National trends in word use

Academic publishing today is largely in English (about 80%, according to some estimates) but researchers are certainly not exclusively English speaking; much of the literature is written by non-native English speakers. A person’s native language can have an effect on the way they write and the words they use to express their points in English, including in academic writing.

But does this have an effect on the writing? Do people from different countries choose different words and phrases, and is their writing structured differently?

In Spanish, for example, writers often use a variety of synonyms to avoid repeating the same word throughout a piece of text. This practice can be carried over to English, resulting in more variety in the nouns used in their writing – rather than talking about a “snail” throughout, they may also mention “mollusc” or “gastropod.”

In Russian, there are no definite or indefinite articles (“the” and “a”), so a native Russian speaker could write these words less often in English than native speakers or people from other countries.

But comparing native and non-native English texts is not as simple as looking at single word choices – word combinations also tell us a lot.

In 2012, researchers from Stockholm University in Sweden studied the differences between the word combinations used by native English speakers and native Swedish speakers writing in English. They analyzed texts totaling more than one million words, looking for word combinations that are used over and over. Perhaps surprisingly, they found that native speakers used recurrent word combinations – like “acutely aware” or “in order to” – more often than non-native speakers. They found 60 combinations used only by the non-native speakers, 55 used by both groups, and 130 unique to the native English speakers.

Similarly, a 2010 study of native Chinese speakers writing in English found that the more proficient the writer’s English, the more recurrent word combinations they used. However, the researchers note that the use is surprisingly similar between native and non-native speakers.

So what’s happening? According to Ute Römer, when it comes to academic writing it’s more about expertise than the native vs. non-native divide. In fact, he says: “The native academic writer does not seem to exist.” Rather than focusing on nativeness, he says we should think about expertise.

There are some notable differences in the way people from different countries communicate – both in their native languages and in English. But when it comes to academic writing, it seems people tend to learn in similar ways and it’s proficiency that makes the difference. More practice and improvement, therefore, is what will make you a better academic writer, not where you’re from.