Academic Language, Codified

DNA wordlA new semester of classes started at German universities this week, which means I’ve spent the last few days asking fresh rounds of students about their language goals. The greatest number in any class want, above all, to improve their speaking skills. But a significant group has also mentioned vocabulary expansion. Given that most of the students are on course to complete master’s degrees in the natural sciences, mathematics, or engineering, which at the Technical University of Munich means most will need to both read and write academic texts in English, this has me mulling a creature called AWL.

The Academic Word List was developed 15 years ago by Averil Coxhead, then a master’s student at Victoria University of Wellington, and contains about 3,000 words from 580 word families—groups of words that share a stem—which are not among the 2,000 most commonly used words in English but appear and reappear across a corpus of academic writing. Everything from abandon to widespread.

Critics question Coxhead’s selection methods, complaining, for example, that she should have used a more modern version of the 2,000-word General Service List (GSL), and argue that drawing a distinction between academic and nonacademic words is not particularly useful. I would certainly never push AWL flashcards or other rote-memorization tools on students, but I have thought recently about taking advantage of one of several online AWL highlighters to see whether the texts I use in class introduce students to sufficient numbers of “academic” words to make their next research review a little less arduous.

At least that’s my excuse for playing around on these websites. It’s also fun: Paste in your own work and see how you compare with other writers from your field. According to Tom Cobb, who created my favorite of the sites (the one I’ve linked to above), linguists are relatively good at resisting specialist language (as defined as words that appear neither on the GSL nor the AWL), zoologists less so.

Don’t despair, though, if it turns out you’ve got a weakness for words excluded from the lists. One paper I recently analyzed received a lower score even than the average zoologist’s: only 77.54% of the words were among the 2,000 most commonly used, and only 8.3% appeared on the Academic Word List; nearly a sixth were specialty words. What was the text? Only James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s 1953 publication proposing a structure for DNA—a shining example of stylish academic writing.

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