To write English like a professor, don’t rely on Google translate

You haven’t used ‘stakeholder’ enough. Professor and student via Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

Thankfully, nobody speaks academic English as a first language. The English of the university is a very particular form that has specific features and conventions. Sometimes, this is just referred to as “academic style”.

It used to be a matter of instinct – what felt right. But now a large amount of research is using a “big data” approach to analyse millions of words of academic writing. This has resulted in projects such as the Academic Word List, the 570 most commonly used words in academic text across disciplines, (excluding the 2,000 most common words in English).

Other research has looked at what words and phrases are often used to thread the various parts of a structure together. These are known as “lexical bundles”, and reflect the view that a language doesn’t have a separate grammar and vocabulary – rather the two are combined into a “lexico-grammar”.

Every university which teaches in English will have an English language teaching department to support students whose first language is not English. These departments vary in size and prominence, but what they all share is that they purport to teach “English for academic purposes”.

What’s acceptable?

There is a tension within the field about what type of English should be acceptable. It is recognised that English is no longer solely the language of the British, North Americans and Australasians. English is spoken as a first or second language in countries such as Kenya and Malaysia, and is being learnt as a lingua franca by vast numbers of people across the world, from Argentina to China.

This has led to a re-conceptualisation of English as a language without a centre, and with a much greater flexibility in terms of grammatical accuracy than a single standard. This makes enormous sense when a Pole is talking to a Vietnamese person in a social setting: the niceties of grammar do not matter, the message does.

However, academic writing is generally done under high-stakes conditions, on which students’ degree are judged. This leads to a tension between encouraging students to write with clarity, with accuracy or with fluency.

If we tell our students “the message, not the grammar, matters” and the person marking their dissertations insists that the correct form is “the data suggest” not “the data suggests”, we are doing them a disservice.

This idea of a grammatical normality becomes even more complex when we bring in students who are using English as a second language, but often in highly localised forms.

For example, a Malaysian student whose English is perfectly functional, but includes very few auxiliary verbs such as “does” and “am”, may come to a course on English for academic purposes, to be told that the form of English he speaks, and has spoken since childhood is “wrong”.

Some see this as the equivalent of an American studying in Britain being told she must stop using words such as “candy” and “mailman” – surely an intolerable intrusion into her linguistic identity. Or, should we teach students that they must, at least in the academic context, speak and write within the grammatical norms of the UK? This seems like an unacceptably colonial attitude.

The solution most practitioners and writers come up with is to allow the students the choice. To do this, they need to allow them to see and analyse the norms of academic writing. By doing this, the control of what is acceptable moves from the teacher to the students, allowing them a much larger amount of autonomy in their writing.

This also encourages students to think of themselves as member of the academic community, with their own academic self, and academic voice. This is reflected in the shift in title from “teacher” or “tutor” to “language adviser”, seen in many English for academic purposes departments.

The coming of Google translate

Another issue facing the sector is the issue of free online automatic translations, such as Google translate. It could be argued that these could put the English for academic purposes departments out of business: why would a student go to the expense and effort of learning English when he or she can just translate in and out of his first language online?

But this argument relies on the assumption that academic English relies on a surface level of literacy, based purely on grammatical accuracy. What Google translate is unable to do is teach the deeper academic literacies needed by students for full engagement with the academic community. It is my prediction that machine translation will inevitably change the way students are taught English – but it will not replace it.

Alongside these debates, it’s important to remember that this type of English teaching is all about language being used to express complex ideas, and it is impossible to teach without a certain complexity and depth of content. It is also about aligning to the intellectual norms of academia, which generally involves a large amount of analysis and picking apart of concepts within a rigorous intellectual framework.

We show respect to the intellectuals by trying to deconstruct their work. However, many students will come to an English for academic writing course from a radically different intellectual background, one where school, or even university has been more focused on understanding and reworking the ideas of the established experts, and respecting their work by not trying to deconstruct it.

Therefore, the job of the English for academic purposes teacher gains an extra layer. They need to encourage a different type of thinking in the students, in order to enable them to take part in a different type of writing.