‘Academic language is … no one’s mother tongue’: Misusing Bourdieu and a ‘morally questionable’ Hyland.

‘Academic language is … no one’s mother tongue’
Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J-C., 1995: 8.

This familiar ellipsis taken from Bourdieu and Passeron (often Passeron is forgotten) frequently adorns PowerPoint slides at EAP (English for Academic Purposes) conferences, is often summoned in discussions, and occasionally features on EAP websites as a strapline. Every time I come across this ellipsis; I feel uneasy. When evoked in various fora, media and contexts it functions as shorthand for a set of axioms. It suggests that academic language development (writing in particular) shouldn’t be seen as deficit and remedial indicating a lack or deficiency but rather something all students and academics struggle with. It suggests EAP not as an ‘ivory ghetto of remediation’ (Swales, 1990:6) but democratises and extends to all the benefits of EAP while disabusing the notion that EAP classes ‘entail a few hours of fixing up grammar in the language centre’ (Hyland & Hamp-Lyons, 2002: 6).

In short, it acts as a consensual professional strapline reflecting implicit orthodoxy on attempting to normalise everyone’s struggles – regardless of academic status and more importantly first language – to develop academic communication. It equalises/flattens this struggle to communicate and erases all differences between individuals and groups. It also badly misrepresents Bourdieu and Passeron. Here is the full context of the quote:

‘Academic language is a dead language for the great majority of French people, and is no one’s mother tongue, not even that of children of the cultivated classes. As such, it is very unequally distant from the languages actually spoken by the different social classes. To decline to offer a rational pedagogy is, in this context, to declare that all students are equal in respect of the demands made by academic language’
Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J-C., 1995: 8.

I think the full quote reveals a substantially different meaning – perhaps the opposite of the much-quoted ellipsis and goes against the whole purpose of their book (and indeed the ethos of Bourdieu’s work generally). Ellipsis is supposed to maintain the original meaning, in this case it doesn’t (although interestingly the Greek etymology of ellipsis is ‘omission’ or ‘falling short’ which seems apt here).

Beyond making what is perhaps a very pedantic point, does it matter if Bourdieu and Passeron are misused? I will come back to this via an illustration of what can be at stake by discussing Hyland’s provocative article Academic publishing and the myth of linguistic injustice (Journal of Second Language Writing, 2016 (31) pp. 58-69) as well as Flowerdew’s response (The linguistic disadvantage of scholars who write in English as an additional language, published in Language Teaching (52) in 2019.

I won’t summarise Hyland’s article but simply highlight some salient points he makes. His intention is to:

‘argue that framing publication problems as a crude Native vs Non-Native polarization functions to demoralize EAL [English as an Additional Language] writers and ignores the very real writing problems experienced by many L1 [first language] English scholars’

He cites numerous studies that seem to support the idea that EAL authors ‘report a sense of inequality compared to NES [Native English Speakers] scholars when writing in English’ (p.60). He then mentions other studies that suggest a more complex picture where other factors may be at play (e.g. support and resources available, educational background and experience). Attitudes (to publishing) ‘are cross cut by proficiency, first language, discipline and publishing experience, and, of course, many EAL authors successfully publish their papers’ (p.60). He argues that self-reports of EAL writers claiming greater difficulty are ‘largely speculative’ (p.61). Interestingly, Hyland implicitly evokes Bourdieu and Passeron when he claims that ‘academic English is no one’s first language’ (p.61).

More pertinent for Hyland is that ‘arcane conventions of academic discourses are perhaps equally daunting to Native speakers who also struggle to produce polished texts’ (p.62). What is more significant is apprenticeship for both NES and NNES [Non-Native English Speakers] is ‘often a painful and protracted experience’, where experts have the edge over novices in publishing (citing Swales (2004) for support). Importantly, he also draws on other factors that impact on publishing success; isolation (those on the periphery, unable to consult with peers and lacking familiarity with the ‘rules of the game’) and significant differences in rejection rates between high- and low-income countries (also the higher the impact factor the lower the acceptance rate).

