Losing voice in academic writing

Losing your voice or learning academic writing? (Source: business2community.com)

“A latent function of the educational system is to instil linguistic insecurity, to discriminate linguistically, to channel children in ways that have an integral linguistic component, while appearing open and fair to all.” (Hymes, 1996, p. 84)

Academic literacy as a way to demonstrate one’s knowledge and cultivation in tertiary education takes a huge amount of time and effort to develop. For some students, this learning process can be consistent and accumulative all along the way of education; however, for some, the process can be disrupted by a change in the medium of instruction. I’m thinking particularly of overseas students from non-English backgrounds studying in Australian higher education. In this context, it is a common-sense truth that formal academic English has to be embraced as the natural and neutral vehicle to pursue the truth of the universe. In this context, it is also a common-sense truth that English is equally transparent to everyone, regardless of their linguistic or cultural background.

However, these common-sense truths fracture when it comes to the actual experience of overseas students’ academic literacy learning as I am discovering in my ethnographic research of the language learning experiences of Taiwanese students in Australia. Specifically, I have discovered that academic literacy serves just as much to instil linguistic insecurity and deny the voices of overseas students.

Let me illustrate my point with two vignettes. Both vignettes occurred during a five-week academic writing class particularly designed for Ph.D. students. When the class was advertised, it came as a timely rain to Ph.D. students in this cohort irrespective of language background or visa status. They had all been in need of writing assistance because each of them feels daunted by the challenge of having to produce a 70-100,000-word thesis.

In the academic writing class, students were given intensive tasks each week to practice their writing. The idea was to progress from a summary to a critique and then to a paper by the end of the course. The instructor, a native speaker of English and an academic literacy professional, gave them instruction and feedback on the tasks and assisted them to spot problems and overcome them.

 Vignette one: Nonsense language

In week 3, one of the participants, let’s call him Owen, received the following comment on a short summary he had written about an aspect of education policy in Taiwan:

Owen, please watch your “Chinese expression” directly translated into English. They do not read well and either need extra explanation or need to be written in an expression that makes sense in English.

Owen was puzzled. He could not recall where in the text he had used a Chinese expression and the instructor’s line and circle back to the original problem did not identify a Chinese expression. Indeed, the offending expression were not even his original writing but appeared in a quote from a senior researcher in the field. They were “Mandarin-only” and “Mandarin-plus.” It had been the point of the summary to describe changes in Taiwanese education from the use of only one language to a greater variety.

Owen was no longer puzzled but felt angry: the instructor had arbitrarily judged the terms as “Chinese expressions” upon seeing the word “Mandarin.” Apparently, she had not been able to make sense of them in the context of the summary.

Vignette two: Useless language

The event described in the second vignette took place a week after the one described above. Owen shared with me this excerpt from his diary:

Before the course commenced, the instructor wanted to see how we really write and asked us to send her something we were working on. I was excited about this tailored approach, which I desperately need but couldn’t have obtained from any other sources within the university except my academic supervisor. I quickly sent my draft chapter to her and asked for her advice since some contents covered in class did not apply to my case. The instructor replied, saying she would like to discuss my work after next class. I was very much looking forward to the meeting; however, the discussion turned out to be rather disappointing.

To begin with, the instructor told me she was using her own time to do this and it was too costly. So, she had not been able to read my 20+ pages as it would be unfair to other students. Plus, she had to leave in ten minutes for another appointment. She then started to comment on trivial things such as page numbers, table numbers, and how the boxes of interview excerpts would turn off readers. While I was getting the message of how little I could benefit from this conversation, her final comment really offended me. The instructor commented on an interview excerpt. My original interviews were in Mandarin and so the transcripts are in Mandarin and I present excerpts in blocks in Mandarin followed by the English translation.  “Why do you put Mandarin there?” she asked. “Uhm… that is the language the research participants speak and it is what they used in the interviews, so these are the original data and I have to present those.” The instructor ignored my response and went on to ask: “Who is going to read it anyway?” I was really irritated inside by this ignorant question! There are 1.2 billion speakers of Mandarin in the world! But, I couldn’t express my anger. “Uhm… I think there might be an examiner of my thesis who speaks Mandarin.” was the lame excuse I mumbled politely.  Within a few seconds, she rushed out of the door for her next thing and left me behind.  The experience made me feel like I was a beggar, for English and for academic writing.

These two vignettes reflect an English-only ideology that denies students’ voices in at least two ways: they have to use only English and they have to target only English readers. First of all, English is the default. Everything has to be translated into something which makes sense only in an imagined homogeneous English-only world. If no equivalent term exists in the material, scientific, spiritual, cultural, emotional or political world of the writer, they have to provide an extended explanation or risks being “nonsensical” with their own non-English expressions.

