(Good) Academic Writing is Hard in an L1 or L2

Academic writing is hard, in the sense that it's laborious and requires carefully following lots of rules (e.g., APA, Chicago, MLA). It's also hard in the sense that you're generally writing about fairly complex subject matter, as opposed to typing up a recipe to share on Pinterest or an e-mail about an office party. Good academic writing is the next tier of difficulty- you have to manage the complex subject matter and adhere to all of the rules and communicate your ideas clearly, concisely (oh, word limits...), and stylishly. If good writing was easy, the argument goes, there wouldn't be so many books on advanced/professional/academic writing (see Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword and The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker for particular good examples of such books).

The difficulty inherent to good academic writing is obvious and uncontroversial. The issue becomes a bit more complicated when you throw second languages into the mix. My initial reaction was that academic writing in a second language must be more difficult than academic writing in a first language. It would seem reasonable, then, that getting academic writing published in a second language is harder than in a first language. In other words, first language writers have a substantial advantage in academic publishing. However, this might not be the case. As Ken Hyland (2016) argued, there are important differences between acquiring a language and learning to write in a language, and there is little data that would suggest second language writers are disadvantaged when it comes to getting published.

Hyland pointed out that first language writers must learn to write (and write well); they do not acquire writing. The learning/acquisition distinction is key here. Acquiring a first language (i.e., the process virtually every human goes through as a very young child) confers fully-developed linguistic competence that requires virtually no deliberate studying- it's just something you inherit. Learning a language, or a specific language skill, on the other hand, is effortful, not always successful, and rarely complete. For many people around the world, English is learned rather than acquired. However, for any English user, writing, academic or otherwise, is also learned: success is not guaranteed and most writers have substantial room to improve. We all need teachers and mentors to show us the ropes of formal academic writing and the particulars of writing for a particular discipline: I certainly didn't simply acquire APA referencing conventions or good thesis sentences!

In terms of publishing dis/advantages, Hyland argued that there is little evidence suggesting language alone is responsible for publishing success, and pointed to other factors, such as institutional support, research/writing experience, and research relevance. He also pointed out that non-native scholars do get published in leading journals quite regularly- in top physics journals, for example, about 70% of first authors have English as an L2. Presenting L2 academic writers as disadvantaged only serves to demoralize L2 writers and potentially causes challenges faced by novice L1 academic writers  (and novice L2 academic writers, I'd argue) to be overlooked.

Like some of the interviewees in Hyland's article, I've heard comments from L2 writers that L2 academic writing is more comfortable than L1 academic writing, largely because they have only ever had to write academic text in the L2 and received minimal instruction in academic writing in their L1. I've even heard similar comments about giving academic presentations, which is perhaps more surprising. As a novice L1 academic writer, I can definitely see what Hyland is saying about the need for training and support- even though I usually get positive feedback about my writing quality, I still make errors and produce murky sentences and paragraphs quite regularly. Luckily, my advisor and other professors in my program give me feedback on this, as do anonymous journal reviewers (who might guess that I'm an L1 writer, but have no way of knowing for sure). My advisor also gave me copies of the Sword and Pinker books on good writing, which I've found to be very helpful- I'd recommend both to anyone who wants to improve their writing.

Despite the persuasiveness of Hyland's arguments, I can't quite shake the belief that L2 academic writing is harder than L1 academic writing. This difference in difficulty might not result in differences in publication success, as writers generally have ample time and sometimes support for fine-tuning a manuscript before submission, but I still would imagine that the process of getting words on the page is more arduous. That, in and of itself, could be quite demoralizing. For me, even rudimentary translation into Korean and simplistic compositions are slow going, so I can hardly imagine churning out pages of academic prose in an L2. Much respect to those who do!

Any L2 writers care to share their thoughts?

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