He concludes with this statement:

‘By focussing on language shortcomings it perpetuates a myth of L2 [Second Language] deficiency, which discourages EAL authors and tells them to look for prejudice rather than revision.’

Unsurprisingly, this article has generated some discussion and disagreement. I will focus only on Flowerdew’s lengthy response. Referring to Hyland’s argument:

‘This is a Panglossian approach, however, according to which everything is for the best; there is no problem, so we don’t need to address it. Sweeping the issues under the carpet in this way, however, strikes me as morally questionable’.

He goes on to say:

‘it is demeaning for EAL writers to be told by someone writing from the privileged position of an L1 writer that they are misguided if they believe that it is more difficult for them to write for publication than for a L1 writer’.

Flowerdew lists the many features of academic writing that he considers specifically challenging for L2 writers, including: language functions (e.g. hedging, metadiscourse, stance, identity..); lexis; register; collocation; colligation; lexical bundles; cohesion; ellipsis and lexical cohesion, and discourse features of theme and rheme, as well as issues of L1 transfer to L2 (grammar and connected discourse but also aspects of rhetoric and functions). He also argues that simply because L2 writers do publish it doesn’t mean it isn’t less difficult, nor that academic language isn’t a problem and indeed it does enter into consideration in publishing (citing work by Lillis and Curry, 2015 as well as arguments about implicit bias of reviewers/editors). There is a sense of incredulity when he states:

‘Anyone who has spent any time learning an L2 will realize immediately that it will be more difficult to write in the L2 than the L1, even after many years of practice and study’.
(p. 251).

Returning to Bourdieu and Passeron, I hope it is now clear why my questioning of the widescale use of the ellipsis ‘academic language is … no one’s mother tongue’ is problematic.

Hyland (Language myths and publishing mysteries: A response to Politzer-Ahles et al.), in a response to Politzer-Ahles et al. article (‘Is linguistic injustice a myth? A response to Hyland (2016)’) cites Adrian Holliday and his notion of neo-racist native speakerism to reject lumping ‘ together individuals … on the basis of whether their first language is English or not’ (p.9).

What are we, EAP practitioners, to make of this debate? One conclusion I have drawn is that ‘Academic language is … no one’s mother tongue’ is misleading and that it would be better to invest time and energy in exploring Bourdieu ( and his sometime co-writers) more deeply, to read about, for example, his ideas in ‘Science of Science and Reflexivity’. Most of all, my reaction to this debate is that we need a much more sophisticated social theory or theories to inform EAP and shed light on the complexities, the material worldly complexities especially (not just linguistic complexities), that shape academic practices and ideas about practice and therefore shape EAP.

Slogans and misappropriated ellipsis don’t help much.

Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J-C., and Saint Martin, M. (1994) Academic discourse : Linguistic misunderstanding and professorial power. Polity


12 Comments on “‘Academic language is … no one’s mother tongue’: Misusing Bourdieu and a ‘morally questionable’ Hyland.”

  1. I’ve used that quite a lot. Having read this piece, though, I’m now thinking about how it could have an opposite impact from that intended, by marginalising more some L2 speakers: perhaps increasing a possibly already pre-existent sense of ‘linguistic inadequacy. Would it risk less of a negative impact for L1 speakers?


  2. Laetitia says:

    I enjoyed reading this post very much! It reminded me how underwhelmed I felt when I read Hyland’s paper. Your post made me think of how our interpretation of this ellipsis is revealing of our own dispositions, and beliefs. In my EAP practitioner context, I have often thought of the quote as also emphasizing the legitimacy of knowledge, in this case, knowledge of how language works in academic settings against a common-sense knowledge (the type of knowledge about language a native speaker may have, and in EAP teaching, a view of language which can be perpetuated by native speaking teachers, but not just). For me the ellipted quote came to suggest that no EAP practitioner can claim legitimacy on the basis of their L1 alone.


