Academic language refers to the oral, written, auditory, and visual language proficiency required to learn effectively in schools and academic programs—i.e., it’s the language used in classroom lessons, books, tests, and assignments, and it’s the language that students are expected to learn and achieve fluency in. Frequently contrasted with “conversational” or “social” language, academic language includes a variety of formal-language skills—such as vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, syntax, discipline-specific terminology, or rhetorical conventions—that allow students to acquire knowledge and academic skills while also successfully navigating school policies, assignments, expectations, and cultural norms. Even though students may be highly intelligent and capable, for example, they may still struggle in a school setting if they have not yet mastered certain terms and concepts, or learned how to express themselves and their ideas in expected ways.
In the United States, the term academic English may be used synonymously with academic language, given that the dominant language used in public schools is English. The term academic literacy may also be used interchangeably with academic language, although the two terms may be defined differently from place to place. When academic language is intentionally taught or monitored in schools, the term academic-language development, or ALD, may be used.
While the term is most commonly applied to language-specific skills, competency in academic language also bleeds into a wide variety of related non-linguistic skills that are difficult or impossible to separate out from language ability, including foundational academic skills (organizing, planning, researching), cognitive skills (critical thinking, problem solving, interpreting, analyzing, memorizing, recalling), learning modes (questioning, discussing, observing, theorizing, experimenting), and work habits (persistence, self-discipline, curiosity, conscientiousness, responsibility), in addition to other forms of literacy required to succeed in modern schools, such as technological literacy, online literacy, media literary, or multicultural literacy, among others (for a related discussion, see 21st century skills).
In the United States, the term is often applied to English-language learners who need to develop English proficiency concurrently with academic language to succeed in schools where English is the primary language of instruction. All students, however, need to acquire academic language to thrive and succeed in academic settings, particularly students with cognitive or developmental delays, students who may live in unsupportive, dysfunctional, or unstable environments, and children from high-poverty, low-education, and otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds who enter school without basic language and literacy skills. By the time they begin school, most children have developed the ability to communicate interpersonally, and students continue to develop conversational-language skills throughout their education. For native-English speakers, the development of academic language builds progressively on conversational skills, but the challenge for English-language learners is to learn both conversational and academic language concurrently.
While there is no official, formal definition, academic language refers to more than just vocabulary and grammar in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Due to the proliferation of linguistic irregularities, symbols, idiomatic expressions, and slang in the English language, learning academic English can be challenging, particularly for non-native speakers (for example, why do English speakers say embarrassment, shyness, and likelihood, instead of embarrassness, embarrasshood, shyment, shyhood, or likeliment?) In addition to grammatical rules, academic language also demands that students acquire proficiency in different linguistic systems (such as the metric system or mathematical terms and signs) or contextual language (many words used in everyday conversation have specific meanings in specialized fields, such as product in math, inflation in economics, or bug in software coding, while others have complex, abstract meanings, such as democracy, justice, or equality).
There are a number of factors that influence the acquisition of academic language, including the “language modeling” students receive at home. For example, do their parents correct language errors, explain the meaning of words, use a diverse vocabulary, keep books in the house, or encourage their children to read and discuss texts? While intentional English-language modeling is more common in wealthier, higher-educated, English-speaking households, it is often irregular or absent in disadvantaged and non-English-speaking home environments.
Educators may debate how long it will take for certain students or student groups, such as English-language learners, to develop academic language. For example, many educators and researchers believe that, on average, English-language learners can require five to seven years of academic study and dual-language education before they acquire sufficient proficiency in academic language to transition successfully into regular courses—and yet most English-language learners, such as those in English-as-a-second-language programs, do not receive this level of dual-language instruction and support. It is not unusual for teachers to believe, once English-language learners have achieved conversational English proficiency, that the students no longer need specialized instruction. In fact, some states have moved toward decreasing specialized instruction for English-language learners, and some have imposed limits on the duration that English-language learners can receive specialized services (some schools and educators, however, disregard the rules and provide specialized instruction to English-language learners until they are capable of passing an assessment that demonstrates they are ready to transition into regular academic courses). Other states, districts, and schools, however, may be moving to increase specialized dual-language instruction and support for English-language learners.
The acquisition of academic language can also conflict with cultural identities. For example, students of color, ethnic minorities, and English-language learners may feel that they are being “forced” to learn a style of language that they associate with a cultural group they may feel excluded from (e.g., white, middle-class America or highly educated groups). Underlying racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic tensions can exacerbate these feelings, and students and their families may consequently feel conflicted about academic language. For example, correcting the use of urban slang in a writing assignment may be interpreted as a personal criticism by the student rather than an academic judgment, or parents may be uncomfortable when their children begin using unfamiliar words and expressions at home.