Class Notes

Going Non-Native

How reading flawed English can make us better writers

By Paula Marantz Cohen | March 19, 2013

I have always believed that the more facility one has with language, the more sophisticated one’s thinking is likely to be. But lately I’ve been reconsidering this notion.

In the past few years, I have had occasion to read a number of academic papers in English by professors from other countries. It was often frustrating to read this work: articles dropped by the Russians and the Chinese, pronouns confused by the French and Spanish, subject-verb agreements off kilter by all and sundry. Here were mistakes by chaired professors that students in my freshman English classes wouldn’t make. But there were also advantages to reading these papers. They provided me with a kind of X-ray vision that cut through the pretension and excess that so often obscures the meaning in papers by native speakers.

Reading these papers in flawed English, I could see the seams of the argument. If the author’s thinking was original, it jumped out at me, despite the awkward syntax and grammar; if it was derivative or conventional, I could see this immediately as well. Foreign writers have more difficulty disguising misguided or used-up ideas in good prose. Indeed, reading their papers has made me more alert to problems in my own writing and that of my native peers. I can see what the current buzz words are, what kinds of arguments are in vogue, what connections, taken for granted, are flawed in their basic logic. These non-native writers are writing under a handicap, but in doing so, they can teach us a lot.

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