  3. Dr Alex Ding says:

    Hi Laetitia, thank you for commenting on the post! I think your point about legitimacy and practitioners’ L1 is an important one. When I started my EAP career at Nottingham it was, I think, atypical at the time (and perhaps still is) in terms of the origins of the practitioners (German, Polish, Chinese, Romanian, Mexican, Argentinian, Zimbabwean). No native speakerism there. Although, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist elsewhere in EAP centres.
    I wonder though whether the misappropriation of Bourdieu and Passeron just confuses matters as I tried to show in the blog. Thanks again for posting your thoughts.


  4. Michelle H says:

    Thanks for providing the source of this quote – I’d searched high and low without success, due to poor referencing at the EAP center where I’d first encountered it. Now I feel that all those efforts were for naught anyway!! I was using the seemingly questionable argument re: similar L1 & L2 difficulties with academic English within a section of my PhD thesis. Thanks to your criticality, I’m rethinking!


    • Dr Alex Ding says:

      It isn’t an easy book to track down it has to be said. I also checked the English translation against the French just to make sure. I’m glad it has offered you a chance to reflect and I’d be interested in knowing what conclusions you draw. Thanks again and good luck with the PhD

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michelle H says:

        Managed to find a snippet in Google Books to read until I can get to my uni library (apparently there’s a copy available!) Very interesting study Bourdieu et al. conducted – resonates with mine in terms of how well Ss cope with academic discourse used by Profs who deliver content through the medium of English. The issue of L1 & L2 equity in academic proficiency is moot as all students are NNESs – as are their teachers. How far there is a disparity between home and international Ss, where home Ss & Profs mostly share a common L1, I intend to find out 😉

        Although I do have a reference which partly supports the notion underpinning the misused quote. In research conducted at Maastricht University by Wilkinson & Gabriels (2018), a Dutch respondent noted that the transition to the academic “way of reading and writing” was a hard adjustment “even” for native speakers.


      • Dr Alex Ding says:

        I think the issue that all writers regardless of origin and first language have challenges with academic communication is quite uncontentious. What appears more contentious is to equate these challenges as being the same for everyone. Flowerdew makes the case that L2 speakers have specific challenges. Hyland has the merit in bringing other challenges into play – resources, isolation, etc. What comes out it all for me is that blanket misquotes hide much more than they reveal. If you’d like to share a bit more about your research I’d be very interested.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. […] ‘Academic language is … no one’s mother tongue’: Misusing Bourdieu and a ‘morally question… → […]


  6. In that misjudged and misguided trilogy of articles on L1/L2 equity and access (including his responses to those who quite rightly set him straight), Hyland betrays, at best, a crass disingenuity and, at worst, the smug entitled privilige of the worst kind of British establishement, the same establishement that thinks the royal family are human and vulnerable ‘just like everybody else’, suffering the same emotional traumas and self-doubts as poor, orphaned inner-city under-dogs.

    In conversation with socioloinguists such as Theresa Lillis, at the time, I got the distinct impression that many of those who do well-intentioned, serious and sustained research on language, access, power, cultural capital, fairness and inclusion decided to not reward Hyland with the undeserved attention that his ill-founded provocation has ended up generating for him.

    Having said as much, I am glad you have managed to say all this in a far more measured and nuanced form!


    • … I of course meant *socioLINguists* (not *loin*guists) (oh dear!)


    • One fundamental reason that shows Hyland is wrong is that both methodologically and epistemologically he has a major blind spot, namely he seems to have no concept of standpoint theory. See for example Alison Wylie 2003: https://philpapers.org/rec/WYLWSM, who explicitly positions the knower (in this case L2 users) as a legitimate source of epistemic justification (ie if L2 users tell us it is hard, then we should believe them, a point I believe Flowerdew also makes in his 2019 response).


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