“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.