Academic writing is already full of complex language. Does using foreign terms help or hurt the accessibility of your writing? There isn’t a hard and fast rule about using non-English words in academic papers.
So, how do authors know if their usage is appropriate or not? In many instances, it depends on the context and how familiar the word might be to your readers. What guidelines should you follow when determining if a foreign term is suitable for your audience?
The Origins of the English Language
The English language is one of the most difficult languages in the world, which is strange considering its origins. Overall, the English language is a hybrid of different dialects.
The roots of English can be traced back to the 5th century, when it was brought to Britain by migrants. The playwright William Shakespeare is credited with influencing Modern English that’s still used today. He created over a thousand words that are still prevalently used, including “bandit” and “critic.”
Early Modern English heavily borrowed from other languages, including Latin and French. Many words used today derive from the Latin language.
Why English is One of the Main Languages of Science
A large percentage of ‘regular’ English derives from Latin words. If you include the vocabulary used in academia and science, that number jumps to almost 100 percent. So, why are the majority of scholarly journals in the English language?
The answer is simple: English is the most common language in the world. Is it the official language of Earth? No. But it is the lingua franca, meaning it’s the adopted language of a community that doesn’t speak the same shared language.
The Italian term is literally translated to “Frankish language.”
The science community unilaterally considers English its primary language internationally. For non-native English speakers, this does require extra effort when writing second language research papers.
Types of Foreign Terms Used in Academic Writing and How to Include Them
Academic writing still heavily relies on Latin and Greek terms. In a research paper composed mostly of English, those foreign words can trip readers up. Luckily for authors and readers alike, there is a method of differentiating between English and another language in the text. Italics are used as a warning to the reader that the term is foreign.
The English language has appropriated many foreign terms to the point that they are immediately familiar to readers and therefore not in italics. How do writers know when to use italics? They must use their best judgment when deciding which words are foreign enough to need italics.
If a foreign term is universally understood, there’s no need to italicize it. For example, Latin terms “e.g.” and “i.e.” (“for example,” and ‘in other words,” respectively) are often used in academic writing but aren’t italicized because they are commonly used in English literature.
Scientific names for animals and plants are always italicized.
Similarly, if the meaning of a foreign word can be interpreted by the context surrounding it, italics may not be necessary. It depends on the style guide followed. Sometimes, it can be left to the author’s personal preferences.
What Kind of Terms to Avoid
Placing unfamiliar foreign terms in italics gives readers a nudge that the word is from another language other than English. Whether in English, Latin, Greek, etc., some words should be outright avoided in academic writing.
Slang or informal jargon doesn’t belong in scholarly works unless from a citation or quote.
Likewise, vulgarity and swearing are frowned upon. That includes words that can be construed as having a lewd double meaning. Cliches are discouraged from academic writing.
Academic writers must balance their text with complex language while being accessible to all readers. Scholars whose English is a second language have an uphill battle to translate their research findings from their native language in a grammatically correct way.
Foreign words are welcome — even expected — in academic research. It is the author’s responsibility to fuse the words into their writing seamlessly.