By lucky coincidence, most of the Bristol Clear writers’ retreats this year are being run in a large, well-lit room in Bristol’s ‘Centre for Academic Language and Development’. The CALD is a unit dedicated to supporting (particularly overseas) students with their English. As you walk through the main doors of the Centre, you can’t help but notice the banners, celebrating a quote by Pierre Bourdieu, which says
Academic language… is nobody’s mother tongue.
Bourdieu is right, academic language isn’t anyone’s mother tongue.
And for many of those who come on writing retreats, neither is English. And yet they are expected to not only write and publish in academic language, but in the academic form of English.
A non-native form, of a non-native tongue.
How are they doing this?
This is something that I’ve been asking those who attend retreats. I’ve also been looking in the literature to find out what others do. There appear to be four main approaches.
Write with a native
Probably the most common way that those who aren’t native speakers of English produce publication-ready material is by co-writing with native speakers (who lend their eye to all of the writing at all stages).
As a strategy, this is hugely effective, particularly at early career stage when there are potentially, naturally, multiple authors involved in a publication. But it can also carry risk, particularly if any kind of tension over the ‘authoring’ breaks out – e.g. where author ‘order’ becomes less an issue of who contributed most to the thinking, and more about who wrote more ‘words’. This can get worse when, in the mind of the authors, they begin to associate words with expertise. One writer describes the problems that arose when native English speakers in a mixed language group started to act as if they were more ‘expert’ in the research topic, simply because their English was ‘better’.
“at one point [it] caused me to go off and publish some academic articles in [my own language] just to prove that I’m better than them at something” (Sword 2017: 96).
That doesn’t mean you should avoid writing with native English speakers – It can work brilliantly, and even the difficult moments make it a perfect opportunity to practise negotiation and collaborative working (both of which are key professional skills). But it does mean being aware of the potential for tension early on, and taking steps to resolve it through a planned and professional approach, rather than assuming that ‘things will just work out OK’.
Ask a native to proof (or better still, mentor) your work
After writing with a native speaker, the next most frequent approach is to find a colleague who is prepared to proofread and/or correct a draft that you have written.
This can be very effective. Although it does rely on a (sometimes fragile) quid pro quo. Even though many fields have strong non-English literatures, in most the need to write in English massively outstrips the need to go in the other direction. Rather than a balance, then, the ‘proofing’ approach can end up relying on the generosity of a colleague, who may not receive the same degree of support back from you if they don’t need to publish in your language.
There are ways around this. Helen Sword suggests, in her book ‘Air & Light & Time & Space’ that you can establish a balance in the relationship by ‘giving back’ something: conversational language support in your native tongue, or cooking lessons. If you can’t do that, then you can at least offer constructive critical feedback on their work if they need it.
Alternatively, you might try to move away from the ‘ad hoc’, and establish a more stable relationship with a ‘language mentor’ – someone who will regularly work with you, reading what you write, to identify consistent language issues that you can then correct.
Language mentoring has the advantage that, because it systematically works on reoccurring weak points in your language, over time your English improves.
An alternative approach, and one that doesn’t rely on colleagues, is to get proofing done by a professional. This can be useful, particularly if you are writing for an unfamiliar audience and need to ensure that not only the language, but the content lands as you want.
However, the expertise of editors can, on occasion, collide with the aims of the writer. I work in a field (Deaf Studies) where a capital letter can mean the difference between affirming someone’s identity as the member of a cultural and linguistic group (Deaf), or defining them as disabled (deaf). I have had editors assume that my capitalisation was in error, and remove it all – a mistake that then required hours of careful re-editing to put it all back in.
Besides which, professional proofing is expensive, and although it’s now required by some journals for articles from non-native speakers, I’m not aware of any publishers (or indeed any universities) who will pay for it.
Take a chance
The final approach is where you don’t get any native speaker support, but simply write and submit, and see what happens.
This is a gamble that can pay off… Researchers I spoke to have seen this work – but only where their English has been almost perfect, and where they happen to have landed a reviewer who has had time (and a generous spirit) enough to offer corrections, or on an editor who has seen the individuality of the writer’s style as something to be valued, rather than smoothed out.
The general rule of thumb, though, when presenting a manuscript for publication is to make it as perfect as possible. Editors and reviewers are just as tired and overworked as everyone else, and the last thing they want to do is wrestle with a script that is peppered with problems, or is unclear.
In that case, the gamble can fail – spectacularly.
I’ve known some very good articles be rejected and then really struggle to find a home, simply because in their first submitted form, they looked like the writer ‘hadn’t bothered’.
And finally… to all those native speakers out there.
All of the academics that I spoke to, and much of the literature, suggests that the better your English gets, the less you have to rely on any of these strategies, and the more you can simply write and submit under the ‘take a chance’ approach with a good expectation of success.
But as (again) Helen Sword suggests, that takes time.
Learning to write sophisticated academic English… Like any other artisanal skill, the art of communicating fluently and elegantly… requires, at the top end of achievement, thousands of hours of practice – and there are no shortcuts.
No shortcuts means that, in addition to their academic skills, non-native users of English spend thousands of hours honing a skill that most English-world academics have picked up, probably without ever being aware of it.
So here’s a thought for all those academics out there who are native speakers… consider how lucky you are, and be generous with it.
Whether as a co-author, an ad-hoc proofer, a mentor, a willing reviewer or editor, or simply as a colleague, ask what you can do to support your colleagues to succeed.