Put another way, English-only hegemony is disguised in academic literacy by making other languages invisible, by rejecting the legitimacy of writers from other linguistic and cultural backgrounds and by suppressing the richness of meaning human beings can express in languages other than English.

One may want to argue that since English is extensively used in global academia it is reasonable to require researchers to write proper English which can survive the judgement of English speakers. However, as the second vignette shows, the imagined English-only reader is an imposition, too. English-language readers have never been homogeneous and today’s global academics are more likely to use English as a lingua franca than as a native language (Graddol, 2006). Many if not most academic readers are thus unlikely to be monolinguals.

Unfortunately, academic literacy instruction seems largely unperturbed by these facts. It seems that its purpose is not to help novice researchers find their own academic voice nor to allow them to speak to a global multilingual academic audience but to instil in them linguistic insecurity and delegitimize their voices, as Hymes observed in another educational context all those years ago.


Graddol, D. (2006). English Next. British Council.

Hymes, D. (1996). Report from an underdeveloped country: Toward Linguistic Competence in the United States. Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an understanding of voice (pp. 63-105). London: Taylor & Francis.

Author Grace Chu-Lin Chang

Receiving a 2011 Endeavour PhD Postgraduate Award from the Australian Government to fund her research, Grace now holds a PhD degree in Linguistics from Macquarie University in Sydney. Building upon her experiences in student services as an English teacher, a student affairs coordinator, a translator and a researcher, Grace devotes herself to cross-cultural communication and social participation of transnationals.

More posts by Grace Chu-Lin Chang
  • An added irritant is the need to translate use of words not common to an English speaking world, and so a glossary or use of footnotes is required. Where i study the word limit is the same for everyone, so if a glossary is required it comes at a cost to the total words that can be used in the body of the thesis.

  • Magalie Desgrippes

    Thank you for this contribution!
    As you probably know, this phenomenon is not limited to English. I had the opportunity to experience the same thing in German: Working for a german speaking project in Swizterland and having french as my mother tongue (something a lots of swiss german people don’t hear if it can give you an idea of my german level), I was prompted to attend a class for doctoral students about “clear” academic writing. The instructor was a science journalist supposed to help us write concisely and clearly, and avoid obstruse constructions of sentences meant to sound “more scientific”.
    Just like Owen, I had to send him some work he could comment and was very disappointed by the fact, that the most comments he had done were about supposed “french” constructions.
    The best exemple ist about the word “Professionelle” which is widly used in german educational science to label people who are professional as opposed to parents or other care givers. I was advised, in a very paternal tone, that this word was only used in german for “prostitute”.
    At least he had one comment about my style : To him, I used to much the pronoun “I”, something I wouldn’t need to do, since it was known that I was the author of the text…

    happy me…

  • Thank you for the concise article. My PhD is in Education, although my ‘profession’ is Theatre. My research was concerned with connecting those two fields, Education and Theatre, in principles of a new paradigm. Although I am a native English speaker, my name is non-Anglo-Celtic and my cultural background is non-Anglo-Celtic. I witnessed the disheartening experiences of several office mates who were from non-English Speaking backgrounds. Their intellectual facilties were of the highest levels, as were their communication skills. It was the professional academics who lacked in personal and professional skills. Thus, there are year after year continual failures in supervision. This is not at all isolated to graduate studies students. However, it is complicated and easier to sideline the graduate students who are from non-English speaking backgrounds. My theorist was Pierre Bourdieu and his social theory explains clearly the various control mechanisms employed by those in control who wish to stay so. This same process of disempowerment goes on in the theatre constantly as the ethnic actor (even if they grew up in an English speaking environment yet also with linguistic diversity from their family and culture. One quote from your article intimates a broad problem that occurs within and outside of academia “It seems that its purpose is not to help novice researchers find their own academic voice nor to allow them to speak ..”.

  • khan

    You have raised a very significant issue which we all come across in academia and perhaps elsewhere too. Thanks very much indeed. Although I agree with your argument of English-Only hegemony, I am not sure if it is the key contributing factor or there are multiple factors from the conceptualization of languages to the complex intersection of writer’s resources, the immediate contextual/ institutional norms and the wider academic practices.

    I initially used to consider myself disadvantaged as I was a “non-native speaker” of English. However, with the passage of time in Lancaster, I discovered that I was wrong. My so-called native speakers of English colleagues had more de-motivating comments on their work than I did. I took great interest in investigating the reasons for it. My interactions with my lecturers and colleagues made be realize that the academic discourse is really much reified (as you have pointed it out very well in your post) narrowing spaces for student voices. It remains a monolingual world; there is no doubt about it. And it shatters many students’ voices. But I think there are many issues of genre and register involved here as well. And the institutional norms of academic writing can not be ignored as well. It is perhaps one of the reasons that academic publications are read by so few yet they are so important.

