Mastering Academic English

TOEFL and Mastering the Formal Academic English

Mastering English, and most other languages which are not the primary ones spoken, is a difficult accomplishment for most people. When one thinks of the purposes of language and the specific elements of it, one can see that a breakdown in any aspect of it affects the speaker and his or her audience. Of the four elements-speaking, writing, listening and reading-speaking and listening are the most difficult to accomplish. There are also different kinds of spoken English, depending on the purpose. One may engage in ordinary conversational English that is not vocabulary-heavy, but is full of slang terms and idioms. One may also engage in formal academic English, which is certainly vocabulary rich but eschews more informal aspects such as slang, idiomatic expression and colloquialisms.

TOEFL English

A monograph by the Educational Testing Service, the makers of the TEOFL exam, defines speaking in this way: "In general, speaking can be defined as the use of oral language to interact directly and immediately." (Butler, Eignor, Jones, McNamara, and Suomi). This is intuitive and commonly understood. But the monograph goes on to say that in academic settings, interactions are "primarily directed towards acquiring, transmitting, and demonstrating knowledge. In addition, interactions in the academy may concern the organization, management, and regulation of learning activities. Communicative competence in oral academic language requires control of a wide range of phonological and syntactic features, vocabulary, and oral genres and the knowledge of how to use them appropriately." (ibid). Success in spoken interaction depends on three things: the task that requires the speech and the roles taken by the participants, the conditions under which the participants must speak, and the resources the individual brings to bear in the interaction. This, of course, gets at the issue of spoken English and the problems faced by academic students as opposed to those of a more liberal persuasion.

Gilsdorf discusses the concept of multiple Englishes. This involves many things, among them the cultural ideations of the speakers. One presumes that speakers of English have the language in common and so there ought not to be any confusion when speaking, even when the speakers are of differing cultural backgrounds. But the truth is that even native speakers sometimes only approximate a commonality of meaning, and often end up bypassing that part of the conversation and get no real true meaning from it.

The problem stems from regional dialects, differing phonologies and lexica. For real meaning to occur, there must be a matching cognitive awareness of the terms used in conversation. The English word "guest," for example, is common enough. But there is often an assumption that the word used is understood as it is used, and this is clearly not the case. A guest to an American is someone who stays for a while, but is not typically afforded the license that family members are. In Asian countries, however, the word has more formal associations and meanings; a guest is someone to be taken care of with the best one has to offer. It is clear that problems arise when there are even small differences in assumed meaning.

Martin and Martin look at a case in which a young Asian lady has great difficulty in hr American English class because her experiences do not prepare her for the language uses she now has to consider. Students construct meaning based on previous learning and experiences. When those experiences and meanings match closely what new knowledge is to be learned, comprehension is more accurate. Though Yang scored well on her TOEFL exam, she felt lost in the sea of conversations she heard from her classmates. This caused in her an anxiety that subsequently made it more difficult for her to learn.

Spack examined a young lady who had scored a 640 on her TOEFL exam. In the United States, a 550 is acceptable and signifies an accomplishment in learning English. Yet this young lady had great difficulty reading, writing and speaking English. The causes were her lack of background knowledge, cultural gaps, differences in educations systems, low linguistic proficiency and difficulty with context. One of the problems for her was rate of speed, which she had difficulty keeping up with. She stated that she felt she had to take the chunk of language, translate it to her native language, formulate an answer, translate that back to English and then speak. If there was an interference in any area, meaning stopped for her.

Cheney discusses the acquisition of business English. As mentioned, interpersonal communication involves an awareness of values, emotions and attitudes toward the person to whom one is speaking. There is more than the cognitive perspective, and this is crucial to the point in question: one can cognitively understand and use English according to the norms established, but without considering behavioral and affective dimensions of the speech act and the person spoken to, such communication is likely to run afoul of cultural sensitivities and missed opportunities to appreciate the culture from which one comes.

O’Neill, Tannenbaum and Tiffin examined students on measures of speaking and listening. In two groups-those who had taken the TOEFL and those who had not-scores from nursing assessments were taken and considered. Those who had taken the TOEFL considered themselves competent in English. The results showed no significant difference between the groups. Both groups concluded that a higher standard was required than they thought and both groups tended to show little variability in discussions afterward. Across sub-groups, mean scores were all very similar.

