal English language and grammar, professional terminology relating to the relevant area of study, as well as academic phrasing associated with the expression of intellectual thought and argument. Acquiring the ability to switch from everyday communicative English into academic language with ease is difficult for anyone, even more so for a non-native speaker. This post will consider some of the additional barriers which international students face in developing this refined language capacity.
Many international students are unaware of how the history of the English language shapes both formal and informal usage.
Essentially, contemporary English is a mixture of historic languages formerly spoken in England. On the formal side, French was a strong influence between 1066 until the late 1300s. Latin (the language of Ancient Rome) was written and spoken in medieval religious and government institutions, and modern versions of many Latin verbs and nouns are still used today. On the informal side, many English phrasal verbs, everyday language and swear words derive from Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Viking languages. So, for many European speakers of English, the switch from informal to formal English is easier because their language has a similar pattern, where the Latin or Roman element is central to formal expression. Equally, for these speakers, their languages contain many Roman-derived verbs which are also present in English. Non-European students speak languages with none of these characteristics and therefore can find it relatively difficult to distinguish informal and formal English.
Access to academic English can be difficult to achieve outside university institutions.
From my own experience as an undergraduate, despite being a highly literate high-school student, I encountered many new words in my first year as an undergraduate: ‘hegemony’ and ‘inchoate’, for example. Academic articles and journals are rarely read outside of university environments, and, like many British people, I had never seen an academic journal or article until I attended university. These days I recommend that students listen to the ‘Today’ news programme on BBC Radio 4, as the tone of the interviews, generally with politicians and scientists and professional experts, is one effective way of listening to formal and academic English. Also, on Radio 4 both the interviewer and interviewees are usually making or defending arguments and trying to follow these are excellent listening practice.
Many non-native speakers have had relatively less exposure to professional, or subject specialist terminology, than native speaker students in high school.
In particular, international students coming from a high-school graduation exam that focuses on six-eight subjects are at a disadvantage compared to British A-level students who have studied three to four subjects in their final two years of high school. For British A-level students, two years of study of, for example, Economics, Accounting and Business mean that they are familiar with much of the language and basic theory of the subjects. International students who have studied these subjects along with three others are less well prepared for the first year of a British undergraduate degree in Business and Economics.
The meaning in academic writing is more concentrated than English in other written contexts.
This precision, a key characteristic of academic writing, where each sentence contributes very deliberately to an evolving argument, creates a need for a particular reading strategy. From my own experience, I find that paragraphs in academic articles and books often need to be reread multiple times to extract the meaning. This is very different from reading in other contexts, such as journalism or fiction, where the meaning is more easily apprehended. Recreating this kind of density in a coursework essay requires the student not only to use appropriate language but also to recognize the need for a carefully-layered logical argument.
Finally, in terms of solutions and approaches an international student can use to the problems above, the first of these is drafting their written work. Drafting an essay means committing to writing a succession of versions of it, where the first draft is the most simple, and each succeeding draft is an improved version of the previous one. If a student uses this approach, then they can focus on upgrading different forms of language in different drafts. For example, verbs in the first draft, nouns in the second, and so on. In this way, by the time the student has reached the final draft, each sentence has had its key phrases improved so that they are as formal as possible. Equally, there are software solutions – the ‘synonyms’ tab in Word, for example, will give alternative words to a selected word, some of which will be stronger academic alternatives. Also, there is an excellent textbook, ‘Academic Vocabulary in Use’ by McCarthy and O’Dell, which is the best study resource I know for learning academic nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. In conclusion, students should expect it to take the full three years of an undergraduate degree to fully attain the level of specialist fluency required, and high-achieving students should focus their language efforts on this problem from day one.