Publishing in English as an additional language (a view from outside)

Last fall, I was asked to “blurb” – to provide some pithy promotional phrases for – a new book: Corcoran, Englander, and Muresan’s “Pedagogies and Policies for Publishing Research in English: Local Initiatives Supporting International Scholars  It’s a book about how training can be provided to support scholars who want to publish research in English, despite having English as an additional language (that is, being EAL writers).

I’m glad I agreed to read and blurb Publishing Research in English, because it turned out to be fascinating.  I’m not reviewing it here, though; instead, I want to share a few interesting points I picked up from the book.  Some are things I knew; some are things I didn’t. Some are things that may find global agreement among EAL writers; others are doubtless quite different.  If you’re an EAL writer, or if you advise or teach EAL readers, I hope you’ll share your reaction in the Replies.

My first reaction upon getting the blurb request was, of course, “Why me?” – but I suppose it wasn’t completely bizarre, because The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (my guidebook for scientific writers) does include a chapter on writing for EAL researchers.  But my own treatment of the issue comes with two obvious and huge caveats. First, as an Anglophone, I’ve no direct experience with EAL writing*. And second, what I could pack into one chapter is a tiny scratch on the surface of a big and complex issue, one with its own academic discipline and a worldwide community of scholars.

Publishing Research in English is an edited volume, and what makes it particularly interesting is its organization into regional perspectives – with chapters by scholars working in Latin America, Scandinavia, Southern and Eastern Europe, East Asia, South Asia, Africa, and the Persian Gulf. Geopolitical and linguistic coverage isn’t universal, of course, but this variety does lead to important points both about how EAL writing has some universalities and some important variation.

EAL writing (and EAL reading, although Publishing Research in English doesn’t address that) is an extremely important thing in an ever-more globalized world of scholarship.  Those of us who are privileged by having English as a first language may be aware of that (somewhat ironically, the academic field has been heavily influenced, if not dominated, by Anglophone scholars).  But it’s invaluable to hear directly from scholars who are living the experience of publishing in an additional language – and of helping other scholars do the same.

So, in no particular order, here are a few things that stood out to me, reading Publishing Research in English.

