A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of travelling to Finland to give a course on “English for academic research”. This proved to be a stimulating and, in some respects, surprising experience for several reasons.
Finns have a reputation for good English skills, and indeed, they all spoke well and their emails were fine too. But the demands of academic English are rather different.
In the same way that one encounters “Denglish” in Germany and “Frenglish” in France, there is “Finglish” in Finland. This is inevitable, but it is important that these language barriers do not prevent good work from reaching an international audience.
This was the first time that I had given such a course to a group comprising only professors and lecturers. In Germany, I have always addressed doctoral students, which seems to reveal something about international differences in research processes and the need to publish. Indeed, the Finns wanted only to go through their own papers, and declined my offer of trial conference presentations or more general exercises. “The only thing that counts here is to get published,” was the unanimous declaration. I was informed that giving good conference presentations would be nice, but it does not further their careers.
However, there were some other surprises in store. Particularly amazing was the fact that some of these papers had (allegedly) already been edited, although I would not have known, had I not been told.
These articles had been sent off to one of the many online services that all too often promise significantly more than they deliver. Without exception, these papers had been totally inadequately edited, containing some real English errors. More problematically, they contained style and idiom that was either simply poor, or inappropriate in academic writing.
What particularly shocked me is that one Finnish professor told me he had paid the top rate for a “premium editing” of his paper. That is, this online service had charged more than usual for having an “expert” in the area ensure that the use of English was truly optimal. It was painfully obvious that this was not the case.
In the second sentence, I read that “many researchers have strongly proposed” conducting such investigations and later on, that “customer’s tasks and activities are essential to understand”, because “they lead to experiences and value”. Methodologically speaking, a previous study was “a contrast to a practices perspective” and a more recent project “found applying a practice perspective five different ideal types of co-creation”.
Furthermore, some sentences were so academically unclear that they could not be resolved without communicating with the author. Yet, the articles had simply been uploaded in Finland, downloaded goodness knows where and then downloaded again in the allegedly edited form. However, in many cases, an article cannot be edited to a satisfactory level without bilateral communication, especially when it was written by a non-native speaker.
In summary, my many years of academic editing have revealed that writing academic English is a major challenge for all non-native speakers, albeit to differing degrees. Such courses are thus a useful means of conveying what goes wrong and how to get it right, as well as identifying who can really help.