Fitting Language – but how many sizes?

Paul Roberts explains the use of International Academic English


Language is central to the academic endeavour: it is not an add-on. Learning to be an academic – and becoming one – is about people ‘languaging’ themselves, using language to create for themselves an identity as a scholar or academic. And as scholarship, research and Higher Education become increasingly global, this process has become an ‘English languaging’ one.

The problem, however, is that the ‘English Language’, as itis used in and among the 196 countries of the world, covers a huge range of ‘languaging’ processes. Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author, considered English to be the way in which all of Africa might be given a ‘new voice’ (Achebe 1975/1994: 433-4). A study of language use at a Berlin University found that German students’ tend to connect their mastery of English with other factors, such as being “alternative Germans” or model Europeans (Erling 2008). In Thailand, English is perceived as an essential lingua franca which links Thailand culturally, intellectually and commercially with other ASEAN (Association of South Eastern Nations) countries (Baker 2012).

These languaging processes naturally gives rise to different epithets such as ‘Nigerian English’, ‘German English’, ‘Thai English’, and, relevant here, ‘International Academic English’. But how can International Academic English be characterised? For those who wish to use English in order to assume an international academic identity, what is and is not acceptable?

One-size English

Teachers in University English Language Teaching operations often struggle with the general vagueness surrounding this question and what Polyani (1958) called the ‘tacit’ nature of the knowledge required in order to use English appropriately in Higher Education. In a recent article in the journal ‘System’, intended to help budding scholars to write for an international academic audience, J.A. Coleman (2014) acknowledges the obstacles “faced by all authors in adopting the generic norms of academic writing.” These include the ‘high level of acceptability’ required by editorial boards who expect “international standards of academic English.” Yet Coleman, inevitably, stops short of explicating these standards.

The question may be slightly easier to answer with regard to spoken English. A growing collection of scholarly and research literature suggests that there is a general acceptance of diverse forms of spoken English in the academy (see, for example, Mauranen 2012). That said, students (and occasionally staff members) at the University of York sometimes report to, or are referred to the Centre for English Language Teaching (CELT) because their spoken English is non-standard. Self-referring students are concerned that they may not be understood, while others are sent by staff members who wonder whether some pronunciation adjustments might make for greater ease of comprehension. The fact that referred or concerned students or staff members are exclusively those with ‘nonnative-speaker’ accents should give us pause. In the best of all possible international academic contexts, students and academics will accept that everyone has her or his individual speech characteristics and that, in any interaction, both speaker and listener have a responsibility to make communication successful.

Navigating writing expectations

When it comes to writing International Academic English, individual characteristics are more problematic and readers are less likely to accommodate to those who write with an accent than they are, as listeners, to those who speak with one. While knowledge might be said to be work-in-progress during oral discussion, the act of writing creates a product: knowledge is constructed through and by writing. And it seems that there is only one size (or shape or form) of knowledge which is acceptable to the Academy. Any overview of the work of writers who have ‘languaged themselves’ into an international academic community serves to make the point: the use of English in internationally edited academic journals, across disciplines, shows that the academic knowledge constructed there is most often disembodied, lacking in human agency, reason-based, free from emotion and narratable in a linear fashion. Grammatical accuracy goes without saying; punctuation is unobtrusive.

However, most students and many scholars and researchers come up against considerable difficulties in their attempts to join this international academic community through their writing: there are no ‘native speakers’ of International Academic English and the way to full membership is a hard one. Academics from prestigious universities, often leading world-class research teams, have had papers rejected by journal editorial boards because of the way they have used English. This is not simply a question of revising prose to iron out grammatical errors or stylistic infelicities: editors have often required a complete reworking (resizing?) of scripts so that they fit into expected international norms (see for example Flowerdew, 2000).

Even more than international academics having to ‘relanguage’ themselves in order to produce acceptable knowledge, students find themselves struggling not just with the idiosyncrasies and shibboleths of English grammar but also with the requirement to create an acceptable form of knowledge, one which conforms to acceptable international standards. Hino (2012), for example, reports a student who claims: ‘“What I wrote with the Japanese model was my original opinion that I really wanted to express. What I wrote with the American model was different from my own idea. Today, I was shocked to realize that I have been forbidden to express what I really want to say”’. Perhaps the knowledge the student wanted to construct was non-linear, or admitting of human agency, or inclusive of emotion as well as reason.

A ‘one-size’ approach to International Academic English, then, has at least two serious consequences. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, it serves to exclude from the international academic community anyone who, unlike the student cited by Hino, does not succeed in writing in International Academic English. This exclusion is, of course, a disappointment for the excluded but also a loss to the whole community.

The second consequence is potentially even more serious. In restricting the construction of knowledge by insisting on ‘one size’, there is a serious risk of diminishing the range and breadth of that knowledge, producing an academic monoculture, which, like agricultural monoculture, is reductive, limiting and eventually disastrous.


  •  Achebe, C. (1975/1994). The African writer and the English language. In Williams, P. & Chrisman, L. (Eds.) Colonial discourse and post-colonial theory: a reader. New York: University of Columbia Press. pp 428-434.
  • Baker, W. (2012). English as a lingua franca in Thailand: Characterisations and implications. In: Baird, R., Kitazawa, M., Lee, H.Y. & Wang, Y. (Eds) Englishes in Practice: Working Papers of the Centre for Global Englishes, University of Southampton. Issue 1, pp18-27. Available at (Accessed February 28th 2015).
  • Coleman, J.A. (2014). How to get published in English: Advice from an outgoing editor-in-chief. System 42 (2014) 404-411.
  • Erling, E.J. (2008). Local investigations of global English: Teaching English as a global language at the Freie Universität Berlin. In Hardman, J. and Dogancay-Aktuna, S. (eds.) Global English language teacher education. Alexandria VA: TESOL Publications.
  • Flowerdew, J. (2000). Discourse community, legitimate peripheral participation, and the nonnative-English-speaking scholar. TESOL Quarterly, 34/1 pp127-150.
  • Hino, N. (2012). Endonormative models of EIL for the Expanding Circle. In Matsuda, A. (Ed.) Principles and practices of teaching English as an international language.  Clevedon: Multilingual Matters pp28-43.
  • Mauranen, A. (2012). Exploring ELF: academic English shaped by non-native speakers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Polanyi, M, (1958) Personal knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

A10_Roberts-bio-picPaul Roberts joined the Centre for English Language Teaching as Director in August 2009. He has taught English and trained teachers of English in six different countries and written, or co-written, several ELT books. Paul is interested in the internationalisation of Higher Education, with a particular interest in curriculum transformation. He can be contacted on

One thought on “Fitting Language – but how many sizes?

  1. Pingback: L&T Session D – Fitting Language – but how many sizes? | York Learning & Teaching Forum

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