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Oscar Pearce

​Plain English

By Oscar Pearce, Albert Park College


'… soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand'.

That's how linguist Steven Pinker describes elitist academic writing. That quote took on new meaning for me recently when I stumbled across this gem in a Year 12 text of mine: 'The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains.'

Academic writing. Don't you love it? Now you may groan or laugh or roll your eyes at these self-important academics. Or maybe you get a small thrill of nerdy excitement when decoding these sorts of texts. I'll admit, I find it hard not to enjoy machete-ing through a thick jungle of academic writing. But I'd argue that we shouldn't laugh at excessive, elitist language and we certainly shouldn't glorify it. Instead we should simply ditch it. Because it isn't a trivial and harmless quirk or a fun puzzle. It's a problem.

Now most of us students complain about elitist language, we think of it as unnecessary and even a bit condescending. But at the end of the day, it's exactly the kind of language we aspire to. We churn out dense analysis, chock full of convoluted sentence structures and unnecessarily complicated word choices. We don't use this language because it's any more precise. We certainly don't use it for clarity. We use it to signal to our examiners that we're smart.

Some argue that this doesn't achieve anything. Research by Daniel Oppenheimer has found that in a university environment, increasing the complexity of language (while keeping everything else the same) actually tends to get a negative reaction from assessors. But first impressions remain undefeated. So particularly in an exam scenario, where the assessor doesn't know the student, there's a clear reason why we students try to use excessive academic language – it pays off. As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, there is a consistent assumption that complicated language reflects advanced thinking.

My little brother completed a piece of creative writing recently, and came up to me beaming from cheek to cheek. Excitedly he told me 'Oscy, I used a big word! However!' Cute as it was, it was strangely telling. So embedded in academic achievement is this notion of simply sounding smart.

And what makes this a problem is that it reinforces cyclical disadvantages. The Mitchell Institute's Educational Opportunity Report tells us that from the very moment a kid is born in low socio-economic circumstances, their odds of academic success are dramatically reduced. Their chances of completing Year 12 fall by 28.5%. If they're from a remote community, it falls by 34.8%. But why? Educational inequality is an incredibly complicated issue and it feels reductive to grapple with it in an eight-minute speech. But one piece of that really big and complicated puzzle is the problem of academic language. Because as students work their way into the pointy end of high school, rubrics are suddenly littered with phrases like 'control and effectiveness of language use' or 'fluent and effective' language. And that sounds reasonable, right? But as well-intentioned as it may be, the effect is that the aim of the game becomes showing off. We participate in a weird sort of arms race, constantly pursuing more and more complicated ways of saying fairly simple things.

By this stage of Year 12, a good essay of mine would never simply 'compare different political views' it would 'juxtapose contemporaneous and antipathetic perspectives on legislative and executive functions of state'. In short, I play the game.

But this particular game doesn't take place on a level playing field. Socio-economically disadvantaged students have a harder time adopting this brand of excessive language. Why exactly is a tricky question to answer. Part of it's exposure, part of it's early childhood education, there are various household factors, the list goes on. For the purpose of this speech though, the causes don't matter. Just imagine one student playing tennis with the latest Wilson racket endorsed by Roger Federer. And then imagine another student trying to use a ping-pong bat. It doesn't matter who the better tennis player is, it's pretty clear who's in the better position to succeed. The same, of course, is true in the academic world.

And for me, what makes this all particularly outrageous, is that it's completely unnecessary! The ability to construct and deconstruct arguments. To think critically and creatively. To articulate ideas in the most effective and beautiful way possible. None of these things should require dense, elitist language. None of them! Robotically mimicking a particular authorial voice achieves nothing other than preserving academic traditions and deepening structural inequalities. Both of which I reckon we could do without.

So, let's start by changing how we assess ideas in writing, redefining 'effectiveness of language use' to mean what it actually says: how effective is your use of language? It shouldn't be based on your average syllables per word or clauses per sentence. Then let's turn our attention to our implicit bias for excessive academic language. There's a subtle assumption that a writer who hides their ideas behind a dark cloak of obscure language must surely be very intelligent. Needless to say, that assumption is rubbish. To be crystal clear, none of this involves lowering our standards. Just changing them. Aligning them with what I think we all already believe; that a good writer explores the world alongside the reader, not hidden behind an impenetrable wall of academic gibberish.

It's such a simple change but the flow-on effects would be incredible. Suddenly the doors to tertiary education could be open to those out there who have the talent but aren't ordinarily given the tools to play the game. More students could be able to fulfil their potential. Soon, we'd have a rush of new talent and new voices into our political, commercial and legal worlds. Imagine how different things could be if our Houses of Parliament and the boardrooms of our biggest companies actually reflected the make-up of modern Australia. And even if fairness and equality don't really move you, it's only efficient to make the most of the untapped talent Australia has at its disposal. It's truly exciting to think that just changing what we value in writing could realistically give our world a breath of fresh air. Rarely can a change so small be so … big.

So let's do away with the weird beauty pageant of academic writing, and instead, let's foster a true and honest love of ideas.