    I enjoyed your piece a lot and look forward to reading more of your work.


  • Terry Fellner

    This may be more an example of stupidity and ignorance on the instructor’s part rather than native speaker hegemony. A couple years ago I had a conversation with native speaking writing instructor when I was at a CamTESOL Conference. She became quite animated and disagreeable when I suggested that common word uses made by many non-native English writers such as “vocabularies” should be completely acceptable since they do not alter comprehension in any way and may actually enhance it for other non-native speakers/writers. To me, her view was both dismissive and paternalistic.

    But as Magalie has pointed out, this attitude is not exclusive to English. I have seen it in both my Japanese and French studies while a former colleague of mine has dealt with it in Taiwan with Chinese. All I can assume from this is that there are many ethnocentric attitudes speakers and writers have towards their native language(s). The fact that English is the de facto lingua Franca at the moment means that it is the language seen to be most guilty this.

  • Hanna Torsh

    Thanks so much for this post Grace – it really adds what has been a missing voice from EAP (English for Academic Purposes) teaching and learning, that of the learner themselves.

    In my work teaching English for Academic Purposes I have really struggled with many of the issues you raise. Who is the intended reader? What kind of style will be acceptable to them? When does grammar correction become cultural imposition? A pivotal experience for me was during a subject in a Masters course where the lecturer explicitly said that he had no problem with “non-native” uses of grammar and vocabulary, which made me realise that while at lower levels of English proficiency, academic literacy teachers may feel obliged to be hyper-correct, at higher levels such as a Masters level subject at a university where the focus is not on academic literacy as such but as a medium for ideas, it is really up to the discretion of the individual lecturers to pass judgment on the quality of academic writing.
    Perhaps for teachers the best way to improve the quality of academic literacy teaching is to move away from the idea that there is one kind of “correct” academic literacy and towards discipline-specific teaching, while at the same time involving both lecturers and academic literacy teachers in discussions like this around student experiences of feedback as paternalistic and dismissive. I know that this post would be a very valuable addition to the how to teach EAP materials I have worked with!

  • Chad Nilep

    I would like to agree with khan and add my perspective.

    Grace is right that ideas about the hegemony of English writers and English-only readers constrict the voices of foreign- or second-language writers, and marginalize multilingual or polyvocal writing styles.

    But these are not the only barriers students or early-career colleagues face. I take the instructor in vignette two at her word: institutional barriers such as large numbers of students probably make it impractical for her to spend more than 10 minutes with each student. This is not satisfactory for any student, nor for the instructor.

    Every writer has needs that should be supported to bring diverse voices and perspectives to academic and professional fields. But the resources needed in terms of time, flexibility, and expertise to provide individually tailored support are available almost nowhere.

    In this case, as elsewhere, the individuals most in need of support have the least power to change the system, while those who might have that power are either blinded to the need or may even benefit from the status quo.

    I’m an English speaker in a non-Anglophone setting. I try to spend as much time as I can mentoring graduate students in academic writing in ways that I hope preserve their voices while allowing them to be published in not-always-flexible venues. But institutional requirements on me and on the students I work with severely limit what we can do together.

  • bahar

    How informative, thanks.

  • Flora Launay

    I can sort of relate to this article being an International student myself. However, I never felt disappointed, shocked, or upset by any of my teachers’ comments. The first time I went to study abroad was in Belfast, at Queen’s University. I remember that one of my professors actually encouraged me to read articles, journals, and any other academic texts in the languages I was comfortable with. Being French, he said “Go and read it in French”. Then, he learnt that I could also understand Spanish and encouraged me to read in Spanish. He even argued than being multilingual is an advantage for a student as the range of the available resources is much wider. I then went ahead and wrote my essay based on readings written in three different languages. It was very enriching especially because each language is linked to a certain culture as well as a certain point of view. It is fascinating to see how academics write and think in other languages than English.

  • Roxxan

    Thanks for the world wide aspect post. I absolutely agree the point in the post that English is becoming a lingua franca more than a native language. As a English student has a different culture background, there might be some problems in the English learning process. I tried to ‘translate’ my mother tough into English instead of ‘organise’ it base on English culture. In this case, sometimes what I try to express could not make sense. As mentioned in the article, ‘If no equivalent term exists in the material, scientific, spiritual, cultural, emotional or political world of the writer, they have to provide an extended explanation or risks being “nonsensical” with their own non-English expressions.’