Do you talk the same way in a bar as you do in an office meeting or an English class?
Do you speak to your childhood friends and your mother-in-law with the same tone?
No matter what your native tongue is, you need to modify your language in different settings.
Of course, it is the same in English. As an English learner, you have probably already started to notice how many different situations there are that require different expressions and terms.
English for academic purposes is no exception. It differs from casual English in several important ways, including in grammar, vocabulary and writing norms.
All of these can be challenging for English learners to master.
However, learning to speak and write academic English can be very beneficial to all English students, especially those at the intermediate and advanced level of English learning. And the challenges it presents can be overcome!
How? Read this post to find out!
Why Study English for Academic Purposes?
Academic English is not just about writing good essays. There are several reasons to explore this field of the language, even for those who are not currently students. Here are some key reasons you might study academic English:
- You are considering studying at an English-speaking university. In this case, it is crucial to have the vocabulary, the writing skills and the grammar knowledge required for you to succeed at the highest level of education.
- You work in an educational organization or an academic institution. You probably communicate a lot with different academic audiences, so you definitely need to be able to speak and understand English for academic purposes.
- You want to expand your reading list. If you enjoy reading non-fiction in English, mastering English for academic purposes will give you access to academic publications and articles that can be pretty difficult to read otherwise!
- You are interested in science and technology. Mastering vocabulary and publication formats that come with academic English will allow you to read the latest scientific papers and conference reports. These are difficult for a more casual English learner.
- You want to improve your writing skills. If you practice academic English writing, you will see significant improvements in the clarity and flow of all your writing, regardless of the circumstances in which you need to use it.
As you can see, the skill of understanding English for academic purposes is useful for everyone, not just university students. So it is time to start overcoming the challenges it presents!
How to Overcome the 4 Biggest Obstacles of English for Academic Purposes
1. Complex Sentence Structure
The first thing you may notice about academic writing is the complexity of the sentences that make up most articles, essays and papers. The reason for this is simple: academic English favors longer sentences that can better convey complex ideas!
Compare these examples:
“I live in a big house. It was built in the year 2000. It is good for a large family.”
“I live in a big house that was built in the year 2000 to accommodate a large family.”
Both examples convey the same idea. However, the first example requires three short sentences to do that. The second example weaves all three points into a single, more complex sentence that is still easy to understand.
English for academic purposes requires that you use more of the latter rather than the former. Simple, short sentences may be good in brief essays for your English study group. However, knowing how to construct complex sentences will make you better equipped to deliver complex information to your audience, as required in academic English.
Sentences may be:
- Simple: short, with one subject and one verb.
- Compound: two connected independent clauses (an independent clause has a subject and verb and expresses a complete thought or idea; an independent clause can stand alone as a sentence).
- Complex: one independent clause with at least one subordinate, or dependent, clause (a dependent clause has a subject and verb but does not express a complete thought).
Read this handy guide by the University of Guelph to better understand the difference.
While writing in academic English, you should try to keep your text or presentation variable and interesting. Even if you are discussing difficult scientific concepts, using a range of different sentence structures is the first step to writing in an engaging, readable way.
To practice making your sentences longer and more complex, first think about how you usually create sentences in English. Are your sentences basic, short and choppy? Do they have several clauses? Are your sentences so long that you lose track of what you are trying to say?
- If your sentences are short and choppy, do not be afraid to make them longer. Just like in our examples above, making a sentence longer does not have to make it more confusing—on the contrary!
- If you are using several clauses in your sentences already, that is great! Study up on punctuation. Know when to use a comma and when to separate your clauses with a semicolon. Do not be afraid to use colons, parentheses and quotation marks. Oxford Dictionaries has a wonderful and detailed section on English punctuation to help you out.
- Last but not least, if you struggle with very long sentences, check your writing for common syntax mistakes. Run-on sentences and comma splices are the most widespread, but they are easy to avoid once you understand them!
Mastering the use of conjunctions is very important too. In fact…
2. Conjunctions Are Everywhere
Do you know those short little words that link your sentences nicely together? These are conjunctions. The most common examples include:
There are also conjunctive adverbs, such as:
See Oxford Dictionaries for more examples!
Academic English speakers and writers are masters of using conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs. Why? Because without them, writing complex sentences is almost impossible! As we know, learning to construct beautifully structured sentences is an important skill for academic English.