Huang conducted a study of Chinese students. These students self-reported on a number of measures designed to elicit their understanding of their skill with English. Most of the students had scored very high on the TOEFL exam. Students who had been in America for more than a year were confident in their abilities, while those who had not been in America for an appreciable period express a very low confidence level. Speaking, listening, writing, vocabulary and pronunciation are expressed weaknesses. Interestingly, science students showed the same self-evaluations as did art students. Art students, however, reported more linguistic challenges in listening than did the science students.

Foreign language anxiety is a concept that has been studied for several decades. In learning a new language, there is some natural apprehension that comes with thinking in new forms. A study by Casado and Dereshiwsky reported that some levels of anxiety were experienced by beginning students, and that this anxiety increased in the second term as more advanced structures were learned, such as the subjunctive mode. Although the study reported on Spanish language acquisition, Spanish and English are similar enough so that the same results would apply. Anxiety, of course, interferes with learning, and the result was that as anxiety increases, learning is delayed.

Communication anxiety (CA) is indirectly related to foreign language anxiety, but some of the same parameters are operative. When one experiences communication anxiety, as when one is asked to speak before a group, audiences detect speaker anxiety less efficiently as intensity levels increase. This implies that emotional communication produced under stress conditions is overridden to some extent. This is perhaps why ordinary communication is so difficult for non-native speakers-fear of using the wrong words or speaking in a context not understood produces an anxious response that is then hidden to some degree. Because the other participants in the conversation do not detect the anxiety, there is no cue for them to help the speaker.

Miczo takes this idea further. In a study of humor, Miczo concludes that much linguistic humor is a cover for anxiety, and is used in an attempt to distract the listener for errors in speech or content. An anxious speaker feels very alone and frustrated, but does not wish to communicate this state to a listener. Humor results, sometimes confounding the message, but distracting so that the miscommunication is not noticed.

In study of Taiwan college students, Hsu determined that students who held a more independent view of themselves and who received more encouragement from their teachers to express ideas and opinions were less likely to be anxious communicators. Even simple things like classroom discussion, done informally, helps those students whose English is not fluent. Teachers, he says, should encourage more oral communication and encourage students to speak freely and give more oral assignments in the class.


Best Essay Service. Reviews of the Best Academic Writing Services for Students.

Butler, F.A., Eignor, D., Jones, S., McNamara, T., and Suomi, B.K. English TOEFL.

Speaking framework: a Working Paper. TOEFL Monograph Series. English Educational Testing Service.

Casado, M.A. and Dereshiwsky, M. I. Foreign language anxiety of university students. College Student Journal. Volume: 35. Page Number: 539+.

Custom Paper Writing for Students. Online.

Cheney, R.S. In this issue: intercultural business communication, international students, and experiential learning. Business Communication Quarterly. Volume: 64. Page Number: 90+.

Free English Writing Help. Academic Research and Writing Resources for Students.

Gilsdorf, J. Standard Englishes and world Englishes: living with a polymorph business language. The Journal of Business Communication. Volume: 39. Page Number: 364+.

Hsu, C.F. The influence of self-construals, family and teacher communication patterns on communication apprehension among college students in Taiwan. Communication Reports. Volume: 15. Page Number: 123+.

Huang, J. English abilities for academic listening: how confident are Chinese students? College Student Journal. Volume: 40. Page Number: 218+.

Miczo, N. Humor ability, unwillingness to communicate, loneliness, and perceived stress: testing a security theory. Communication Studies. Volume: 55. Page Number: 209+.

O’Neill, T.R., Tannenbaum, R.J., and Tiffen, J. Recommending a minimum English proficiency standard for entry-level nursing. Journal of Nursing Measurement. Volume: 13. Page Number: 129+.

Sawyer, C.R. and Behnke, R.R. Behavioral Inhibition and the Communication of Public Speaking State Anxiety. Western Journal of Communication. Volume: 66. Page Number: 412+.

Wang, Y., Martin, M.A., and Martin, S.H. (2002). Understanding Asian graduate students' English literacy problems. College Teaching. Volume: 50. Page Number: 97+.

Free English Help References