  • There’s no single kind of “EAL writer”. Experiences and challenges vary among geolinguistic regions, first of all. Nigerian and Icelandic chapters, for instance, discuss the experience of scholars who are fluent English speakers but still find difficulty writing research in English, while Algerian and Pakistani chapters discuss EAL writing that starts with minimal English fluency.  Along another dimension: in the Nigerian and Pakistani chapters, English is the language of the British colonizers; in the Icelandic and Algerian chapters that isn’t true, and the cultural positioning of the language does make a difference.  But it isn’t just a matter of uneven experience with English.  The challenges of EAL writing vary across career stages, academic backgrounds, disciplines, and even writing genres (empirical papers vs. literature reviews vs. proposals, and so on).
  • Since there’s no single kind of EAL writer, it makes sense that there’s no single kind of EAL intervention either. Different universities provide support in different ways: sometimes one-on-one tutoring, sometimes workshops, sometimes formal seminar-style coursework, sometimes online reading-and-assignment courses.  The content varies hugely to, and the impression left by Publishing Research in English is that there’s a strong ad hoc element to all this – the field simply isn’t mature enough, and resourcing for support programs isn’t universal enough, for a flowchart that would recommend the best intervention for a particular group of EAL writers.
  • My last two points were about diversity among EAL writers, but I discovered a very strong common thread through chapters coming from very different language perspectives. It’s this:  teaching EAL academic writing isn’t primarly a matter of teaching the English language.  Yes, EAL academic writers need vocabulary and grammar and all those things; but these straight-up linguistic elements don’t seem to be the most important challenges.  Both EAL writers themselves, and those who teach them, report that it’s much more important to each academic English, by which I mean things like the norms of academic-writing structure, phrasing conventions, rhetorical and discoursal patterns, and what’s emphasized and what’s not.  All these things aren’t English issues, per se, but they have emerged in a literature dominated by English and by European and North American cultural perspectives.  As one small example, cultures vary in the degree of deference expected to the views of one’s elders – and this matters in how a critical literature review might be written!
  • Some EAL writers report that they can produce technical text without too much problem; but they’re dissatisfied that their English writing lacks the voice and personality that they have in their native language. This fascinated me, because in scientific writing we’ve worked hard for a long time to scrub away as many traces of the writer’s personality as we can (our long fetishization of the passive voice being only the most obvious example).  Perhaps an EAL writer is in a good position to recognize that in fact, our writing does retain some voice – perhaps we don’t have papers diverging in style the way Ernest Hemingway differs from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but it’s not impossible to find stylistic differences between my papers and my colleagues.  Mine, for example, are beginning to use contractions in an effort to be more natural and less stilted (and no, that doesn’t seem to be a barrier to EAL readers); but they suffer from my endless fascination with parentheses.
  • It’s probably inevitable, but there’s a real irony in the way educational and humanities jargon sometimes runs thick in Publishing Research in English. Consider this, for example: “We argue that we are seeing here an instance of a paradox – academic writing is not real (its properties are contingent, not essential), and at the same time real (it is imbricated in material, often controversial, systems of reward and advancement). Situating this paradox in the context of Norwegian higher education language debates, we examine the concept of “academic drift” and the practical responses offered by Legitimation Code Theory to this issue. Attending to the constructedness of academic forms and disciplinarity, we suggest that questions concerning national language policies are bound up with questions about the nature of academic writing itself.”   I don’t mean to shame the authors of this interesting chapter – this language is not at all unusual for its field (and it’s plainer than a lot; I’ll spare you the quotes from Jacques Derrida).  It’s just ironic and unfortunate that a field that centres on the difficulty of expressing oneself in another language would use language that is itself difficult for others to access.  In particular, one wonders whether the very EAL scholars who might like to learn from Publishing Research in English might be disadvantaged by the disciplinary jargon. This is not an issue restricted to this book!
  • We hear a lot about the pressure for everyone, worldwide, to publish in English, but it’s worth keeping in mind that his pressure isn’t uniform. Some disciplines (especially STEM) have published almost exclusively in English for a long time; others (like the humanities) have retained much more local-language publication.  And there are fields – such as teaching, nursing, and the clinical medical sciences – in which a lot of research is intrinsically national in its audience, connected to local practice and national-scale structuring and regulation.  Here, research would be ineffective if reported in English, and a global audience is secondary.  Closer to my own disciplinary home, I wonder if this is true for conservation and especially restoration ecology – with luck, someone will tell us in the Replies.
  • Unsurprisingly, Publishing Research in English picks up on the widespread discussion of English publication dominance as a social-justice issue. Certainly, a first-language English speaker (like me) has an unearned advantage in building a career.  Perhaps surprisingly, resentment of this doesn’t seem a universal attitude.  Many scholars seem to show “resigned pragmatism” about the need to writing in English, and in some cases scholars simply show enthusiasm for accessing larger audiences by writing in a global language.  To these scholars, the ability to write in English is simply a tool they can deploy to increase research impact.  But there is resentment, it’s entirely reasonable, and those of us who are English-privileged should remember when interacting with EAL students and colleagues, when reviewing or editing papers by EAL writers, and so on.

I don’t expect every scientist to read Publishing Research in English.  But it would be wise for every scientist to think a bit about the fact that most scientists in the world are EAL writers (and readers!).  I’ll confess that, as an Anglophone, for a long time I took writing in my first language for granted.  Writing the EAL chapter of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing taught me a lot; reading Publishing Research in English taught me more.  If you’re Anglophone like me, I hope there’s something in my semi-random bullet list that piques your own interest.  If you’re an EAL writer, please feel free to use the Replies to contribute important points I’ve missed.

© Stephen Heard  February 28, 2018

*^Cue joke about how lack of expertise has never stopped me before.  But, seriously, I write about lots of things I don’t have experience or expertise with.  We all have to; the key is being willing to learn, and being willing to recognize when we’re wrong.

2 thoughts on “Publishing in English as an additional language (a view from outside)

  1. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

    Well, I’m pretty sure you were expecting me to have something to say!

    It is interesting, and your third point resonated with me. I’ve always had good grades when learning English (at some point, I’ve even been a tutor!), but I still had to learn academic writing in English when I started my M.Sc. Now, when I read first draft by MSc or undergraduate students, I sometimes find their English bad…but I’m wrong. Most of the time, these students had TOEFL results high enough that they did not have to take English classes at the university level!

    I also understand the resentment. For a Francophone in Canada, working in English is almost a political statement. There is only one thing I would add: Writing in English is a barrier when you want to share your accomplishment with your family. An anglophone might think that their family will never read their thesis, but at least, it’s in their language. My thesis is just inaccessible to most of my family and my friends (except the French introduction and conclusion).

    Liked by 1 person


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