Here are some examples:
“I have been studying English for three years; I find it difficult sometimes. I really like reading short stories in English.”
These two sentences are just begging to be connected! Using conjunctions is the best way to do so:
“I have been studying English for three years, and I find it difficult sometimes, but I really like reading short stories in English.”
We used the conjunctions and plus but to make this one nice complex sentence. This sounds much more natural, right?
Conjunctions are actually an English learner’s friend! Once you learn a few and start using them, you will see an immediate jump in the quality of your writing.
To incorporate conjunctions into your English, try the following:
- Make a list of conjunctions that you encounter often and study their meaning.
- Practice writing your own sentences with conjunctions.
- Practice linking several sentences into one with the help of conjunctions.
This is an indispensable writing skill, especially in English for academic purposes.
As you start using more complex sentences, you may find it helpful to use a grammar checker like Grammarly. Grammarly is an app that works with your browser. It alerts you to spelling and grammar mistakes you make while writing online. This is a great way to improve the way you write sentences while you are doing everyday tasks, such as typing emails.
3. Complex Vocabulary
Learning English for any purpose involves a great deal of vocabulary work. General English vocabulary, of course, is very useful in academic English. However, the main difficulty for academic English lies with the specialized vocabulary often found in lectures and academic publications.
Vocabulary in academic English is not only complex, but also very specific to each individual discipline (area of study). Biology, physics, philosophy and linguistics all have their own terms and abbreviations. They can be tricky to understand if you are not used to that vocabulary.
What is more, academic English writing usually assumes that the reader is familiar with concepts and words mentioned. Very complex terms can often be used without any explanation. This adds difficulty to a lot of English learners, who struggle with reading academic publications, even if they are really interested in the topics presented.
So what do you do to get used to the complex vocabulary in academic English?
Unfortunately, there are no tricks—you just have to learn it little by little.
- Start with this great Academic Vocabulary list by Jim Burke. It will give you a good idea of what to expect from an academic text.
- If you are preparing to study at an English-speaking university, focus on the vocabulary specific to your field of study.
- Try reading academic literature in your discipline. Even if you do not understand most of it, it will give you an idea of technical terms and special words you will be learning.
- Practice academic vocabulary like any other vocabulary topic. Make lists of unfamiliar words, translate them, practice putting them into sentences (maybe even complex ones with conjunctions!) to increase your retention (memory).
- Check out Visual Thesaurus. This is a tool that allows you to start with just one word, and then explore similar words. Since it gives you visual maps of words instead of just lists, it is easier to see how words connect to each other, even if you do not immediately understand their definitions. Visual Thesaurus is great for learning words specific to an academic field, because you will be able to see how terms and concepts from a particular topic are related.
4. Logical Argument Structure
What is the purpose of addressing an academic audience? It is not just to make your listeners go “wow” at your beautiful long sentences and specialized vocabulary. As we learned, these are important. They serve a very specific purpose.
And that purpose is to present a thesis or an argument and then defend it in a convincing way.
This is what most academic papers, essays, presentations, lectures, articles and even books have in common. They rely on clear, logical writing to present ideas, support theories and offer solutions to many problems.
The Harvard College Writing Center has a good introduction on the structure of academic essays. Writing with clarity and efficiency is far from easy. You need to practice extensively to become an effective academic communicator.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Before writing your essay or delivering a presentation, think about your argument as a whole and then break it down into several ideas.
- Write an outline of what you want to say, covering all your ideas and checking if they flow logically.
- Approach all ideas one by one while writing; the outline will help to keep you on track.
- Practice composing introductions and conclusions, both of which provide a brief summary of your main argument.
If you feel like you still need help structuring your essays, Inklyo offers helpful online courses on various writing topics, including essay writing and persuasive writing (writing that presents an argument). These courses are self-paced, so you do not have to worry about scheduling your time around them.
Everyone’s favorite cliché, “practice makes perfect,” is very true here. The more essays you write, the better you will be at expressing your ideas and arguments logically, with clarity and conviction. English for academic purposes will soon come more naturally to you!
Lots of effort goes into writing papers, preparing lectures and presentations for academic purposes. Doing so in English can be especially difficult!
Academic English is very different from casual English, and it is normal to feel overwhelmed by its challenges. However, these obstacles can be overcome. Getting it right is mostly a matter of time and practice.
Learning English for academic purposes is beneficial for so many English students, and it may be just right for you, too!