31 May 2011

ELF-based Academic Writing

I have one final observation about the ELF conference in Hong Kong that I discussed in my previous two postings.

Jennifer Jenkins told me that she never corrects the written English of her PhD students. In fact, she claimed that forcing them to write "proper" academic English, with a clear topic sentence for each paragraph and so on, makes it harder for her to understand what they are trying to say.

In contrast, I insist that my students use standard English grammar in their writing, and I always correct any deviations from standard usage.

Now, I admit that I am being inconsistent: I advocate the acceptance of local variation in English, but at the same time I do not tolerate it in the writing of my students. In fact, it can get even worse: I insist that my students adopt non-judgmental terminology when discussing language use, so they must talk about "features" rather than "errors" or "mistakes" in the patterns of language they are describing; but at the same time I highlight such errors and mistakes in their writing and insist that they are avoided. So I acknowledge that I am being hypocritical, and this has troubled me for some time.

My defense is this: I allow variation in pronunciation, but I insist on standard grammar in writing. You must write according to the worldwide norms of English, but you can pronounce it how you like so long as the way you pronounce it is easily intelligible. In other words, I accept localised accents but not dialects (at least, for writing). However, as I said, I realise that this is not truly consistent with my approach towards World Englishes.

One further observation: some people advocate accepting localised grammatical usage in order to avoid imposing native-speaker norms on the rest of the world. But I would argue that academic writing is nobody's native language. Everyone has to learn to adopt the rather strange ways we write about research, and native speakers do not really have an advantage here. It is part of the training for academic writing for everyone, not just for those whose English is learned as a second or foreign language.

So is Jennifer Jenkins right in allowing her students to write in their own style? Only time will tell, but my guess is that one day her approach will be widely accepted. However, I still believe that, in the present world, I am benefitting my students best by guiding them towards a proper academic style of writing.