Learning the Language of Academic Writing -->

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Learning the Language of Academic Writing

Recently, my husband and I enrolled in a local Somali language class to better communicate in the heart language of some of our friends. In our first class, the teacher told us his immigration story and gave us some background on Somali culture and customs. We then learned the Somali alphabet. Later we learned a few general greetings: What is your name? Magacaa? My name is… Magacaygu waa… and so on. 

As we moved forward in the difficult and rewarding process of language learning, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between learning a language and learning the “language” of academic writing. Here are a few of my observations. Do any of these ring true in your own experience?

Title slide for this post. A mountain range with white letters overlaid.

It takes a while to hear the sounds, even the silent ones.
In the Somali language, there are four letters that are very difficult for English speakers to say or even hear. The minute differences between a Somali x, q, h, and kh, for example, were very hard for most of us in the class to hear. When the instructor first introduced these letters to us, my husband and I looked at each other in bewilderment: The letters all sounded the same. 

Then the instructor moved to the seemingly silent c. In the Somali language, a c is, in essence, a silent sound—almost indistinguishable to the untrained ear. At first, I was a little discouraged. How am I supposed to learn to speak this language if I can’t even hear the differences, let alone produce them?

For those who are student writers, I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the “sounds” of academic writing—summarizing, paraphrasing, synthesizing—these all seem to be almost the same. The distinctions among them seem impossible to navigate—almost indistinguishable from one another. Add in the “silent sounds” of outlining, paragraph structure, and linear flow, and you may want to give up.  

But the more you read scholarly writers’ work, the more you practice your own, and the more you immerse yourself in this “language” of academic writing, the easier it will become to differentiate between the different parts of your scholarly writing. To help along the way, the Writing Center has some great web resources on each of these topics.

Sometimes you have to memorize, but you can always use a dictionary.
One of the biggest parts of language learning is memorizing vocabulary. To be able to form coherent sentences or even have the tools to work with, I had to memorize phrases, verbs, words, numbers, and so on. However, that memorization becomes natural as I continue to use those phrases and words, and if I need, I know that I can always fall back on my dictionary.

As you dive into academic writing, there are areas where you may actually memorize things because you use them so frequently. Common APA rules, for example, may be difficult to remember at first, but as you use them more and more, you will start to memorize. And when you can’t remember, you can always fall back on your faculty members, Writing Center staff, APA manual, or other Writing Center resources.

The best way to learn is to make mistakes.
When I began my Somali class, I wanted to be able to speak perfectly. I wanted to be able to hear and say and do everything exactly right so that I could be as fluent as a native speaker. That sort of expectation, however, can be paralyzing, and in fact, it was. I was afraid to make a mistake, so I spoke softly, only when the instructor asked me to.

When the final component of our class, though, was speaking to native Somali shopkeepers and restaurant owners in a Somali mall, I had to be bold. I made some mistakes (thankfully the teacher was there to help translate), but I also learned from my mistakes.

The same is true of academic writing. Sometimes you just have to go ahead, be bold, and make a few mistakes. If you don’t quite get citations the first time, try again. If you are not sure how best to transition and keep your paper flowing clearly, try something. If it works, great! If not, you have learned another way not to write it.

Don’t let writer’s block intimidate you from starting, either. Fight off that block with some of these strategies, and then just go for it! You can always go back and revise, and if it’s not perfect that means you are still learning. This should not be discouraging. Instead, be encouraged: This is the process of learning.

Practice strategies.
Time and practice are the keys to learning the “language” of academic writing, but we all know how valuable time is—especially for busy students with multiple responsibilities outside of school.

The Writing Center has some great resources that you can access at any time that is convenient for you to assist in your writing journey.

What experiences do you have with language learning? Are there any parallels you have found between learning to speak in a new language and learning to write in an academic form? Let us know in the comments. And remember: Keep Practicing!

Rachel Willard is a Writing Instructor and Coordinator of Student Communications. She loves hearing others' stories. She enjoys people-watching at airports and shopping places that use the grammatically correct "10 items or fewer" signs for the express checkout lanes.

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  1. What a great entry! I dabbled in learning Mandarin for a short time when I lived in St. Paul, and it was so exciting. Unfortunately, I did not have the tenacity to continue, but it gave me some perspective on what my ELL students are dealing with. I love how you situated this further context of academic English, which can feel like a completely new language, even for lifelong primarily English-speaking students. Thanks for such a refreshing take on a challenge I see every term with my students!

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, Molly! :) I think you're right; "learning a new language" is easier said than done, especially when the new language is so very different from your native language (like Mandarin!). Have a great day!

  2. Thank you so much for your beautiful personal story that relates to so many people in so many levels; academic, cultural, linguistic, pedagogical, etc. This is one of the few essays they mention; how difficult it is to acquire a second, third or fourth foreign language in an academic environment/immersion in an English course. It brings such a high understanding in a very simple way and a perhaps new perspective for every educator who had an international student trying to speak or write the language in which the course is taught. Thank you for sharing your personal story in such a familiar, loving way and writing it with the parallel of being a good academic writer.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and for reading the post! If you have any thoughts on topics you'd like to see us address on the blog, please let us know!