Students entering an English-speaking university might think that their C1 level of English proficiency will be enough for them to breeze through four years of intense study. However, academic English is an entirely new ballgame. Even for native English speakers, new concepts and approaches to writing and speaking are introduced. Therefore, understanding academic English for native English speakers can be challenging. For non-native English speakers, the challenge increases exponentially.
As a teaching assistant at McGill University, I taught hundreds of students from many countries. In my courses, about 30% of students were either French Canadian or from another non-English speaking country. As a result, it was harder for these students to understand the approach Anglophone universities take when it comes to academic writing.
As a published academic author, I have also seen numerous issues with papers that are presented online or at conferences by non-native English professors. Many of the articles I read are extremely informative, and I have used these conference papers in my own writings (since the methodology is sound). However, because of the lack of understanding academic English, these impressive papers are rarely given a chance to shine in an academic journal or as a chapter in an academic book.
This article focuses on the use of the English language in academia. These tips will help you regardless of your academic goals. You will find these tips useful as a new high school graduate trying to enter a university, or as a well-seasoned professor who is looking to submit their paper to English-language publications. The advice in this article applies to both undergraduate and graduate students, as well as academic professionals.
Academic English is different than conversational English.
First and foremost, academic English and conversational English are very different. We will further delve into the differences in this article. However, it is important to note that the way that you speak is not the way that you will write papers or essay exams at a university. Therefore, it is important to think of academic English as being different than conversational English.
Expanding your English vocabulary
If you are entering an American university, chances are that you will take the SAT, ACT, GRE, or another standardized exam. Most of these exams test your language ability by presenting words that are not used on a daily basis, even for native-English speakers. However, many of these exam words are rarely used in academic writing. Therefore, do not think of these standardized tests as expanding your academic vocabulary, as they do not.
When you start learning at the university level, you will be introduced to an entirely new level of vocabulary that you had not experienced in previous English studies. In fact, many English-speaking students are also introduced to these new academic terms. When I started my first graduate semester at McGill, I was introduced to the word ‘parsimonious’. If you look up parsimonious in the Standard English dictionary, the definition you would probably see is ‘unwilling to spend money or use resources’. However, that is not the definition used in political science academia. In the academic world, parsimonious means that theories should use the simplest assumptions. So, as we can see, you will be exposed to an entire new set of vocabulary words that can be hard to understand, and is unique to academic studies.
Writing shorter and clear paragraphs.
One issue that non-native English speakers have when writing a paper is the lack of paragraphs. This results in a paper not having a clear organizational flow. Instead, the paper appears to ramble. Not having your paper separated in paragraphs is surely a way to receive a lower grade on your paper, or having a paper rejected by a scholarly journal.
In academia, there is no hard rule regarding the length of paragraphs. However, it is important to make sure that your paragraph breaks are in appropriate places. One way to do this is by providing headings in papers to separate major argument points. Once your paper is separated by heading, further separate your paper by minor points using paragraphs. This approach will make your paper more readable, but also provide a flow that benefits the reader.
Writing sentences that make sense.
For those who are graduate students or professors looking to publish articles in scholarly journals, you are in luck. Many journal articles are poorly written, even those written by native speakers. Some professors will try to make their journal articles sound advanced. However, they end up overwriting their article to the point where it is hard to understand.
If you are looking for the type of writing style a journal is seeking, simply read some articles in a particular journal that is in your area of study. You will get an idea of what type of grammar and structure the editor prefers, as well as commonly-used terms in your field.
This is a big no-no in academic writing! For example, never write don’t, but instead write do not. This applies to both graduate and undergraduate students. Professors are looking for more formal writing when it comes to term papers or essay exams. They do not like it when students phrase a sentence or a paragraph in a way that is similar to spoken English. If a student constantly uses contractions in their paper, their grade will probably suffer. When it comes to academic publications, the same rule applies. Editors will probably not accept your article if you have a lot of contractions. Also, it may make a bad first impression, and the editor might reject the article instead of simply asking for a resubmissions.
Using punctuation that is appropriate for English.
Students that are non-native speakers tend to use punctuation from their native language, even though they are writing in English. For example, students with a French-language background commonly use « » as quotation marks instead of “ “. While these errors are not too egregious, they are something that a grader will notice when grading a paper. And if these errors are showing up regularly on your paper, the grade might then have a higher level of scrutiny when it comes to other mistakes. This error, like the error of using contractions, is easily avoidable.
Understanding words that are similar to your native language
Even though non-native English students will be introduced to an entirely new vocabulary at a college or university, it is also important to understand if words used in your native language have the same meaning as they do in English. If a student does not understand the meaning, then this could cause problems when it comes to following instructions, which could results in a lower grade.
When I worked at McGill University, I instructed students on how to write a strong term paper. In my instructions, I explained that having scholarly journal articles is important when trying to explain the legitimacy of a theory or hypothesis. Scholarly journal articles are written by academic professionals in their respected field, and are usually in academic-specific publications. However, one of my students from France confused an academic journal with the word journal, which is French for newspaper. So, instead of citing scholarly journal articles, the student presented newspaper articles from the New York Times and other highly-respected news publications. While this was good intentioned on their part, the lack of understanding the meaning of an academic journal caused her grade to suffer, as it did not follow instructions.
How to prepare for academic English
Of course, there are many ways to study academic English. However, there are a few approaches that I will recommend here that will help you start the process.
First, read scholarly journals and books that are appropriate to your area of study. Reading these journals and books will benefit you in a few ways. You will be exposed to the type of language that is used in your field of study, as well as the writing style that is needed in academic English. Also, you learn more about the subject that you are studying. If you write a paper in the future, you might cite one of these articles or books as a source.
Second, practice your writing. As I mentioned previously, professors and graders are looking for specific errors when it comes to academic writing. The same can be said when it comes to university admissions. Most highly-respected universities require that you write a ‘statement of purpose’, which explains why you want to attend their university. Having a clear and precise letter that uses proper academic English will vastly improve your chances for university admissions.
Finally, expand your vocabulary. When reading journal articles, highlight words commonly used in your academic subject. Make sure that you understand the meaning of these words, especially if their academic meaning is different from their traditional meaning. If you do see these words used commonly in your academic field, you will probably be exposed to them in the classroom as well.