What is Academic English?

Do you want to know more about academic English? Well, keep reading!

In this article I will explain what Academic English is, and then follow with some examples of typical university course work.

By: Pierre A. Herman

What is Academic English?

Academic English could be described as the written and spoken language, forms, expectations, and conventions that are used and followed when communicating to an academic audience in the English-speaking world. I might add that because of globalization, many of these forms and conventions have been adopted worldwide, especially in the writing and publication of academic articles.

Academic English has its very own register (or style) which covers both vocabulary and grammar. It is different from both informal spoken and written English (chatting with a teacher or writing emails), and from other kinds of formal communication (like a newspaper article, an announcement by the government, or a letter from the bank). You might see some overlap or similarities, but academic English has its own style which is hard to miss!

In its written forms, Academic English is used when students write essays, reviews and dissertations, as well as when researchers and academics write academic articles for publication in journals  In its spoken form, we are mostly talking about presentations that we (students, professors and/or researchers) make to communicate research findings to an academic audience.

Some people ask: Is TED.com academic? Well, the simple answer is no. TED-talks have their very own style and are considered more popular entertainment than academic. But there is a grey area that it does cross, especially when researchers talk about their research findings. So some TED talks do have a more academic style than others. In any case, watching them can be an excellent way of learning how to unpack (or simplify) a difficult topic so that a general, educated audience can understand it and how to deliver it with maximum impact!

Here, you’ll find some descriptions of typical academic assignments you might be asked to write at a university in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and other countries.

The standard academic essay (or paper):

In this very common assignment, you will usually be given a title or choice of titles. The title could be a statement or it could be a question. One way or the other, you will have to take a side or position, and make an argument. Your introduction will therefore need to have a thesis statement, which is normally a single sentence which outlines your main argument and possibly your main lines or points of defence. To get a good grade, you will need to do a lot of reading, and you will have to cite a number of published articles and/or books. The more reading you do, and the more citations you make, the better your defence will be.  An even better paper will put an original spin or focus on the title, critically analyse (i.e. compare and contrast) different published opinions, and/or provide an original argument.

A problem-solution essay:

On the surface, this seems self-explanatory. There’s a problem, and there’s a solution. Where it could differ is how much of this you are given in advance. Your professor might give you the problem, whereby you need to come up with the solution(s). But in other cases, you might have to define both the problem(s) and solution(s) yourself. In any case, the problem needs to be real, and you should illustrate it with reference to facts, statistics and/or published articles which say so. And unless explicitly stated otherwise, the solutions do not have to be your own, but they can also be ones you have read about and can cite. A better paper will also add to what you have read and cited with original thinking, like novel solutions or ideas not yet published.

A review or comparative review

In a review, you’ll be expected to read either a single article, chapter, or book (or two in the case of a comparative review) and review it. The idea is similar to a book or film review you might read in the newspaper, but with a more objective, analytical perspective. You want to write it imagining that people in your academic community (teachers, professors, researchers…) will be able to get a an idea of the text without actually reading it. You will therefore have to describe, summarize, and “unpack” the text for your readers. You are not expected to critique the text (see below), but rather give us an honest evaluation of its content.

A critical review or critical comparative review

In this case, the key word is “critical”. You’ll have to do all of the same things you did in a plain review (summarizing, describing and unpacking), but in addition, you will also have to add your own critical analysis. With this in mind, you would likely have to do more reading “around” the text, to show that you understand the topic and can offer perspective to your reader. In that case, you might be able to show how the text advances (or doesn’t) a particular topic or research area, or what it lacks. The objective again is for the reader of your review to understand the text you are reviewing, but with the bonus of getting your “expert” opinion!

A literature review

A literature review could be a stand-alone paper, or it could be part of a longer essay or dissertation (see below). The objective is that your reader understands what has been written and/or said (until now) on the topic or question you are writing about. In both cases (stand-alone or part of a longer paper), you will want to locate and read the most important published articles and/or books on the topic you are covering. You will need to compare, contrast, synthesize and evaluate a fair number of them so that your reader can arrive at a good understanding of why your topic or question is important, what research has been done on the topic or question until now, and the findings, discoveries or knowledge established. A literature review can also include the limitations of current published research, helping us understand why YOUR paper is important and an advancement of current knowledge.

A dissertation

A dissertation, also referred to as a final project, a thesis or thesis paper, is generally written by students at the end of their undergraduate or graduate course. Writing one usually counts as credit for passing your degree. In other words, it is counted like one of the classes you take. A dissertation can range in length anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 words for a Master’s degree or up to 100,000 words in the case of a PhD (doctorate). Here, you are expected to define an original question, thesis or argument, or at minimum, tweak previously-conducted research in a novel way. For example, conducting the same research but in a different geographical location, or with slightly different research variables.

The general organization of a dissertation would be the following: Abstract; Introduction; Literature review; Definition of research question; Research methods used; Findings; Discussion; and finally the conclusion. However, depending on the school or faculty you are studying in, there may be a different ordering, may exclude some of the above or include other sections and headings. Always check with your school’s requirements before starting!

An academic article

An “article”, not to be confused with “essay” or “paper”, is research that has been published in a recognized academic journal. The vast majority of journal articles are now published online and you can find them on your university’s online library, through Google Scholar, and (if you didn’t know about it) through a site called Sci-Hub, which provides free access to most articles published online.

Sci-Hub: removing barriers in the way of science

 An article is often organized in a very similar way to (and with the same headings as) a dissertation, with the most important information present in the abstract, introduction and conclusion. When reading large numbers of academic articles, it’s best to focus on the abstract, introduction and conclusion (in that order) to see whether the article is relevant to your topic and can provide useful information or content for your paper, and only then reading (or not) the other sections.

Do you have more questions about Academic English or EAP (English for Academic Purposes)? Do you need to improve your academic English skills prior to (or during) your chosen course? Click here to learn how I can help you!

Pierre is a native English-speaking, professional and fully-qualified language teacher with over 15 years of experience helping students and professionals improve their language skills.

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