Is she is or is she ain’t cheating? When EFL academic writing far exceeds speaking ability

Difference between EFL oral and written language skill raises ire of suspicion. Image by hobvias sudoneighm (2004).

When I was a doctoral student, an EFL classmate spoke English poorly.  I had difficulty understanding her.  I assumed she needed help with academic writing.   As I found myself wondering how she’d get through the program, I offered to help her with her writing.  I thought I’d  correct English language problems which were so clearly evident in her speech for her.

She gave me the first two chapters of her research proposal to check.  She wrote much better than me.  She wrote better than most of the students in the Ed D program, native and non-native speaker alike.  Her writing was so clear, flowing and economic, she had one, only one, misplaced sentence in the entire first chapter.  I couldn’t find much wrong with it.  Not only was her scholarship comprehensive, but she captured  lively scholarly debates in a compelling, authorial manner as befits a researcher with command of not only the literature, but the language.

Yet her spoken language skills so lacked fluency she told me she could not take up a problem with administration because she didn’t have the oral command in conversational exchanges.  Writing teachers assume writing springs out of a strong oral foundation for both EFL and non EFL writers.  Writers who speak to others about their academic writing, write better.

An emeritus professor of economics once remarked to me that Scandinavians speak the best English, in his opinion, better than the English of native speakers.  They derive a greater command of English than native speakers because of the advantage of studying English as a foreign language.  He assumed language study improved the quality of spoken English.

I’ve noticed the particular way an English professor speaks.  English professors somehow come to speak a vernacular of English related to their milieu as much as Eliza Doolittle does in the play My Fair Lady.

With this is mind, I wondered, was my classmate cheating?  Was she getting help or paying for help to ghost write her stuff?  On the other hand, knowing her limited finances, I don’t think she or 99% of students could afford to hire a ghost writer of the caliber represented in the research proposal.  Besides the topic of the research proposal was original, unique and specific to the literature.  So the writing just had to come from her.  This is baffling considering the supposed support oral language skill provides to writing.

Even though writing allows for endless revisions, edits and polishes unlike spontaneous oral language, oral language develops ahead of writing.  How many writers, EFL or native speakers, write many levels better than they speak?  Can a writer struggle with speaking English and still produce really good academic writing without cheating?

Some EFL writers, like Joseph Conrad who chose to write in English instead of his native Polish or  fluent French, write well enough to get studied in English lit courses.  Unlike French, Conrad spoke English with a heavy accent.  Bertrand Russel observed:

He talked English with a strong accent, as if he tasted his words in his mouth before pronouncing them; but he talked extremely well, though he had always the talk and manner of a foreigner..”

Conrad spoke English well enough to believe he could author literary works.  Like a truly consummate writer and linguist, he also appreciated the particular affordances of English in comparison to the other languages at his beckon.  Conrad proves literary greatness, or great academic writing for that matter, can come from an EFL writer who may speak a heavily accented English.

Even with his heavy accent, Conrad fails to explain the big disparity between oral and written expressive language ability in my classmate.  A mismatch between oral and written ability raises suspicion of cheating.  For example, a Latina college student got accused of cheating for using words like hence and unscathed in her writing.  She wasn’t cheating.  In this case, blame the instructor for prejudice and stereotyping.  Yet, if the use of a few words not considered by the accusing instructor to populate the lexicon of Latina English speakers raises suspicion, how can an instructor reconcile struggles with conversational expression and superb writing without suspecting plagiarism?

Some Canadian university teachers who responded to this tweet attribute problems with speaking to cultural differences, like submissiveness to teacher authority.   Clearly my classmate wanted to speak but knew she lacked the conversational ability to do so.   Besides, assumptions about cultural influences inhibiting expression, let instructors overlook the difficulties and questions well written work coming from a non-fluent speaker ought to suggest.

Do EFL students need encouragement to adopt Western cultural teaching norms when speaking?  Does anxiety over spoken language ability keep students from speaking?  Should a student who writes well, but speaks poorly be admitted to a doctoral program?  Should admission criteria include assessment of spoken language if the program requires fluid speaking ability to achieve its outcomes?

In the Journal of Second Language Writing (March, 2017 ), a study entitled Writing Academic English as a Doctoral Student in Sweden concludes that it is important to support doctoral students in their journey into bi-literate academic writers, rather than focus on the notion of the privileged position of the native speaker.  Agreed.

It is important not to make assumptions to constrain or lower expectations of the quality of writing an EFL academic writer produces.  It is also important to support doctoral students in their journey into first-rate, bi-literate academics by also addressing the expressive, oral language acuity necessary to thrive in a program and in an academic community.  It is important to assess in congruence between academic writing and speaking ability as easy, fluid, dynamic speaking ability seems like a necessary prerequisite for academic writing, and a red flag for difficulty which may lead to cheating.  But maybe not.  Maybe EFL academic writers in doctoral programs glean their writing models from academic texts.  Maybe academic writing flows from the study of writing in academic texts, not from oral command.

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