I recently attended a one-day event at the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE), focusing on ‘working with and in other cultures in HE’. Karen Ottewell from Cambridge University ran a particularly useful session about ‘writing across cultures’.
Karen argues that those for whom English is a second language (L2 learners) find writing in academic English challenging, not just because of the language, but because of differences in style of narrative and argumentation between English and their first language. This makes a lot of sense.
Karen identifies ‘four pillars’ of English expression in academia (I would add, I consider these to be helpful generalisations, and they all apply to many but not all disciplines):
- UK academic English adopts an essentially Platonic-Aristotelian sequence, drawing upon rhetoric (logos, ethos and pathos).
- UK academic English is writer-responsible. It is the writer’s responsibility to express themselves clearly and in an organised manner that is intelligible to the reader. Some other languages are much more reader-responsible, and the reader has to work hard to make sense of the narrative.
- UK academic English is usually low-context. It does not assume a particular cultural context, but attempts to set matters out fully, albeit concisely. Much is made explicit and there is considerable reliance on what is written down. Other languages may assume a strong cultural context, and much may be implicit.
- UK academic English is essentially linear. Sentences tend to be linear: subject, verb, object (active) or object, verb, subject (passive). Sentences are cumulative, building one on another, and organised into paragraphs. In a paragraph, the theme (topic) tends to come before commentary. Within and between paragraphs, old information tends to come before new, simple before more complex.
L2 writers (or L1 writers for that matter) may not recognise and apply these conventions, and so their writing may be less easy to comprehend.