As linguists, we know that language matters. But to many people it might come as a surprise to realize that when students begin their university life, some of their main problems are linguistic ones. When students fail to communicate with professors in an appropriate register, or allow the relaxed style of a lecture to disrupt the formality of a term paper, they are falling into linguistic traps for which no one has prepared them. For non-native speakers, the difficulties may be particularly acute, but even for natives, mastering a range of new registers can pose serious difficulties. Yet this problem often passes unnoticed, perhaps because people are almost as oblivious to language as to the air they breathe or because tools have not been available to research the situation objectively. Even with the advent of corpus linguistics, most studies of academic language have focused on published texts, particularly research articles, and little is known about other ways language is used within the university setting, which might include textbooks, lectures, study groups, institutional publications and encounters with administrative and service staff.
University Language by Douglas Biber is an attempt to address the issue of language in the university across the board. The book has its background in the TOEFL 2000 Spoken and Written Academic Language (T2K-SWAL) Project sponsored by ETS and should therefore be of interest to teachers preparing students for TOEFL iBT, as well as to teachers on pre-sessional language courses and linguists interested in corpus research. The aim of the project, which defines the scope of this book as well, was to describe language use across a very wide range of university registers: spoken and written, formal and informal, embracing the major disciplines (humanities, natural and social sciences), the main academic levels (undergraduate and postgraduate), and the typical situations in which students might find themselves (lectures, seminars, tutorials, interaction with administrative staff). Because of the deliberate focus on what students encounter, the design of the book intentionally excludes language that students produce independently: areas such as student presentations and term papers fall outside its scope. In Biber's own words, "the central goal of the book is simple: to provide a relatively comprehensive linguistic description of the range of university registers, surveying the distinctive linguistic characteristics of each register" (p. 22).