Monday, December 06, 2010

Academic English

I have been invited to participate in a workshop about the role of the English language in organization studies next week. The general theme of the workshop seems to be "critical"; it questions the wisdom of using English as the default language for international conferences and international publication. My approach (my wisdom, if you will) has always been "practical" in this area. So, before answering the question of why we should work largely in English (even in Denmark), which I will write a blog post about next week as I prepare for the workshop, this morning I want to write something about how to write in English.

Many people whose first language is not English feel a "language barrier" in their struggle to write for publication. For obvious reasons, they have an easier time expressing themselves in their native language and so they imagine that the difficulty lies in their lack of mastery of English. What they forget, in my opinion, is that the difficulty of writing for international publication cannot be felt in, say, Danish. Exaggerating a little, we can say that they are experiencing what a hockey player might call a "skating barrier". "This business with the stick and puck would be so much easier if I didn't have to wear these skates!" Of course, they forget that the ice is a given. What they really said was: "If only I didn't have to play on ice, I could use my native talent for walking and running to play this game."

There is only one way to break through a competence barrier like this: practice. People sometimes ask me whether I give courses in "How to improve your academic English" or whether I can recommend a good book of English grammar. I try not to. Instead, I tell people to read published work in their field (in English, of course) every day and to write for at least half an hour in English every day as well. I presume that the person who is asking knows enough English to read and understand what is being written in the field. After all, if the problem is learning English in the first place then I would give the same advice, but on a different level: listen to English every day and speak it every day for at least half an hour.

Also, expose yourself to criticism of your language on a regular basis. It doesn't have to be every day, but as often as every week can be quite useful. To this end, I offer our PhD students "piano lessons". They work on a paragraph once a day for half an hour; which is to say, they write a paragraph of prose to support a key sentence we have decided upon in advance. They write that paragraph five times over the course of a week and then bring their best version to me. I then read it out loud for them and critique the language. Depending on the progress they've made, we either assign the same sentence for the coming week or pick a new one. It is always about something they know, something related to their research project.

The reason I don't offer courses and books is that I don't want to do anything to foster the illusion that language skills are a kind of knowledge. Rather, language is a way of knowing—not a form of knowledge, if you will, but the form of knowledge. You don't acquire language skills, you get yourself into linguistic shape. You shape your self linguistically. Those who reject English as their working language (those who lament the fact that English is the default language for academic work) are rejecting this project of self-fashioning (a term Jonathan Mayhew taught me in his comment to this post earlier this year). Some try to present their resistance in this regard as a "political" stance, a critical posture. I try to get them to see that it is a practical issue. What they are rejecting is not a particular regime of subjugation (or, more technically, subjectification) but a particular kind of a labour. Mastering a language is hard work.


Jonathan said...

Yes. All my teaching is in Spanish, so I sometimes think, boy, if my teaching was in English, it would be so much easier, because my students would have more mastery of the language and talk much more.

But, of course, when I taught my jazz course in English last spring, teaching was no more easier. The less adept students wrote as badly in English as they would have in Spanish. It was kind of like those ice skates in your analogy.

Jonathan said...

Scholarly Self-Fashioning from SMT.