For many people, the phrase “Academic English” conjures up images of professors giving hard-to-understand lectures or writing long books that very few people will ever read. The notion often evokes the idea of a niche language, spoken and comprehended only by scholars. But what exactly is “Academic” English?

How do we define Academic English?

In reality, Academic English is just a broad term to describe all the many ways that people use English in academic contexts. This means that Academic English includes not only the language that students use in class, but also the language that they will use outside of the classroom.  

After all, to be successful in an English-medium university, students need to be able to use English to register for classes, find resources in the library, understand government documents, secure a place to live… and the list goes on! 

That’s why applied linguists often use the term “English for Academic Purposes” (EAP) to describe the kind of language needed to be successful in English-medium higher-education contexts, though perhaps “English for Academic Success” might be more appropriate.

Who needs academic English? 

Not only is Academic English broad, it’s also different for each person. For example, some of the vocabulary and grammar used when discussing mathematics will be noticeably different from that of discussions about art history. Nevertheless, there will likely continue to be a “general” English for Academic Purposes (EAP)–a core academic English that is useful for a wide range of activities in the global academic domain.

What’s more, because the world of higher education is always changing, Academic English is continually evolving as well! Traditionally, the primary focus of Academic English had been written text — for example, understanding articles or writing essays. Now, with the explosion of AI tools like ChatGPT, it might be that going forward there will be more of a priority given to speaking and critical thinking skills.

How is Academic English different from General English?

Assuming we can agree on a definition for Academic English, we then want to know what makes this English different from “General English”. 

One way that researchers have answered this question is through surveys, asking teachers and students about their language use (e.g., Cardwell et al., forthcoming). One finding from this work is the essential role of technology in the modern EAP “domain”—for example, many student respondents reported frequently using digital dictionaries and translation tools to understand reading assignments. 

Another way to understand EAP is to conduct analyses of the linguistic features of speech and writing in academic contexts (e.g., Kyle et al., 2022). This research has shown that speech in modern “technologically mediated” learning environments is more complex than in traditional learning environments, whereas writing can be less complex. 

“This suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly, that speech recorded for educational purposes has more sophisticated lexical items and more elaborated noun phrases, which may be attributed to the fact that many recorded educational texts are planned, may possibly be edited, and are not interactional.”  (p. 632) 

In general, however, academic English is often characterized by low-frequency vocabulary (words that are used less commonly, often carrying specific or specialized meanings, e.g., albeit or subordinate), specific types of grammatical complexity, and other features which contribute to more formal, impersonal, informationally-dense genres.  

One last point about Academic English – so far we have described how it is different from General English. Really though, the language needed to be successful in academic contexts is to a large extent the same as the English needed to be successful in other contexts, including the workplace, highschool, daily life, etc.

What are fair expectations for L2 English speakers?

In 1965, Bourdieu and Passeron famously noted that academic language is no one’s mother tongue, but that doesn’t mean it is equally difficult for all speakers–students who have high General English proficiency are much more likely to successfully acquire Academic English and to be successful in a university context (Norris et al., 2021).

When it comes to Academic English, the elephant in the room is fairness. For example, who decides whether someone has sufficient Academic English proficiency, and how do these decisions advantage or disadvantage different potential student populations?

These are obviously big questions with no simple answers, so instead, we’ll leave you with three questions to keep in mind when thinking about Academic English:

  1. The conventions of academic English are challenging for many first-language English students, not just second-language English students, so why do we only test the Academic English of students of certain nationalities or first languages?
  2. What language and skills should be included when we teach and assess Academic English in order to best prepare students for study in English-medium higher education contexts?
  3. Does Academic English proficiency really predict future academic success? This type of predictive validity is often studied by examining how test scores correlate to future Grade Point Average (GPA), typically resulting in only weak correlations (Ihlenfeldt & Rios, 2023).

Academic English is multifaceted!

This conversation isn't just academic—it's about real people and their opportunities for growth and success. We don’t just want to improve our understanding of language proficiency, we want to break down barriers and rethink old paradigms, so we can shape a more equitable future for language learners everywhere!


Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J.-C. (1965). Introduction: langage et rapport au langage dans la situation pédagogique. In Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J.-C., & de Saint Martin, M. (Eds.), Rapport pédagogique et communication. Mouton.

Cardwell, R. L., Naismith, B., Burstein, J., Nydick, S., Goodwin, S., & Verardi, A. Technology-mediated language use among post-secondary international students. CALICO.

Ihlenfeldt, S. D., & Rios, J. A. (2023). A meta-analysis on the predictive validity of English language proficiency assessments for college admissions. Language Testing, 40(2), 276-299. 

Kyle, K., Eguchi, M., Choe, A. T., & LaFlair, G. (2022). Register variation in spoken and written language use across technology-mediated and non-technology-mediated learning environments. Language Testing, 39(4), 618–648. 

Norris, J. M., Davis, J. M., & Xi, X. (2021). Framing the assessment of Academic English for admissions purposes. In Xi, X., & Norris, J.M. (Eds.), Assessing Academic English for Higher Education Admissions (pp. 1–21). Routledge.